I arrived - exhausted from 5 hours of driving - at a Drakensberg mountains resort. I was scheduled to run a workshop on leadership development the following morning. I was hungry, thirsty and first prize would have been checking into my room and enjoying an hour or two of peace and quiet before the evening meal. But that was not to be. I'd been getting SMSs en route from the client HR exec, asking 'Where are you?' He insisted that I 'join them for a drink' in the pub. OK, I thought, even though I don't drink alcohol, I can park my own needs for a bit and go make 'em happy. It would also give me a chance to get a feel for the group I would work with the next day. My, my, what a feel it was.
In the pub I found a fully-fledged 'initiation' session underway. New reps and other hapless staff members who had not previously undergone the rite of passage demanded by the thuggish majority in the sales department, were being dragooned into the following: Insert a raw, unbroken chicken egg into mouth. Without opening mouth, break the shell, swallow the contents, spit out the shell, tilt head backwards, open mouth and someone would shake a hearty dash of Tabasco sauce into it. This was followed by a shooter of alcohol. Like a bunch of school boys in a rugby locker room, they were roaring their drunken encouragement, derision or approval as a variety of people gagged during the ritual, sometimes barely moments away from an embarrassing vomiting episode.
As I was introduced so there were chants of 'initiation, initiation, initiation'. Someone approached me with an egg in one hand and a Tabasco bottle in the other. There was an expectant murmur in anticipation of me enduring the process. I quietly stood my ground and simply shook my head. The pub fell totally silent. This wasn't in the script. Everyone else had complied and here was the one fellow who was going to be troublesome. They had (so they thought) a foolproof technique, they started jeering and catcalling, saying 'chicken, chicken, chicken'. Clearly the feathered creatures featured highly in their subconscious database for some or other reason. Again the pub fell silent – many of them now had smug expressions on their faces signaling , 'Well, let's see him cop out of this now.'
Quietly but well-projected enough for everyone to hear I said, 'Thanks for the kind invitation, but first up, I've been vegetarian for forty years and I don't eat eggs. Secondly, I'm your guest facilitator on leadership tomorrow and this exercise is going to provide us with some wonderful material on a variety of fronts related to your leadership skills. Absolutely nothing you can say or do will force me to eat that egg or swallow Tabasco. Because I choose not to.' There was a very uncomfortable atmosphere for a few minutes and then the minority of socially skilled people in the pub tried really hard to pick up the conversation and get back to their mood of unrestrained jollity. I excused myself to the MD after one soft drink and said I'd see them at supper later. I have no doubt that my lack of being a sport, being a killjoy and all sorts of other aspersions must have kept the conversational wires buzzing once I left. It didn't concern me.
Supper was uneventful, except for people getting even more intoxicated. The truth of a saying from one of my young female clients struck me. She says: 'When guys pack for a conference, they pack another personality along with their clothes.' Pretty true – in the main.
The following morning I laid into this thuggish, hung-over crowd in no uncertain way. We spent significant time discussing corporate culture, reputation, image and a host of other topics related to their totally unacceptable and socially insensitive behaviour. That they wanted to impose their lack of sophistication upon people in their organization was bad enough. That they attempted to do so with an external service provider was completely beyond the pale.
What can we learn from this? Learn to say no. Don't allow your values, beliefs, attitudes, perceptions or behaviour to be compromised simply because the 'herd' wishes to impose its will. A sign of character and guts is refusing to fold or cave in to peer pressure and being comfortable dealing with the consequences. I hope you find the strength to do so.