Dr. Marshaun Hymon, Director of Learning & Advisory Services at Grads of Life, reflects on how to navigate conversations around workplace culture.
“I have found that the only way to give feedback without triggering white fragility is not to give it all.”- Robin DiAngelo
In White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, Robin DiAngelo provides tangible recommendations on how to engage white folks in conversations around race. While the quote above might be humorous to some, it is all too familiar to employees of color. Attempts by employees of color to provide feedback on their experience and discuss how racism manifests at work are often explained away as misunderstandings, miscommunications or overreactions. This defensiveness and inaction result in maintaining a dangerous status quo. And, for employees of color, surfacing these challenges often affect their workplace experience in several negative ways.
First, they are often labeled as non-collaborative, which is then used to problematically claim that someone is “not a good culture fit.” This often leads to employees of color, especially women of color, leaving organizations. This false label is not only harmful to employees of color, but prevents the meaningful, productive collaboration that drives strong businesses. Collaboration is not blindly agreeing during the decision-making process, being “palatable” in moments of tension or utilizing a “pleasant” tone when adding to the conversation. True collaboration will inherently breed conflict and will be most effective when we challenge ideas and present new perspectives.
This idea of fitting in also leads to a very real loss of professional opportunities. McKinsey and Co.’s Race in the Workplace report explains that Black employees are experiencing a “trust deficit.” Black employees are 23 percent less likely to receive support to advance in their companies, and more than 67 percent of Black employees report they do not have a sponsor. Trust, support and opportunity are all connected. When employees cannot safely be authentic and raise concerns, they are less likely to build critical relationships that facilitate professional growth.
If companies begin take change seriously, employees of color are disproportionately asked to lead this work. Building a positive culture and dismantling systems that advantage specific groups of people is the work of all employees at all levels. And, importantly, direct/frontline managers are the most critical actor in the employee experience. They have the clearest ability to support or thwart efforts in cultural change. When employees of color surface experiences with marginalization in the workplace, the manager needs to be well equipped to handle these conversations.
Recommendations for Managers
Here are four steps that will support managers in navigating conversations around race, difference and workplace marginalization.
1) Resist the urge to display defensiveness. As a manager, there might be an urge to defend the company, justify a past decision, or protect the brand of/explain the intent of another colleague or direct report. The conversation should focus on the impact on the employee, not the actions of another. One way to practice minimizing defensiveness is a technique called bracketing. To practice bracketing, you should internally acknowledge what you are feeling/thinking and intentionally set those thoughts aside to privilege the experience of the employee.
2) Practice empathy. Empathy is not apologizing or simply expressing “understanding.” True empathy is connecting with something in yourself that knows the feeling your direct report is expressing. This is where true connection begins. To practice empathy, you can employ three techniques: validating, asking open-ended questions and paraphrasing.
a) Validating the courage and level of vulnerability displayed by the employee engaging in this conversation is an impactful starting place. As discussed earlier, the potential negative impacts on employees of color are numerous. Articulating your understanding of this is an important step in moving toward action.
b) Asking open-ended questions provides you an opportunity to deepen your understanding of the challenge at hand. This also allows you to confirm or deny the thoughts bracketed in step one.
c) Paraphrasing is powerful for both parties. For the manager, paraphrasing allows you to confirm understanding and practice rearticulating the full challenge expressed. For the employee of color, this provides an opportunity to confirm or modify what the manager articulated. Additionally, employees of color hearing their own words repeated is cathartic and empowering.
3) Determine a desired outcome. A primary behavior of an ally is to decenter oneself. The manager speaking to a direct report regarding what success looks like for them is one way to decenter. The burden of solving challenges should not fall solely on employees of color. Constructing what an equitable and supportive future state looks and feels like is a partnership. Here are a few questions to guide this portion of the conversation:
a) What does success look like for you?
b) How might “X” meeting look or feel differently for you?
c) How might we raise awareness of this challenge at a broader scale?
d) What support do you need from me to drive this forward?
4) Take action. After you have reached a desired outcome, as the manager, it is time to take action. This action should be two-fold. First, at the individual level, the impact on the employee of color must be rectified and mitigated. Second, you must also take action at the systems level. Consider revisiting a management decision, realigning on a department or team policy or reallocating project responsibilities. There must be a structure that supports the culture you hope to build and sustain.
Understanding the nuanced experience of employees of color and the potential negative impact on them when braving conversations around diversity is paramount. Managers skilled in navigating these conversations will guarantee to strengthen company culture, minimize the impact on employees and support in the advancement of people of color in the workplace.
This blog post originally appeared on Grads of Life BrandVoice on Forbes here.