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By Janel Byrne

At this point there’s little doubt that the year 2020 has fundamentally shifted how each person in the United States (let alone across the world) is living their lives. I don’t hear anyone in my network claiming, “Well, we’ve seen this before and this is the ‘how to’ guide for managing this effectively at home and at work.” And, as I write this, George Floyd was murdered approximately one month ago. For Black and African-American individuals this tragedy – plus the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many more – is NOT a shift in their world. This is their reality every day.

To clarify intent up front, I do not intend to use this space to incite a political conversation. Rather, my hope is to inspire leaders to lean into their discomfort and to be more present, visible and engaged with their teams than ever before. Silence is NOT the answer. Your teams need you as they continue to navigate their world amidst COVID-19 and their personal and systemic experience of racism in the United States.

That said, what does action, or leaning in, look like for leaders right now? While leadership is not a one-size-fits all approach, leaders need to be checking in with those they lead. This means explicitly letting those you lead know that you care about them as human beings first, you are here to listen, learn about their experiences and better understand what success looks like for them. To make this more tangible, the examples I will share are in real-time, as I’m learning alongside all of you.

An immediate lesson I continue to re-learn is that my intent does not matter; my impact is all that matters. Intent lives in your head and people do not walk away with what you intended for them to hear, rather, they walk away with what they heard, how you made them feel, and how you impacted them. In multiple virtual meetings this past month I’ve seen myself and other leaders “step in it.” For example, in a department meeting where employees were invited to share how they were feeling, folks grew emotional and shared a lot of anger. The leader facilitating the conversation felt like he needed to respond to each person’s statement with some kind of solution. In response to an employee stating she feels she’s been treated differently at work because she is a Black woman, he said, “I’m so sorry you feel that way and we do not stand for that here – that’s never our intent, we are against racism!” While (again) well-intentioned intent does not matter here, impact does.

For leaders, we already feel pressure to find solutions when our teams bring forward challenges. In this case, these conversations are not about finding an immediate solution, they are about creating and holding a safe space for those we lead to share their authentic, raw experience and pain; and for them to ultimately contribute to, and have a say in, what is done to make things better. With this response, the leader unintentionally disregarded this employee’s experience; her truth. While I’m not in this employee’s head, I fear she may have walked away thinking “He’s not actually here to listen to me; he just needs to defend the organization.” In this case, the leader and I debriefed afterward and I shared this observation with him. He took the feedback graciously and I walked away empowered to bring observations like this to the forefront in the future so we can all continue to grow together.

I saw him shift his approach in the very next meeting. Instead of responding to each person’s statement with a solution he said things like, “Thank you for your courage and vulnerability … is there anything else you’d like to share?” Or sometimes he just said “Thank you” because that’s all that was needed. I was particularly impressed when he stated, “I will never know what that was like for you as I’m not you and never will be. And, as your leader, I know I can do better. What can I start doing, stop doing and/or continue doing for you right now?” I also know he followed up with his team individually to ask about his impact. “Overall, how was that conversation for you?” “What can I do on a go-forward to ensure you have a safe space to share and contribute so we can all move forward effectively?”

For meetings I have been leading, I begin with a check-in. I have noticed that I struggle with how to best open the conversation and then hold the silence, i.e., not try to fill the space with my voice and instead allow my team to process and share in their own time (even if that means we sit in silence for a few minutes). In one meeting I opened by saying, “I would like to hear how everyone is and what you are experiencing right now … even if it’s just one word that describes where you are today. This is a safe space, surrounded by the warmth of your colleagues, for you to be human.” There were minutes of silence that felt like an eternity, and then there were words I’m not used to hearing at work, which included folks swearing, tears, people challenging one-another’s statements and people too concerned to speak up because they don’t want to say the “wrong” thing. I found myself also saying “thank you” and asking for clarification with statements like, “Help me understand, when you say you feel numb, what does that mean to you?” There were also times when I opened the floor to others who were silent and they stated they did not want to share. I was reminded that creating a safe space is about the space for people to share and NOT share – which is absolutely OK. I made a mental note to follow-up individually to offer a private space to share.

In general, you will have folks who would rather discuss items one-on-one versus in a group – and sometimes folks who benefit from both – and for these conversations, it’s vital to ensure individual time exists to process as needed. I also found myself getting responses like, “I’m OK,” followed by silence. This is an invitation to dig a little deeper to truly understand what “OK” means to them and what might be right under the surface. They may say that they still don’t want to share, which should be respected. Or, the additional nudge is all they needed to begin sharing. I came across this image that captures how a slight shift in the questions you ask may create the space for people to open up.

Sometimes, “How are you?” is too open-ended or loaded for the person to respond, especially if they are struggling. Shift that to “What’s one thing I can do to support you right now?” or “What are your top three feelings today?” and you give this person a better opportunity to articulate where he/she is at and share what’s most beneficial for them.

When it was time to close the meeting I asked, “as we come to a close please know this is not the end of the conversation, just the amount of time we have together today. This conversation, and us checking in with one another, is ongoing. For today, is there anything additional you hope to share so that you can walk away feeling as ‘whole’ as possible?”

Now, as we come to the close of this article, a quote that inspires me to lean in and feel whole as a human being and leader is from Maya Angelou, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

As leaders, we are going to keep making mistakes, especially now. What’s critical is holding ourselves accountable to those lessons and walking the talk – those we lead are human beings first and deserve leaders that do better.

JANEL BYRNE, MSW, SHRM-CP, is an organizational effectiveness manager at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

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