Tolerance? No Thank You!

Tolerance has become a word associated with acceptance, and even inclusiveness.

However, to tolerate someone isn’t necessarily kind, considerate or inclusive. Tolerance does not create a high performance organization, either. I’ve thought about this a lot over the years as an educator in corporate America.

Case in point: I tolerate my friend’s occasional cigarette smoking habit. I don’t like it and I wish he would stop. I like him, he’s funny, and I can put up with his smoking. To Tolerate = To Put Up With.

Hearing it, as an out gay man, “tolerance” smacks of the old saying, “love the sinner, hate the sin.” “Tolerater” in that scenario has always sounded to me like “Hater.”

What Does Tolerance Mean at Work?

I see this bumper sticker, or other versions of it, all over my city of Atlanta:

I guess that the driver of the car bearing the sticker is trying to convey a desire to coexist peacefully in this wonderful world filled with people of varied cultures, religions, diets, politics, sexual orientations and life choices.

However, in the workplace, the world where I spend most of my time (and where you might, as well), the mental attitude of “tolerance” might have a surprising and negative impact on others, where differences between people are concerned.

The Tolerance Scale

To put the word and mental attitude into perspective, consider the “Tolerance Scale,” created by ProGroup in the mid 1990s. (I served as a consultant to ProGroup early on in my career.) The firm used a rather arbitrary numbering system from most inclusive to least:

5  Appreciation: You are different from and similar to me in ways that I appreciate

4  Acceptance: You are different from and similar to me in ways that I accept

3  Tolerance: You are different from and similar to me in ways that I tolerate

2  Avoidance: You are different from and similar to me in ways that I avoid

1  Repulsion: You are different from and similar to me in ways that I deem repulsive

What does this mean to you? Like many mental constructs, creating a thought exercise that directly impacts YOU, is often the best way to get our head around an idea.


*How has it made you feel during your life, especially at work, when your leader and/or colleagues APPRECIATED or ACCEPTED you as a part of the team? Frequent answers in our workshops include: fully engaged, a sense of belongingness, honored, validated and full of energy.

* How does it feel, especially at work, when your leader and/or colleagues AVOID or are REPULSED by you because of their beliefs about your values, religion, who you love, how you live or your cultural practices? I hope this is a thought exercise and not a real life memory, but common responses would be: excluded, marginalized, disengaged, lonely, judged, like an outsider — and, I hear often — looking for an “exit strategy.” Avoidance and Repulsion naturally create feelings of “why bother” and employee disengagement.

*Finally, how has it felt in your career when others, especially your leader/manager, are unable or unwilling to accept you for who you are and merely TOLERATE who you are as a person?I’m reminded of the character from the musical, Chicago, who sang, “I’m Mr. Cellophane.” “’Cause you can look right through me / Walk right by me and never know I’m there.” In fact, maybe worse than invisible, more like “why am I here?”

Moving Beyond Tolerance at Work

Tolerance is not enough to create the “ROI” of full employee engagement. If you are truly committed to creating the best team, with the highest levels of engagement, you might have some work to do in the “inclusion gym.”

  • Make a list of your direct reports and assign a number to them (1-5) using the Tolerance Scale above.
  • Be honestly scrupulous in your assessment of your attitude toward their differences: their communication style, non-verbal style, voice, story-telling approach, lifestyle that you know about outside of work, attire. . . . you get my drift. You’re not assessing their performance, just your attitude about them as a human being.
  • Focus on any person to whom you’ve assigned Tolerance, Avoidance or Repulsion. (Repulsion is rather rare at work, but these relationships do exist for many leaders.) Create a personalized plan for how you are going to improve the relationship with these teammates, over time, with the professional goal of moving them to at least Acceptance.
  • Consider that ACCEPTANCE does not necessarily mean approval. It means they are different. They are not the same. And that’s OK. You can accept something without judging it as “needing to be different.”

This is the HARD work of managing bias, conscious and unconscious at work.

Here’s to your journey of intentionally inclusive behaviors toward your teammates. The effort will be worth it through the dynamics of increased belongingness that ensues on your team.