How Managers Can (and Should) Address Race and Violence in The News
“I can’t breathe”
This week, hundreds of thousands of people of color are struggling for breath, again. Opening apps and browsers and seeing ourselves, our children, our significant others in the images of slain men and women. Putting an “Amy” face to the quiet “I’m not racist, but…” ghosts that haunt our careers. Mourning.
Then the computer dings. Time to work.
The work of compartmentalizing collective trauma is a soft skill you won’t see listed in job descriptions or evaluated in interviews. For many people of color, this is a real survival skill required to navigate the workplace, and, simply put, it’s exhausting.
The idea of approaching a conversation about race and racism may give you some serious pause. Many of us have been firmly instructed that race has no place in the workplace. This has resulted in a very loud silence, confirmation for some that their racial identity is not professional and that their social reality in the wake of tragedy is not as valid as traumas shared by the majority. Post 9–11, for example, we mourned together. Post George Floyd, we, the professionals of color, mourn around our workday.
Managers and leaders have an important role in establishing psychological safety for their employees and there is a place and need for these conversations. Let’s talk about how to manage that discomfort and do the work needed to serve your teams when and where they need you.
“We have to move past our caution. I would encourage each of us, even if it feels uncomfortable, to have the courageous conversations and be a courageous listener, because that’s how we solve problems.”
- Minda Harts, bestselling author of “The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table” via Times
Starting the Conversation: Starting is the hardest part
Avoid this: “Hey Maria, I just wanted to check in with you about what’s been going on in the news. I know, you’re, you know, a person of color or whatever and I wanted to know if you need a day off or something.”
It’s important to note that not every employee will be affected the same way, by the same headlines. As a best practice, avoid singling out that one employee of color and othering them as an avenue to practice inclusive leadership.
Try this: “Hey team. I wanted to take a moment and address what’s been going on in the headlines with (story/circumstance). I know it’s hard to separate these things, especially now that we are all working from home, and seeing more news, more push notifications. I’m opening up an hour this afternoon anyone can drop a private meeting in to talk.”
This is a great way to start the conversation and not single out, or tokenize your relationships with specific individuals. Making this a practice when there are major changes- COVID pandemics, difficult news in the media, an unexpected loss of a coworker, can go a long way in being a virtual open door for your team to make space for needed conversations.
Or this: “Hey Maria, you’ve expressed before how these headlines really hit home for you. How are you feeling today? On a scale of 1–5, 1 being, I just want to crawl in bed and shut off the world and 5 being totally unaffected.”
How often do you really share when someone asks how you are? Providing a scale and using it often can go a long way in helping guide conversations about how well a person really is. Consider adding this to your 1:1s. Introverted, or technically minded employees especially might appreciate having something quantifiable to use as a path to a conversation about feelings. (Shout out to Julia Melymbrose, Ph.D for this amazing strategy from her time at Animalz)
Prompt with vulnerability: “I spent some time this week, watching the videos and scrolling down the comments on reactions. It’s a lot to process and I know that my experience doesn’t even capture the full context of this. I’d like to be an ear for you to listen, if that is something you need. There is a place for these conversations when I ask how things are going and I’d really like to make space for this where it’s needed.”
Listen Actively and Seek to Understand:
The first time you try and approach this conversation, don’t be surprised if you meet some skepticism, if not resistance. We are at the forefront of a major climate change in the workplace and you can’t undo years of institutionalized mistrust with a single conversation and an offer to listen.
Once they start talking though, really listen. Avoid explaining a different perspective, correcting small factual or interpretation mistakes, and downplaying the significance or proportion. Repeat back what you’re hearing and seeing, like a consultant.
“I hear a lot of emotion in your voice as you talk about how this could be you, or your family.”
“Your experience reading the news IS a lot different from some of the other team members, but definitely not all of them, I agree.”
“You want a way to share that experience but we currently don’t offer an avenue that is easy, or feels welcoming, right?”
Ask clarifying questions for context,
“What does that mean, when you say you code-switch at work?”
“How would you address this differently with the group?”
“What do you need right now?”
Be A Better Ally- Even At The Sacrifice Of Your Comfort
If we don’t make a place for these conversations in the workplace, we deprive our team members of color the opportunity to be truly seen.
Allyship is a verb, not an identity. Your active participation is required and that means navigating your inertia and discomfort knowing that your team needs you. There has been a tsunami of post-COVID19 content about managing with compassion and understanding the role of this collective trauma for the modified workplace. It’s time to ride that wave to less charted waters: Race and Racism. If we don’t make a place for these conversations in the workplace, we deprive our team members of color the opportunity to be truly seen. We become robbed of the chance to offer needed resources to support safety and well-being. We don’t rise to the challenge of practicing better allyship, and we leave ourselves unprepared for the next headline, the next trauma. We leave our biases unchallenged, and under informed.
If you’ve ever struggled to put your finger on your attrition when it comes to people of color, ask yourself, how comfortable are you and your leadership with approaching these conversations? You may be surprised to find how much loyalty, longevity and career mobility you can influence by integrating psychological safely into your leadership approach.
George Floyd will not be the last person of color we watch die in a viral video. Be ready for the next one.
“Racism isn’t getting worse, it’s getting filmed”- Will Smith
Articles to Read:
- The Intersectionality Wars, Jane Coaston | Vox (May 28, 2019)
- White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Penny McIntosh
- “Who Gets to Be Afraid in America?” by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi | Atlantic (May 12, 2020)
Videos to Watch:
- How Studying Privilege Systems Can Strengthen Compassion” Peggy McIntosh at TEdx Timberlane Schools
Podcasts to Subscribe to:
Books to Read:
- Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by Dr. Brittney Cooper
- Redefining Realness by Janet Mock
- The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century by Grace Lee Boggs
- White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo, Ph.D
Organizations to Follow on Social Media:
- Antiracism Center: Twitter
- Color of Change: Twitter | Instagram | Facebook
- The Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights: Twitter | Instagram | Facebook
- NAACP: Twitter | Instagram | Facebook
- United We Dream: Twitter | Instagram | Facebook
Resources pulled from here: Link to full doc
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