Our workplaces face extraordinary challenges coinciding with the opportunity for overdue change. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected how and where we do our jobs, and view our careers. While the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and others haunt us, the recent passings of John Lewis and C.T. Vivian remind us that change can happen with purpose and commitment. What’s been and remains clear is that addressing racial issues as well as those relating to gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and disability must be a critical organizational priority that’s thoughtful, sincere, action-oriented, and sustained.
Right now, many well-intentioned leaders are acting to demonstrate their desire for change. Some are engaging in public acts such as making donations to social justice organizations and restating their commitments to equality; others are more cautiously waiting to decide what actions to take. Many have initiated broad-based organizational and anecdotal inquiries to look at their workplaces in the context of how they can improve. As they consider their leadership commitments, I recommend leaders take time and listen to their colleagues and team members reflectively – in a way that is unlike many typical conversations. Unless leaders take time to hear and absorb what the issues are in their workplaces, and every workplace has some, they will often react reflexively, not at all, or in ways unrelated to underlying issues. All of these are prescriptions for maintaining the status quo.
The First Step: Commitment – From Whom and To What
Before organizations can take effective action, leaders must understand what needs to be changed. For 50 years we have relied on policies, statistical reviews, complaint systems, compliance structures and other system-wide measures to help define, drive and measure progress. Blatant forms of misbehavior are listed and prohibited. When outrageous violations occur, they stand out, make the news, lead to demotions, firings, apologies, legal costs and often to change. Through such acts, progress has been made.
However, unconscious biases, microaggressions and other “subtle” but exclusionary behaviors caused by cultural, social and other silent but potent norms remain alive and cause inequitable and discriminatory treatment, the opposite of equal employment opportunity. Understanding how these practices arise and affect day-to-day interactions and decisions is necessary before those behaviors can change. But often their existence or impact is ignored or minimized.
A problem blocking many senior leaders from addressing these kinds of “below the surface” acts with intensity and purpose is that they have not personally experienced them, may not recognize them or understand how powerful and harmful they may be. They may read about them, and surely hear about them, but because these acts have not affected them, it may not seem to be a present or pressing issue. This problem is compounded by the sad reality that those most affected by the “subtler practices” may be unwilling and or fearful of speaking up.
I am a white male. I’m listening to colleagues with whom I work and collaborate, reading, learning and trying to understand how, for example, the way I am received in a first meeting varies from that of a colleague who is a person of color or female. The greeting I get and often the casual familiarity expressed by a glance, a smile, a nod can be unlike that which I would have received had I not been me. And that can make a difference. It’s easy to take for granted that what happens to you happens to everyone else. And it’s also easy not to appreciate that what is happening to others is not happening to you. But we can’t change our workplaces unless we take time to understand the way these practices affect us in our own workplaces. The impact is extraordinary. Even in small organizations, there can be thousands of interactions over the course of a few months. Some are more casual, such as business presentations, informal meetings and casual conversations, and some are more formal such as organizational actions like hiring, promotions and discipline.
Gaining Commitment Through Communication — Reflective Listening
As a first step and surely before acting to implement broad-based, well-intended change initiatives, I recommend organizational leaders take time and deliberately listen to colleagues and staff members person to person, one to one, to learn from them about their daily personal and work lives. Unless we understand persistent issues affecting those with whom we work, we can’t make changes needed to move forward. This is not the kind of two-way conversation where I hear your story, I tell you mine and my perspective and we go back and forth. Nor is it a conversation where I explain why you are over-reacting, not understanding the situation, not appreciating that there are just a few “bad apples,” or that an extraordinary event should not be over-emphasized. I’m suggesting a conversation to listen, learn and absorb — a necessary form of communication to understand and build commitment which must be personal, real and ongoing. Nonjudgmental listening also encourages people to speak up candidly – and candor is a vital learning ingredient.
Unless we step back and purposefully listen to others, we may not fully understand variations in experience that conflict with what we as leaders consider to be the underlying standards of our organizational values. And since won’t know the source of problems, we won’t know how to fix them. In that case, nothing will change, and we’ll have lived through the unfulfilled urgency and opportunity of now.