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Episode 88: Adil Dhalla – How to adult

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All Xero Gravity episodes

Hosted by Elizabeth Ü

Like most people, Adil Dhalla is a busy man. He has a full-time job, a number of side projects, and people to make time for, but what separates Dhalla from the majority is his ‘why?’ And my oh my is it a good one.

After realizing traditional corporate environments gave him the sinking feeling that things weren’t going well in the world, he made a promise to himself, a promise “to be on the side of people who are trying to make it better.” And that’s exactly what he’s done.

Executive Director at one of the first co-working spaces – Toronto’s Center For Social Innovation (CSI) – Dhalla now spends his days connecting innovators, bringing play back into the adult world, and creating corporate spaces where humans can truly connect.

 

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Connection and belonging

The desire to belong is fundamental to the human connection. It’s the isolation that emerges from a lack of belonging that Dhalla believes is detrimental not only to a person’s professional life, but their overall happiness.

“I often ask people to close their eyes and think about a moment they didn’t think they belonged. Virtually everyone can have an answer to that,” he says.

Although oftentimes taboo, Dhalla says the uncomfortable and messy feelings such as isolation serve as an opportunity to massively enhance an organization’s culture, when navigated correctly in a corporate environment. A young muslim man when the 9/11 terror attacks took place, Dhalla is no stranger to feelings of isolation, but says they’re the moments that pave the way for transformation.

Gender in the workplace

If isolation is one barrier to be broken down, the ability to be vulnerable would be second on his list, the act of showing vulnerability being something Dhalla thinks men should seek guidance from women on.

“Whenever I take the time to ask a lot of questions of the women in my life, it isn’t very hard to understand why and how men should change. Being vulnerable and being open to sharing where we’re struggling is on that list,” he says.

Going hand in hand with the expressing of vulnerability is ensuring people of all genders and identities are treated and paid as equals. It’s by no means a new concept, but one Dhalla acknowledges isn’t pre-conditioned. For him, it’s something people must really commit to addressing. It’s a cause he feels strongly about, and one he now actively speaks up on.

“I think we all know women are not paid on par with men in the majority, if not all, countries in the world. Women should be paid more than men across the board. We’re all capable of contributing equaly, but if you consider the historical injustice related to gender there could be a call for reparations that could be considered in how we compensate women,” he says.  

Dhalla goes on to make one last point, honing in on an often overlooked contribution women make in most group situations, that of emotional labor, “Majority of the time it’s women who carry emotion in their workplaces. If that’s invisible and doesn’t count for anything in your paycheck then that’s not right.”

Safe spaces and tough conversations

When men step up to share the emotional labor in a workplace, this in turn creates space for the tough conversations to be had.

Speaking from experience, Dhalla says he didn’t meaningfully connect with other people until he was willing to be vulnerable.

“That vulnerability has allowed me to work at the stuff that was holding me back. It’s not common to talk about weaknesses, but not talking about them inhibits your ability to connect. We often make assumptions that people understand what we’re thinking, doing and saying. More often than not we just don’t understand each other, especially not without communicating”

But in order to start implementing change, Dhalla says it’s imperative leadership model the desired vulnerability, not only to make magic happen, but to ensure safety for those being called upon to participate.

“If a leader is asking people to be vulnerable, they need to lead the exercise and create that safe space. It’s from here that the truly courageous conversations can take place. It’s on the leader to show precedence that it can be done, and to make sure there’s a clear outcome at the end. If this doesn’t happen, that’s when it can become heated,” he says.

Changing the norm through empathy

There can be no denying taking such a path will be emotionally laborious on those leading, but Dhalla is confident that a modern man who is willing to commit to such a way of working can and should step up, not only for the organization, but to lead by example for other organizations.

“We’re talking about things that are generational, so we’ve gotta start from the beginning. There’s always that one person who says outlandish things about gender or ethnicity, and we let it slide because they’re old or they’re family. I don’t think we can afford to let it slide anymore. We have to get over our societal bias,” he says.

It’s a shift in mentality that also can’t be made without empathy, an emotion Dhalla says is one of the most valuable skills a person can possess in the 21st century.

“There’s a consequence if we cannot develop a sense of empathy. Men especially have fundamentally lacked empathy when considering the role the women have played since the dawn of time in family structures. I know there are exceptions, but for most of my life I wasn’t told by anyone ‘hey, this is what the female experience is like,’” he furthers.  

The importance of play

So there’s vulnerability, there’s equality, and there’s empathy, but there’s also play, perhaps Dhalla’s greatest point of difference.  

Separate to his role with CSI, Dhalla also works on a program called Camp Reset. It’s tech-free summer camp for adults that is built around play and connection. And how do they know it works? because it was built out of necessity as opposed to experience, and each member of the Camp Reset team has reaped the benefits of increased play.

“The more I’ve done camp, the more I’ve realized that every single person I know likes to play, and every single person I know at some point of growing up was told you’re not supposed to play anymore,” he says.

“My theory with the group was if we can create opportunities for play in an environment where people are fully present, then their ability to connect with humans will be so much deeper, and when we connect, our ability to transform is so much greater.”

Dhalla believes we’re all born as social creatures, but are socialised out of it. This then leads to a lack of meaningful relationships that he says has people “fucking up adulthood and forgetting how much fun it is to play and to build with one another.”

“I don’t want to diminish the real and hard stuff. I would redefine adulthood as being serious, but sometimes being serious about not being serious. I don’t think we’ve been at a level of consciousness that allows us to think that differently. We’re just kind of getting there” he says.

Dhalla’s whole ethos – a workplace where people can truly be themselves and love what they do – is seen as out of reach for many, but it’s hard not to believe him when he says play doesn’t have to be a daydream and emotions don’t need to be kept in boxes.

The traditional office structure is in a major transitional period right now, and you can bet that at whatever point your organization chooses to jump on board with it, that Adil Dhalla will be right there leading the pack.

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