I’m an engineering manager at a tech firm, and a South Asian woman. Most of my colleagues in leadership are white men, and in most meetings I’m the only woman and the only person of colour. From my viewpoint, it’s easy to see how the challenges in our current society impact employees directly. But because they don’t impact my colleagues in leadership, it’s hard to get them to care. For example, Asians facing hate crimes is a real life issue worrying a lot of our team members, but I’ll often hear comments from my management colleagues that everyone should “just stay focused at work.” I want to use my power to make change, but it’s frustrating to have to explain to my colleagues why they should care. How can I help them see the light?
Dear Fed Up,
This is a tough one! Prior to my work in the DEI space, I held a number of leadership roles as a woman of colour. Though it wasn't (yet) my job, I often felt the responsibility to raise the issue when leadership's actions and behaviours were having a negative impact on company morale, especially when those actions and behaviours were threatening the well being of folks from underrepresented communities. I want you to know that helping your leaders “see the light” is going to take time, energy, capacity and bandwidth from you emotionally and cognitively, so it’s really important for you to reflect and ask yourself two things:
- Do you want to work for an organization where you have to convince leaders to care about their people on a human level? It isn’t lost on me that there’s a certain level of privilege involved in being able to leave a company based on values misalignment and that that option isn’t available to a lot of people; I want to hold space for that reality. If it is feasible for you, I would recommend that you give that some consideration.
- Don't feel like you have to take on the responsibility if you don't have the emotional or cognitive capacity to do so. My advice here is to check in with your self to assess what your bandwidth is. It's totally okay for you to go to work and do your job without having to take on the additional unpaid labour of guiding your leadership team along this journey. This is a perfectly healthy and valid choice.
If you do decide that this is something you want to take on, here's some tips I'll offer you that I've personally found effective:
First, before starting the conversation, let the person you're confronting know what you want to talk to them about, so that they aren't caught off guard. Let them know that you have some potentially tough feedback around inclusion and employee experience at the company.
Do you want to work for an organization where you have to convince leaders to care about their people on a human level?
This may be an unpopular opinion, but I've always found that coming to these conversations seeking to understand the other person (versus coming from a place of judgement) has helped me get to the core of why they may be showing up the way they are. Once you understand the 'why', it's easier to coach someone to change. Tap into your curiosity and ask direct and deliberate questions like:
- Can you tell me what you meant when you said...
- Have the thoughts you shared been shaped by others or is this your own personal perspective?
- Why do you think people may challenge your perspective?
- Is it possible for you to say more about....?
These sorts of questions can help give people an opportunity to reflect on and reconsider what they expressed.
Let them know that as leaders, how they show up and what they say matters. It signals to the organization what they do and do not care about. Signaling to people that their lived experiences don't matter and that they should just 'get to work' is, sadly, common. First, it's simply a crappy way to treat the people who are building their company. Second, we know that the fight for talent is VERY real these days. If they want to retain their people, they need to understand how social injustice and world events impact people and lead with high care.
Explain to them that the impact that their actions and words have on people is important, despite what their intent may have been. They may have meant one thing, but all that matters is how it landed.
You could also encourage them to engage with resources that expose them to diverse lived experiences, like books, movies, podcasts, and diversifying who they follow on social media. This can go a long way in building empathy and understanding.
If psychological safety is there, I've also found success in removing myself as a barrier between leadership teams and the people who are being impacted by things I don't personally experience, like anti-Asian racism. Creating a safe space for those employees to engage in dialogue with leaders can be both cathartic and impactful. There’s something really powerful about open and honest dialogue and speaking truth to power
Finally, consider having a third party consultancy come in to help facilitate the conversation. As odd as it may sound, sometimes leaders react completely different when receiving hard feedback from a neutral third party.
I wish that I could guarantee that your efforts will result in change, but it's not always a happily-ever-after scenario. At the end of the day, despite your efforts, you may not get the outcomes that you hoped for. Keep in mind, sometimes perspectives can take time to shift. The process of unlearning behaviours doesn't always happen overnight. If you feel like there is hope for change and you have the bandwidth, keep leaning in. But sometimes, if we're being real, people are just not bloody willing to change. I'll end with one of my favourite quotes by the badass Maya Angelou: "Once you know better, do better." You've got them to the knowing phase. Now it's on them to do something about it.
Have a tough question about DEI at work? Ask Shav! As Bright + Early’s resident Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Consulting Lead, Shav helps companies all over the world build inclusive environments. Have a question about building an inclusive workplace, (or surviving one that’s not)? Email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Ask Shav”.