July 2016

It has been a rough week in the USA. When so many innocent men are murdered, in the context of racial fear and revenge, it is frightening.

The killings of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota (about a mile from where I grew up), the Dallas police officers and the violent response by some demonstrators here in Minnesota frightens me.  And I am guessing these things frighten many of you.  To hear seasoned leaders say that we are near some type of tipping point really has my attention. Though I am protected in a variety of ways, and regularly feel my privilege as a middle class man of European heritage, I have my own fears like many of you.

These dangerous happenings in our broader society can impact life at your workplace, especially if you are working in a place that has mostly white leaders and largely people of darker skin color working at the lower levels. Feelings may be running quite strong right now in work cultures with those demographics. And people on all sides may feel paralyzed. No one is sure what to say. Almost anything said will sound polarized and may be misinterpreted.

So we default to silence, especially in places like Minnesota where “niceness” has such a high value.

I know that some leaders feel they cannot speak about such things at work and just hope that people don’t bring “personal issues” into work. Some people at the bottom rungs of the organization, especially those from other cultures, may have strong emotions but feel cautious about speaking up. “I don’t want to be a thorn in anyone’s side. I need this job. But my pain is great and I want to be seen and heard!”

What can you do as a leader?

  • Listen. Deeply listen to others and hear their pain. Attempt as much empathy as you can muster.
  • Recognize your many privileges.
  • Speak personally and from your heart to your whole company about your feelings related to the situation, without taking sides.
  • Admit your fears. This is harder to do than you may realize, and may require some feedback from a trusted friend or professional. Non-partisan empathy goes a long way.
  • Find someone who can assist you to engage your workers in productive, carefully-facilitated conversations about their experience so that you do not have a mutiny.
  • Attend the webinar that I will be offering in August … info coming soon…

What can you do as someone with lower positional rank?

  • Find allies who can support you in a variety of ways, especially as you express what you need and attempt to contribute to conversations.
  • Remember and use the rank you do have. There is spiritual and psychological power in the role of those who are marginalized. Use that role powerfully and maturely.
  • Speak up to your colleagues and maybe even your boss and make sure to include your intent.
  • Ask for what you need: to be heard and valued, a sense of safety, systemic change.

These suggestions may feel risky to you, or limited by the author, a privileged white guy with a limited perspective. Take what works and leave the rest. Send me your feedback of what you would suggest.

Work towards justice and a more integrated workforce, from the top and the bottom. Expect some bumps in the road, but also for your business to thrive as you courageously address these delicate issues and work for genuine diversity at work and at home.