First-class coach

She chose to impress clients with her thinking skills rather than her prowess with a golf club wedge.

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Q: I'm a teetotaller and because I don't go boozing with my work colleagues, they treat me like some sort of social pariah. I feel excluded and I worry that it will blight my chances of promotion, since I'm not seen as one of the gang.

A: Group dynamics are a strange thing. Our behaviour changes when we're with other people, socially and professionally. Most groups have codes and rules that have to be observed if we want to be accepted. These can cover the clothes members wear, the vocabulary they use, their body language, even the volume at which they speak. Often the rules are unspoken and unwritten - even unacknowledged by their members. Some are pretty harmless - a firm of surveyors I know sent a young trainee home to change when he turned up to work wearing brown shoes, which was seen as a dreadful faux pas. But some group behaviour at work can be hurtful to the rejected individual, as well as harmful to the enterprise for which they work.

Groups like their members to conform and, depending on the nature of the group, departure from their norms is not tolerated. This is the source of much racial and religious tension, when being different is seen as some sort of threat to group survival or integrity.

To a greater or lesser degree, we all have a need to be included. Depending on its strength, we may be prepared to conform and follow group behaviour, sometimes even going against our own personal values. You feel excluded but you are not prepared to conform.

A similar problem affected one of my clients. The only woman in a management team, she found that all her male peers used golf as the preferred method of business entertaining. As a non-player, she was excluded from many opportunities to engage with clients and prospects.

Should she take up the sport and thus gain greater access to senior management in her own and client organisations? Seeing that the golf days were really a 'boys only' occasion, with much drinking and carousing at the 19th hole, she chose an alternative: to engage with her clients in a more thoughtful way and impress them with her thinking skills, rather than with her prowess with a sand wedge. Though she will never be 'one of the boys', she has succeeded in gaining respect from her management peers.

Like her, you have a number of options. One is to reduce the difference between your behaviour and the group's: to tag along with some of the drinking sessions but stick to soft drinks, and try to form friendships with the less heavy drinkers. You might find kindred spirits. I have a friend who can't drink for health reasons, but is very popular with his workmates, as he's prepared to be the designated driver when they're out for the evening. Of course, if you entirely disapprove of drinking, this is not the route for you.

Another possibility is to find colleagues with whom you have something in common, a shared interest in, say, music, theatre or travel. Participating fully in some group activities with them will prove you're not a party-pooper.

But you may find it uphill work - once a group has decided to ostracise someone, it can be hard to change their minds, especially with a dominant member leading the charge. These games are played from an early age: most school playgrounds have at least one child who in some way dictates who is and who is not in favour. The child who is naturally more interested in schoolwork than playing games can be an outcast.

You may decide that you will never be accepted by this group, but as you don't share their values, this may not be a bad thing. As to your not drinking being a bar to your progress, this shouldn't be the case. If Nicolas Sarkozy, the new French president and a teetotaller (he says he was 'not drunk but out of breath' at the G8 summit), can succeed to the highest position in that wine-loving nation, sobriety need not be an issue.

However, if your senior management are also big boozers, you may have a tougher job demonstrating that you can form good working relationships, internally and externally, without the aid of alcohol. Your abstention may seem to imply criticism of those who indulge, and no-one likes criticism. In such circumstances, you may need to switch to a part of your organisation that has a prevailing culture closer to the values you hold, or even change organisation entirely.

Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have an issue you'd like her to cover, e-mail: miranda@firstclasscoach.co.uk.

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