We CAN Talk About Race, Religion, and Other Polarizing Topics: A Leader’s Guide to Bold Inclusive Conversations

Don’t talk about politics or religion at work! This old adage is one that we have mostly adhered to for centuries. I would also add race, sexual orientation, harassment, and disabilities to the list of topics that we don’t easily talk about. We’ve been socialized to believe that it is best not to talk about topics for which we know there are vastly different world views.

I would contend that our current sociopolitical climate, coupled with our immediate access and consumption of news via social media, has made this widely held tenet null and void. The polarization is so deep that it is almost impossible not to talk about politics which also means we are talking about race, ethnicity, religion, class and gender because they are all so intertwined.

The growing body of research around psychological safety, engagement, and inclusion has shifted the dialogue from whether we should be having these conversations at work to how can we begin to arm ourselves with the competencies to have these conversations at work. 

I was conducting a “healing” session for a client just after the election with employees of color who represented various employee identity groups (e.g. Black, Asian, Latino).  One of the participants said that as a gay Muslim man he would not stand close to the edge of the subway waiting area any more for fear of being pushed in. A white male leader in attendance as an inclusion advocate was shocked to hear that anyone would have to have such a fear. Another one of our clients, a major public-school district, is dealing with children coming to school afraid that their parents will be deported, leaving them here in the US as orphans.

Employees are bringing such fears to work. Children are bringing these fears to school. As leaders, we need to not only talk about these issues, but we also need the requisite skills to do so effectively.  We need to recognize that there are a different set of skills needed to have Bold, Inclusive Conversations across difference.

The Model for Bold, Inclusive Conversations supports leaders in fostering those skills and meeting people where they are when engaging in dialogue:

Foster Self- and Other Understanding

Investing time to understand oneself and the perspectives of one’s cultural ‘others,’ is requisite to engaging in these, often time difficult, conversations. As a matter of fact, this phase of self and other understanding can be difficult, in and of itself. Our identity is core to who we are. Whether it is our race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, veteran status, or even roles as parents, these aspects of our identity shape our worldview. They influence how we view and respond to current events, what we interpret as right or wrong, and what we stand for or against. It is important for us to understand why we believe what we believe, and why we disagree with those things we disagree with if we are to be effective in having bold, inclusive conversations.

Assessing Readiness

Sometimes our teams and organizations just aren’t ready to have these conversations. Sometimes we aren’t either. Perhaps it is because we do not know enough about the topic, or have not had exposure to people from a specific identity group. Assessing individual and team readiness is key to engaging in these conversations. What might one consider when assessing their individual readiness?

  • Exposure: Ask yourself: Who is in my world? The less exposure you have with people who are different than you, the less likely you will be ready to engage in bold, inclusive conversations.
  • Experience: This takes ‘exposure’ a step further. Experience is about engaging with those who are different from you in ways that are cross-culturally enriching.
  • Education: Experience and exposure should be complemented with formal education. This may include workplace trainings, continuing education, research, visiting museums, reading books, etc.
  • Empathy: Having the capacity to understand the perspective of one’s ‘other,’ is also necessary to be effective in engaging in bold, inclusive conversations.

Preparing for the Conversation

It is important to differentiate preparation and readiness. Readiness refers to the ongoing learning involved in fostering self- and other-understanding. Preparation involves the tactical elements required to plan the conversation. Given the sensitive nature of bold, inclusive conversation, planning is critical. That said, spontaneous meetings to engage in these conversations should be avoided. When planning to engage in a bold, inclusive conversation, consider the following series of questions:

  • Why are we having the conversation?
  • Who should be part of the dialogue, and why?
  • What is the desired outcome?
  • How should the conversation be conducted?
  • Where should the conversation be held?
  • When will the conversation take place?

Creating Shared Meaning and Finding Common Ground

When it comes to issues tied to our identity, we are more likely to be passionate, and unmoving in our beliefs. Social psychologists have suggested that we retreat to separatist thinking when our core belief systems are threatened. Reasoning and evidence simply do not matter.

That’s why convincing someone to “change what they believe” is difficult, and shouldn’t be the goal of engaging in these conversations; however, reaching a point of mutual understanding should. Creating shared meaning is a stepping stone to getting there. Ask yourself and each other, what can we agree on? Creating shared meaning and finding common ground includes statements like:

  • “These types of stresses can impact engagement and productivity.”
  • “We don’t know what we don’t know, and we all have a lot to learn about each other to have effective dialogue.”
  • “We all want to be safe.”

Delving into Differences

While understanding similarities is certainly a critical middle ground for bold conversations, understanding differences that make a difference is critical to getting to a place of reciprocal understanding. Consider the following when moving into dialogue around differences:

  • Acknowledge the ‘elephant’ in the room. Polarization exists and acknowledging that is part of the dialogue.
  • Distinguish interpretations and clarify definitions. Even “universal” terms and values can be interpreted differently across cultures. What do terms like fairness, safety, and trust mean to those involved in the dialogue? Discuss those differences. Write them down.
  • Uncover your different perspectives and listen with an open mind. Tell your story.
  • Know when to ‘press pause.’ Set aside time to reflect. Be okay with non-closure.
  • Strive for reciprocal empathy. There is no official ‘end game’ in engaging in these conversations. But …

If we can get to the point of reciprocal empathy (i.e., the ability to know what it is like to be the “other”), we increase the likelihood of generating new ways to engage with each other.

Photo Credit: Pelangi Keluarga Flickr via Compfight cc

Reenfranchising Your Company’s Disenfranchised

If 2016 taught me anything, it’s that I may have overestimated how tuned in I am to large segments of the population. I would not call this group a silent majority (as they are neither “silent” nor a “majority”), but recent political events have reinforced my need to engage and find common ground with those who feel alienated.

In his recent movie, Imperium. Daniel Radcliffe plays a FBI agent who goes undercover in a white-supremacy group. According to Radcliffe, “…my biggest takeaway from this film is that, as much as we want to demonize these people and in a way demonize their views, we should try and find a way of getting them into this conversation, unfortunately as awful as that sounds, because the more you ostracize them and aggressively dismiss them, the more it just plays into their worldview that everything is a conspiracy against them.”

Before you send me your oppositional emails, let me be clear: I am not equating, comparing, or in any way associating those who feel disenfranchised with white supremacists or racists-at-large. What I am saying is that Radcliffe makes a valid point about demonizing people without engaging in a conversation to understand their point of view.

Imperium’s Director, Daniel Ragussis, added that characterizing those on the fringe with insults like “monster” is not helpful.—“They don’t give you any access as to the mechanism that’s going on there and why the people are behaving the way they are. I think if you’re going to try to dismantle that or change it, you have to understand what’s going on and what’s happening.”

A mutually beneficial workplace culture is not determined solely by the leaders; the employees ultimately decide what practices and habits they will adhere to… and this includes those who don’t feel welcomed to participate. Therefore, companies must focus their resources to involve these individuals.

To help us encourage those who believe they are estranged from the decision makers, we must be mindful of one important concept: Don’t confuse feeling disenfranchised with feeling disengaged. The disengaged are not willing to put in extra effort for success. They don’t like work and they aren’t afraid to show it. The disenfranchised, on the other hand, believe they are deprived of rights and/or privileges. They want to contribute, but either don’t know how to initiate, don’t think they are allowed, or don’t feel welcomed into the process.

To reenfranchise, start by listening to their concerns. Actually, that’s too easy. Your really need to start by withholding judgment. It’s easy to dismiss those who disagree with us, especially when they are not in a position of power. An effective leader, however, cannot disparage or ostracize these individuals. They are part of the organization, so either treat them like they are part of the organization or release them from your condemnatory sentencing.

Once you are able to withhold judgment, you can begin listening to their concerns. Schedule one-on-one’s to figure out what they need to feel embraced. Ask questions, focus on their concerns, and formulate an ongoing plan.

After you know their hindrances and have a plan in place, it is your responsibility as the leader to change how you manage. However you led before resulted in a disenfranchised populace, so figure out what you can do differently to be more inclusive. And follow up frequently to ensure that your efforts are effective.

If attitude is an indication of success (and it is) you will get more bang for your buck if you concentrate on reenfranchising the disenfranchised then engaging the disengagement. Since the disenfranchised crave involvement, involve them. If you don’t, they will find their voice, with or without you. Why wait for them to be an organized opposition? Make them allies and strengthen your team.

Photo Credit: maransa99 Flickr via Compfight cc

#WorkTrends Recap: Workplace Democracy

As U.S. voters exercised their democratic right in last month’s Presidential election, the practice of democracy in rapidly spreading to all areas of life, most notably in the workplace.

Companies are beginning to offer employees the power to vote on various workplace amenities such as snacks in the breakroom, or even the location of the next company outing… but what if employees had the power to make more significant and impactful decisions like voting to keep or fire their CEO?

This week, Meghan M Biro was joined by Haufe CEO Kelly Max to discuss what a workplace looks like where the employees have the power.

Kelly had to run for election as CEO of Haufe so he had a lot of insights to share. Here are a few key points:

  • Transparency is key for employees to make better decisions,
  • CEOs need to listen to employees. It’s their job as a leader. It makes people have a voice.
  • The fact that employees are now heard gives employees so many more opportunities

Did you miss the show? You can listen to the #WorkTrends podcast on our BlogTalk Radio channel here:

You can also check out the highlights of the conversation from our Storify here:

Didn’t make it to this week’s #WorkTrends show? Don’t worry, you can tune in and participate in the podcast and chat with us every Wednesday from 1-2pm ET (10-11am PT). On Dec 14, I will be joined by my former co-host Kevin W Grossman, to discuss the candidate experience.

Remember, the TalentCulture #WorkTrends conversation continues every day across several social media channels. Stay up-to-date by following our #WorkTrends Twitter stream; pop into our LinkedIn group to interact with other members; or check out our Google+ community. Engage with us any time on our social networks, or stay current with trending World of Work topics on our website or through our weekly email newsletter.

photo credit: kennethkonica The message is #VOTE and I plan on it! via photopin (license)

#WorkTrends Preview: Workplace Democracy

As U.S. voters exercised their democratic right in last month’s Presidential election, the practice of democracy in rapidly spreading to all areas of life, most notably in the workplace.

Companies are beginning to offer employees the power to vote on various workplace amenities such as snacks in the breakroom, or even the location of the next company outing… but what if employees had the power to make more significant and impactful decisions like voting to keep or fire their CEO?

Join Meghan M. Biro and Mr. Kelly Max, CEO of Haufe on Wednesday, December 7 at 1pm EST, as they discuss this intriguing and cutting-edge topic.

Workplace Democracy

#WorkTrends Logo Design

Join Kelly and me on our LIVE online podcast Wednesday, Dec 7 — 1 pm ET / 10 am PT.

Immediately following the podcast, the team invites the TalentCulture community over to the #WorkTrends Twitter stream to continue the discussion. We encourage everyone with a Twitter account to participate as we gather for a live chat, focused on these related questions:

Q1: What are the advantages of creating a workplace democracy? #WorkTrends (Tweet this question)

Q2: How can transparency encourage employees to have a voice? #WorkTrends (Tweet this question)

Q3: What steps can leaders take to create continuous employee feedback? #WorkTrends (Tweet this question)

Don’t want to wait until next Wednesday to join the conversation? You don’t have to. I invite you to check out the #WorkTrends Twitter feed, our TalentCulture World of Work Community LinkedIn group, and our TalentCulture G+ community. Share your questions, ideas and opinions with our awesome community any time. See you there!

Join Our Social Community & Stay Up-to-Date!


photo credit: Phil Roeder Mock Election Day via photopin (license)