November 16th is International Day for Tolerance (see note 1), but before we start celebrating, it’s vital to understand the meaning of tolerance.  A helpful way to understand this word is to think about engineering or construction.

When a building is constructed, there is a tolerance set for the components of the building.  For example, a support beam will have a designated dimension, but also there is a tiny bit of ‘wiggle room’ associated with that dimension.  This ‘wiggle room’ is the permitted amount of variation for the dimensions of the beam.

In life, people also need a form of ‘wiggle room’ when they communicate and interact with others, otherwise they can be viewed as rigid, inflexible, and intolerant.  This ‘wiggle room’ provides space for multiple opinions to co-exist without personal attacks, condemnation, shame, or discrimination.  Accordingly, tolerance is an ethical strength. Think of the ‘wiggle room’ also as a gymnasium for strengthening your tolerance skills.

Practically, how does a person exhibit tolerance when they have value-based disagreements with co-workers? 

Firstly, it is important to keep a measured pace in conversations.  When the brain rushes ahead, it cannot listen to the opinions of others, and instead is focused on reacting, rather than interacting in a cognitive [thinking] way.  A measured pace is a type of slow thinking that allows time for listening and reflecting so that your own biases can be recognised.  It’s a bit like putting your engine [brain] in neutral when someone else is talking (rather than having your engine in fifth gear and your foot on the gas pedal).

Tolerance skills give the skills owner the cognitive space for more informed and empathetic interactions, even when disagreements remain. Tolerance skills allow for and accept non-harmful friction in relationships and communications.  Accordingly, when harmful friction is observed, such as hate speech, discrimination, or victimisation, for example, a person with strong tolerance skills will view those negative behaviours as intolerable.  This is when moral courage arises and people speak up and report such behaviour.  Intolerance does not allow others to be hurt – this is the flip-side strength of tolerance coming to the rescue. Whether observing bullying in the office or identifying human slavery in a procurement setting, this moral discomfort is a form of intolerance that should be followed with action.

Intolerance is a psychosocial hazard in life and at work.

In 2021, ISO45003 (see note 2) was launched as a guideline for managing psychosocial risk within an occupational health and safety (OH&S) management system.  Specifically, this guideline requires organisations to ensure there is training and professional development to support workers such that they can identity and manage psychosocial hazards.  Ethics training is a great tool for this, and should include the topic of tolerance, intolerance, and speaking up. Reach out to us at [email protected] if your organisation needs assistance with corporate ethics training in the setting of your OH&S management system.