One of my great joys in life is reading novels. Call me old fashioned, but I prefer reading a physical book rather than an e-book. I bike to my local library, and head straight to the staff picks section where I consistently find great reads. Given the recent announcement about the phasing out of mail delivery to private homes in Canada, I no longer take the gift of a public library for granted. As I scan the barcodes I always feel grateful to have  access to these wonderful books.

On my last visit to the library for some reason I was compelled to turn left and peruse the shelf with the non-fiction staff picks. I immediately noticed Who Says It’s a Man’s World – The Girls’ Guide to Corporate Domination by Emily Bennington.

Those of you who regularly read my posts would know a book with a title like that would be irresistible to me.

Who Says it’s a Man’s World is worth reading for a whole host of reasons, not the least of which is Ms. Bennington’s straightforward and humorous writing style. I love the title of chapter seven: Seriously, Don’t Bring Sexy Back.

On page 4 of the introduction it became clear to me why, on this occasion, I turned left rather than right; why this book literally called out to me. Like many of us, women and men alike,  Ms. Bennington ponders why it is that while women earn the majority of university degrees and make up half the work force, they still account for only 4% of Fortune 500 CEO’s,  6% of top earners and 16% of board directors and corporate officers. She undertook extensive research, interviewing more than 700 executive women as well as a whole host of super-achievers for Forbes magazine to figure out the answer to the question “What does it take for a woman to win at the highest level of business?”

Surprising as it may seem, Ms. Bennington’s conclusion is summed up in this simple sentence:

“You must be a magnificent woman first to have a magnificent career.”

Upon reading that I thought of something a coach once said to me: “We are human beings, not human doings.”

Think about this for a moment. How many of us, regardless of our gender, focus on what we need to do to be successful, rather than who we need to be to be successful. Who we need to be speaks directly to our values, (what Ms. Bennington frames as virtues), as well as our level of self-awareness about our behaviours and whether or not we are willing to take responsibility for those behaviours.

Now think about this for a moment. What is the level of self-awareness or responsibility that is demonstrated when “it’s not me, it’s you” is our go to response when faced with workplace disrespect?

As I frequently share with my audiences:

Ask 100 people if they deserve to be treated with respect. The answer YES.

Ask that same 100 people if they are respectful in their treatment of others. The answer YES.

Then ask them if most of the people they interact with at work are respectful.

Chances are the answer will be NO.

Simply translated – it’s not me, it’s you.

This perceptual disconnect is directly related to our level of self-awareness. When we are focused on what we do, rather than who we are, when we are focused on what we do rather than how we do what we do, the requirement for self-awareness is easily overlooked.

My experience is that most individuals who engage in disrespectful behaviour have absolutely no clue that they are behaving in a manner that is negatively impacting others. On the rare occasion that they are willing to acknowledge their behaviour, it is generally justified by framing it as a response to, provoked by, something someone else did – “it’s not me, it’s you.”

Some time ago I was talking to an individual who wanted to understand more about my work. Upon hearing that I dealt with bullying and harassment at work, this individual, who I would describe as a serial bully, said to me “Really. Adults bully other adults? How do they do that?”

This person was highly intelligent and quite successful. Problem is that like many of the individuals I work with, self-awareness was not included in her skill set.

Ms. Bennington is among a field of esteemed leadership gurus, including neuroscience pioneer Dr. David Rock, and authentic leadership research professor Dr. Brene Brown, who are arguing that self-awareness is a foundational competency for leaders in the 21st century.

The exploration of self is a critical piece of the respect conversation. You can’t create respectful workplace relationships or build a respectful workplace culture when “it’s not me, it’s you” is a cultural norm.

Ms. Bennington starts chapter one of her book with this quote from Marianne Williamson.

Learning to take responsibility for the nature of our thoughts is the most powerful way to take responsibility for our lives.

Getting curious about the nature of our thoughts is the point of departure on the journey to self-awareness. It is the first step on the path to personal responsibility and empowerment.

The challenge posed by Ms. Bennington’s simple conclusion is that taking responsibility for the nature of our thoughts, taking responsibility for our choices, our behaviours,  choosing to become, as I frame it, the hero or heroine of our story, can be really hard.  For many of us, accepting that it might be me not you, is simply too scary, too threatening, too difficult. Some of us, as I have learned through my work, simply cannot make the shift.

However, like everything in life, we really don’t know until we try.

Why not resolve to get curious about who you are and who you want to be?

You have nothing to lose and, if you accept Ms. Bennington’s  conclusion, a magnificent career, and by extension, a magnificent life to gain.

Editor’s note: this article was originally published Jun 19, 2014