Active listening for managers

a purple echinacea flower in a vase, seen from above, a clear focus of attention.

In last week’s post, we talked about the importance of cultivating empathy and curiosity as foundational principles of an inclusive team, and we discussed the fact that one key skill that enables people to act out empathy and curiosity at work is active listening. This week I want to go deeper and get practical: how do you go about exhibiting that key skill to your team?

In remote settings, making it clear that you’re listening requires some intention and preparation. Before your next meeting, take a look at your setup and identify your most frequent distractions. (If your most frequent distractions are other humans currently quarantining with you, I am the wrong person to give you focus advice, and the next couple of paragraphs are probably going to sound ridiculous – but hopefully they’ll help you develop some good meeting habits that you’ll be able to stick with in days when a more controlled environment is feasible.)

In my remote-meeting setup, I generally have two monitors, one where I keep my video meeting at full-screen (tip: make this the monitor with your webcam on it for a better “I’m paying attention to you” experience for your colleagues) and the second where I’m taking notes, presenting slides, or keeping reports handy for reference. If I have my email or chat apps easily visible on the second screen, I’m likely to get distracted by incoming requests, typically things that aren’t actually urgent or important to deal with in that moment. Most of us are now conditioned to pull our attention immediately to any sort of notification icon; arrange your notification settings and browser tabs to minimize their impact on your physical and virtual meeting space.

I’m also a fidgeter. If I’m not taking notes, I’m likely to be messing with whatever object is nearest my keyboard or kicking at fidget devices at my standing desk. For the other person in the meeting, it looks like I’m not paying attention if they don’t know that it’s a focus tool for me. To preempt that feeling that my fidgeting can bring up, I try to remember to say it explicitly when I start meeting with someone new, and I try to keep my fidgeting out of frame as much as possible. Because I know this about myself, I also try to keep my phone in a place where it isn’t likely to be “the object nearest my keyboard” so that I don’t turn it into my fidget device; engaging with my phone will actually take my attention away from the meeting.

Once you’ve established an environment that allows you to pay attention to your colleague, create space for them to tell you what’s going on by asking open-ended questions. By this, I mean questions that don’t lead your colleague to any specific answer, that ideally give them a chance to describe a situation in detail, and that prompt them to say more than “yes” or “no.” (Yes-or-no questions often contain a hint at the answer you expect. Sometimes you need to do this to nudge someone toward a solution! But that’s not “active listening” mode, which should be your default.) 

The goal of your open-ended questions is to get at issues underlying any challenges or obstacles that your team member might be facing. Often, that will mean that you need to (gently) push them to consider the challenge in a new way with questions like “What do you think is causing that?” (This is a wordier way of asking “Why?”, which can sometimes make people feel defensive; “why do you think that is?” also works here.) In a relationship where you have some measure of trust already built, and the element of defensiveness is less of a factor, you can go to the “toddler tactic”: continue asking “why?” until you get to the thing that feels like the real root of the problem. (You’ll sometimes hear this described as “the Five Whys” method, generally attributed to Taiichi Ohno, the author of Toyota Production System: Beyond Large-Scale Production.)

As your report describes a situation, you may identify moments where you think there’s more to be said. Listen to your instincts there; the phrase “do you want to say more about that?” is my go-to when I want them to elaborate, without inserting my interpretation of what they mean. I’ve often made a guess about what they mean before asking them to say more; asking in this way allows me to check my guess before it becomes an outright assumption.

Part of active listening is getting comfortable with moments of silence in a meeting. While your report is talking, avoid the temptation to formulate your response in your head; thinking about what you’re going to say next while someone else is talking is inaudibly talking over them. Give them space to finish talking, allow a moment or two of silence while you formulate your own response, and then continue the conversation. Nodding while you do that is a subtle way to indicate that you’re still engaged in the conversation, and I also like to be explicit that a little silence in a meeting is a good thing and doesn’t mean you’re wasting time.

One last key component of active listening as a manager: once you have the root of a challenge, work with your report to identify action items, and make sure that they happen. There are contexts where simply listening to someone is enough to support them; a manager/report relationship is not one of them. You need to take action to help them address the issue. If you plotted “behaviors of a good friend” and “behaviors of a good manager” in a Venn diagram, it would have a lot of overlap, but would not be not a circle, and listening just for the sake of listening would only land in the “behaviors of a good friend” section.

Modeling this skill is a critical part of your work as a manager of an equitable, effective team. As a leader, your organization has placed an implicit value on you and your behavior; modeling active listening as a means to empathetic, curious collaboration shows your team that those behaviors are valued in your organization and encourages them to do the same. In addition, think about how you can ask them to show this skill in their own work and measure their progress against it. (That’s a sneak preview of next week, where we’ll talk about ways to measure your team on skills that can show “potential” for more senior roles or increased responsibility.)

Cultivate empathy and curiosity among your team.

One of the central operating principles that makes diverse teams work successfully – what makes them effective – is the effort they make to get to know one another’s experiences. Approaching collaboration with empathy and curiosity is what enables those efforts to succeed.

What do I mean by empathy?

There are different ways of thinking about empathy, and to illustrate them I like to use the example of Counselor Deanna Troi from Star Trek: The Next Generation. (If you’re not a Trek nerd like I am, hang with me here – the metaphor should still make sense.)

The character of Troi is from a planet where everyone is an empath, which means she’s able to sense the feelings of others, a valuable trait in a ship’s counselor. When she does her most effective work on the Enterprise, she’s aware of the feelings of others (even over a video call), but she isn’t experiencing those feelings herself, at least not to the same degree. She’s able to identify what’s going on for the other person emotionally, and advise Captain Picard on how to take that into account in his actions.

There are times when Troi does experience the feelings of others deeply. Those are, generally speaking, not good times for the Enterprise, nor are they good times for her. The intensity of the emotions she’s taking on prevents her from being able to take action to address the underlying issue – and at work, we have to be concerned with addressing the underlying issue. Unless we are trained therapists, we don’t have the expertise or authority to really address the experience of those feelings themselves, and to try to do so from your position as a manager will cross a personal boundary for most employees.

So, when I say that you need to cultivate empathy among your team members, I’m talking specifically about empathetic awareness. (You don’t have to be Betazoid to develop that kind of awareness!) It’s not important that your team members feel each others’ frustration and joy as if it were their own; it is important that they understand how to identify others’ emotions and take those emotions into account as they act.

Or, as I often say, feelings are not facts, but they are data. We can and should learn what the data tell us, and take those learnings into consideration as we make decisions at work. (It’s also important to note that the feeling-deeply sort of empathy is not accessible to everyone – but the good news is, you don’t need it to be.)

Curiosity drives empathy. Listening supports both.

One of the most valuable assets just about any employee has is their curiosity. A constant push to know more, to explore ideas, and to understand others’ perspectives is at the foundation of successful collaboration, and following that curiosity creates the space for empathetic awareness among your team members.

You might be thinking “how can I cultivate this on my team? Aren’t empathy and curiosity are traits that adults either have, or don’t?” And it may in fact be easier for people to work together on a diverse team if they come onto the team already inclined toward those approaches. But as a manager, you can identify the specific behaviors in which curiosity and empathy manifest on your team, and make those behaviors part of your employees’ job description.

For example, in a program management role, you might expect the employee to find ways to regularly listen to the needs of your constituents and adapt the program to better meet those needs.

You can also help to cultivate the underlying skill that lets employees enact their curiosity and empathy at work: active listening. In next week’s post I’ll talk about ways that you can model active listening for your team.

How does this tie back to equity and inclusion? One of the main obstacles that people from marginalized groups face at work is that people with more identity-based privilege lack an understanding of the unique challenges that one encounters simply by being of a particular race, gender presentation, or disability status. By creating an expectation that acting with empathy and curiosity are core to doing their jobs well, you establish empathy and curiosity as core to your work culture. By creating a work culture that emphasizes enacting empathy and curiosity through active listening, you open up space for people who face those obstacles to be heard and taken seriously, and for their more privileged colleagues to join them in solving those problems together.

Check your attitude toward your customers.

This week we’re continuing the series on anti-racist management practices. If you haven’t read the other posts in the series, this one stands alone, but I recommend going back and reading the others as well.

Pay attention to your shortcuts.

The ultimate test of your diversity and inclusion efforts is how you apply them to the people who aren’t in the room (whether that “room” is physical or virtual). If your organization is serving people of a particular underrepresented identity – whether by race, gender identity, age, ability, or any other identity axis – it can be easy to talk about those folks with shorthand that reflects negative stereotypes about who they are, rather than focusing on the challenges they face. Your team members will hear that and pick up on those stereotypes. They are likely to replicate them in ways you didn’t intend. They are likely to understand it to be an indication of your own bias in ways that undermine your ability to be effective as a manager. In some cases, they may correctly understand it as a racist or sexist action.

Here’s what I mean by this kind of shortcut, and how subtle it can feel. When interviewing candidates for a technical support role, I’ve often asked: “Tell me about a time when you needed to provide technical help to someone without a technical background.” The most common answers are along the lines of “I helped my mom set up her computer” or “I helped my grandmother figure out her phone” without contextualizing their relative’s background in any way other than their implied age and gender. (Much less frequently, they’ll use “dad” or “grandfather” as their example.) The best answers to that question focus on the background of the person they’re helping and relating the technology to the person’s area of expertise – the challenges that person faces and how to overcome them, rather than who the person is.

When you use that kind of shorthand, even if you know that what you mean is “I helped my grandmother, who has a really deep background in restaurant operations, figure out this new point-of-sale interface that was unlike anything she’d ever seen before, but which was similar to something I used at my last job,” what others will hear is “I helped a person of a particular age range and gender, who obviously needed help because of those factors.” That’s all the information you’ve given them. They’ll reasonably assume that what you’ve said out loud is the relevant information about that person, and that you’re not only extrapolating about that person’s technical ability based on their age and gender, but that you expect them to do the same extrapolation.

As a manager, the risk of the people around you making those assumptions is even more pronounced. At least until you give them reason to do otherwise, your reports will filter everything you say through the lens of “my manager said it, therefore it’s important.” They’ll remember even your offhand comments. If you’re using shortcut language (which by necessity is language laced with assumptions, if not outright stereotypes) to describe an identity that your reports share, they’ll come to reasonable conclusions about the way you think about them, whether you know they hold that identity or not. That can undermine your reports’ willingness to be candid with you, and that makes it much more difficult for you to be effective at achieving your mission.

Pay attention to your team’s language.

You also have to keep a critical ear toward the way your team members talk about your customers amongst themselves. You have to be ready to course-correct if you hear them using this kind of shortcut language, or if you hear them being extra-harsh about customers who are of a marginalized identity. You need to be ready to notice if they’re dismissing the expertise or competence of your Black customers while giving your non-Black customers the benefit of the doubt when something goes wrong.

Practice (like, really, practice in the mirror) saying things like “Help me understand why that’s relevant” when you hear shortcut language being used. (“Help me understand more about your grandmother’s nontechnical background.”) Practice saying things like “It sounds like you’re feeling extra frustrated about customer X compared to customer Y, who’s having similar challenges. What’s under that?” Don’t let the underlying assumptions go unquestioned.

Be as consistent about this as you know how to be (and keep learning).

Establishing a pattern of consistently bringing awareness to this behavior, and correcting it, will make your organization a more inclusive place to work, even if your current team is relatively homogenous: it means the next Black person you hire won’t have to be the one to bring up the behavior, and they’ll see that you have their back when you correct it as it arises.

Next week we’ll dive deeper into what it looks like to cultivate the empathy and curiosity that will help your team respond well to interrogating those shortcuts.

The one safe assumption is that you don’t know everything.

Prickly pear cactus, a common plant where I grew up, but in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris.
Desert plants growing in an unexpected place: the Jardin des Plantes in Paris

Content warning: this post contains a discussion of racially motivated violence and murder.

This week we’re continuing the series on anti-racist management practices and laying the groundwork for diverse, equitable teams. If you haven’t yet read the previous posts in this series, this one should still be actionable, but I do recommend going back and reading the previous two.

Assume you don’t know how your team is impacted by external events.

I’ve said it before on this blog, and I’m sure I’ll say it again: you don’t know the whole story behind your reports’ work or what they’re bringing to the table. Even in a close working relationship, there are going to be times when your report is affected by events in the news or in their own life that you aren’t aware of. Your job as a manager is to create the environment that makes it feel possible – if not comfortable – for them to tell you when those events are impacting their ability to work effectively.

I’ll take myself as an example. I’m generally seen as a cisgender white woman, with all the privileges that perceived identity entails. I’ve lived in New England for nearly my entire adult life. Very little of my visible circumstances would show you that I grew up in southern New Mexico, near the border, that I’m biracial, that issues of immigration centered on the Mexican border are deeply personal and immediate to me. I’m generally pretty vocal about issues that I care about, but immigrants’ rights feel so personal to me that I often don’t talk about them except with my closest friends and family. So, when there’s a vigilante shooting targeting Hispanic and Latinx people in El Paso, Texas, as there was in August of 2019, it might not seem obvious that I would feel personally impacted.

How does that connect to work? Well, a less aware manager than I had at the time (thanks, Michelle!) might have seen that I was distracted and assumed that it meant I was not dedicated to my job. Maybe they would have written me up for mistakes I made while trying to focus through grief. Maybe they would demand a note from my therapist or my doctor if I asked to take a mental health day to process and attend a local vigil, introducing logistical hurdles that would preclude the effectiveness of the time off. Over time, these things can add up to a serious impact on someone’s ability to maintain the working relationships required to keep and advance in a job.

Similarly, if you are not feeling personally affected, it might not seem that news of a Black person being killed by police in another state would impact your Black employees personally. But these news stories add up, and they add up to personal grief and an understanding that the physical distance doesn’t protect you or your loved ones from a similar encounter. In situations like we’re in now in the U.S., where the main focus of the news cycle and social media discussions is on systematized racial violence, it is worth understanding that your organization’s mission may not be able to stay at the top of your employees’ attention in that moment.

So how do you make room for understanding the impact of external events on your team members, and for giving them space while maintaining (or, dare I say, improving) the overall effectiveness of your team? A few places to get started:

  • Make a “focus check” a regular part of your routine one-on-one meetings with your direct reports, ideally weekly. It can be as simple as asking for a “red/yellow/green” status, where red is “major difficulty focusing,” yellow is “generally okay but there are significant distractions,” and green is “good to go.” They don’t need to provide details or tell you why if any one week is yellow, but if you see three or more weeks of yellow or they’re giving you red, that’s a signal to ask if they need help meeting a significant deadline or to take some time away from their desk. Importantly, make sure they know that the focus check is informational only: they aren’t going to get in trouble for having a red or yellow status, but there may be conversations about helping them get the resources they need if their work is being impacted.
  • Ensure that your policy for taking mental health days and the mental health resources your company offers are clear, easily accessible, and easy to execute when an employee needs them most: which is to say, when they are in crisis mode and can’t spare the focus or energy to go through a lot of logistical processes.
  • Be really clear on what kinds of deadlines are “must meet” and what the impact is of unmet deadlines. That helps you understand whether you need to re-delegate work (or take it on yourself) if an impacted team member needs to take time away, or whether they can reasonably set it aside and pick it back up when they’ve re-energized.
  • Ensure that no critical tasks are the sole responsibility of any one individual. Make it possible (if not easy) for another team member to take on a critical task if its usual owner can’t complete it.
  • Be on the lookout for “that’s not my job” attitudes when someone is asked to pick up a task for an impacted team member. Practice what you’ll say in response. Look for ways to share these expectations when you’re training new employees.

While I’m focused here on the example of the stress and distraction of racial injustice, any employee can find themselves under unusual stress at any moment, for any number of reasons. You don’t have to be a therapist for your reports in difficult moments (nor should you try), but creating systematic approaches like these to help identify and mitigate the impacts of that stress at work – where you, the manager, have power to do that – will improve the resilience and effectiveness of your team as a whole in the long run.

Laying the groundwork for diverse, equitable teams

A stone staircase leading up and away from the viewer in a garden

I talk to a lot of folks who aren’t sure where to start when it comes to making their teams more inclusive and equitable. Some treat it as a question to be tackled later, when their teams are more diverse. (Spoiler: Don’t put this off. If you create an inclusive environment, you will have a much better shot at achieving and sustaining diversity in the long term.)

Regardless of the current makeup of your team, you can start laying the groundwork to make your environment more inclusive and equitable, and more resilient in times of crisis. For my next several posts I’m going to be focused on different elements of that groundwork, starting with the “why”: the end goal of a thriving, diverse team.

Get clear on what diversity means and why it matters.

You’re probably familiar with the business case for diversity. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you also probably have a deep sense that diversity matters for ethical reasons, whether or not you’ve articulated what those reasons are. But if you’re a white person, a cisgender person, a man, able-bodied, or any/all of the above, those reasons may feel abstract to you, difficult to put into words or practice. Let’s dig in a bit more.

A quick search for “diversity and problem solving” will yield dozens of articles about how diverse teams perform better because they bring different approaches to solving the same problem. But – and I owe this framing to Nicole Sanchez, founder of Vaya Consulting the real benefit of diverse teams is that they can identify more problems worth solving, because they experience different kinds of problems.

This distinction is important: When the focus is on solving problems you’ve already identified, people who are timid about racial diversity will sometimes take “different approaches to problems” to mean “I just need people with different approaches to problem-solving, it doesn’t matter if they’re all white.” People who are timid about gender diversity will take it to mean “I just need different approaches to problem-solving; it doesn’t matter if they’re all cisgender men.” And so on. This is where the insidious tendency to focus on “diversity of thought” creeps in. You won’t see that phrase again in this blog.

In last week’s post I talked about getting to understand the impact of a given situation on your reports, and about the fact that we often are aware of the existence of the situation, but we may not see it as a problem if it doesn’t impact us in the same way that it impacts our reports. A diverse team in an equitable environment gives us a better chance to understand different impacts of familiar situations, making us more effective at achieving our mission. For that reason, when I talk about the value of diverse teams on this blog, here’s what I mean:

Racial diversity matters in the workplace because we live in a world where people experience different problems because of their race and particularly their skin color, and those problems disproportionately impact people’s ability to access professional and educational opportunities.

Gender diversity matters in the workplace because we live in a world where people experience different problems because of their gender, transgender or gender-nonconforming identity, and gender presentation, and those problems disproportionately impact people’s ability to access professional and educational opportunities. (Sensing a pattern?)

Disability matters in the workplace because we live in a world where people experience different problems because of mobility difficulty, sensory impairments, mental health, and learning disabilities, and those problems disproportionately impact people’s ability to access professional and educational opportunities. (Yup, it’s a pattern.)

A truly diverse, equitable team is one that is representative of these different experiences and understands that these problems exist, understands how they impact the people your organization exists to serve, and works to solve them.

It doesn’t matter if you have the smartest people in the world on your team; they won’t solve a problem if they don’t know it exists. You need to understand what the relevant problems are before you can address them. Learn from the people who are sharing their experiences within your team, online, in books, on podcasts. And if you don’t currently have visible diversity, don’t let the homogeneity of your current team stop you from understanding what it will take to support and benefit from a diverse team later on – more on that over the next few weeks.

On anti-racist management practices

What do I mean by anti-racist?

Anti-racism is the active opposition of the structures and actions that support and reflect racial inequities. On an individual level, that can mean using bystander intervention techniques when you see something happening that isn’t right or voting for candidates and policies that will address those inequities. It can mean talking to your family and friends – especially kids –about the racial inequities that exist around you and how to address them.

It also means examining all the systems that you’re part of and understanding how those systems’ processes have negatively impacted the most historically marginalized groups – in the US, that’s folks who are BIPOC (Black/Indigenous/People of Color). It means working to change those processes to counteract that negative impact.

Why is it a manager’s responsibility to be anti-racist?

First of all, because it’s everyone’s responsibility. More to the point, as a manager you hold structural power. This is especially true if you’re a senior leader in your company and can influence or create company policy, but it applies to anyone who’s in charge of hiring decisions, performance evaluations, giving feedback, and generally helping their team to be maximally effective at achieving their mission.

Holding structural power means you have an opportunity – and therefore the responsibility – to make sure that those structures are supporting your current and future employees equitably. (Remember: that is not the same as supporting all your employees equally.)

Anti-racism needs to be built into your everyday processes.

Moments like this one, where there’s a very high concentration of news and emotion about racial injustice, demand particular responses the way any crisis at work demands a particular response: leaders need to provide direct communication, clear expectations, and clearly outlined resources. For a jumpstart on that action, read Dr. Erin L. Thomas, head of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging at Upwork, on immediate actions to take; also read Lara Hogan, management coach with Wherewithall, on leading through a crisis for more on what that response can and should look like.

Having a ready crisis response is important, but it’s not enough to send an all-staff email or a social media post affirming that Black Lives Matter when those lives are at the highest points of risk. You are in a position to do more to mitigate that risk.

Over the next several weeks, the focus of this blog’s posts will be on laying the groundwork for an inclusive team. This is long term, sustained work that requires attention to equity issues to be part of your process, not just something that comes up occasionally when it feels like there’s time. And it’s worth it for more than just the feeling of doing the right thing: your team will be better and more effective, and you’ll be able to have more impact toward your mission. (More on that in next week’s post)

Start with self-reflection: identify your own gaps.

Whether you’re relatively new to understanding these challenges or you consider yourself a seasoned activist, there are likely to be gaps in your awareness that could inadvertently be impacting someone on your team.

There are a number of resources available to help you identify these gaps. One of my favorites is in Karen Catlin’s Better Allies: Everyday Actions to Create Inclusive, Engaging Workplaces: in the first chapter, Catlin provides a list of fifty potential workplace privileges designed to help leaders think about obstacles that others face that they may not have considered. She encourages readers to think carefully about the privilege statements that surprise them, or that they haven’t considered before.

Once you’ve identified those gaps, it’s time to do a little homework. Within your gap areas, research who is directly impacted and advocating for the needs of those groups (individuals and organizations). Follow them on social media, read their blogs and books, listen to their podcasts – whatever makes sense for you to raise your awareness of what their main challenges are and what changes they advocate. One particular recommendation for understanding the challenges faced by Black women in the workplace is The Memo by Minda Harts (she also has a podcast if that’s your jam).

Think about how these challenges manifest in your work environment, and consider which changes you can implement to mitigate those challenges without your underrepresented team members needing to be the ones to raise the issues (often a vulnerable and risky conversation for them).

This can be an overwhelming process, especially if you’re new to identity-related issues. Don’t be scared of it! You’re not required to be an expert on every possible issue your reports could encounter, and you won’t always know what identity-related challenges they face, but you are required to continually learn and improve.

Also, remember that the path of learning about identity issues is an ongoing cycle, one that you’ll revisit constantly throughout your career. Jennifer Brown describes this cycle in detail in her book How to Be an Inclusive Leader, which I recommend if you’re looking for a way to contextualize your place along the path to better inclusivity.

Stick with it.

You’re here because you understand that structural change takes real work. Don’t give up on it. If it helps to keep you on track, subscribe to these posts via email using the widget on the right side of the page (on a desktop) or below this post (on mobile) so that you get a weekly reminder of what you can do to keep up the momentum and effect long-lasting change.

Improving work relationships: the Empower Work coaching model

This week’s post is a collaboration with the Empower Work team – head to their website to learn more about their peer counseling services, to volunteer, or to donate.

With some time on my hands after joining the ranks of those impacted by COVID-19 layoffs, I decided to sign up as a volunteer peer counselor with Empower Work. I’d been following their efforts for some time and thought that the model showed promise as a way to help address many of the issues that I’ve seen my friends and colleagues encounter at work. Having been through the training program, I can confidently say that I was right.

Throughout the training process, volunteers are encouraged to bring what they’ve learned during training to their everyday lives, and I couldn’t agree more. Empower Work conversations are unique in a lot of ways: they’re anonymous, they’re completely about the person seeking help, and the peer counselor has only as much context about the situation as that person shares. This makes it absolutely essential to rely on a few skills in particular that are easily overlooked in our “real life” work relationships, but that can be especially valuable in a challenging conversation – say, one between a manager and their direct report.

While I’d recommend this for just about any work relationship, this kind of approach can be especially helpful for managers who are new to their team, or those who are starting to oversee the work of team members who are well established in their roles. Those folks don’t need their manager’s help learning to do their job – their manager may not even know how to do their job as well as they do – but they often need their manager’s help overcoming obstacles and getting through difficult situations. These are skills that can help the manager be an asset to their team, even when the details of the individual report’s work aren’t the manager’s best area of expertise.

Be aware that you don’t have the full context – and that’s okay.

By nature, an Empower Work peer counselor can’t possibly have the full context of the situation that a person texting in is facing. When we face difficult conversations with the people we work with, we have much more of the context, and can often establish a shared understanding of the situation before a difficult conversation happens… but it’s never complete.

As employees, it’s common to assume that our managers know everything about our work. As managers, it’s common to assume that what you see of your direct report is all that there is. When we make these assumptions, we lock ourselves into an idea of what any given problem is that may be wildly off base. That’s not because we were hopelessly wrong or are bad at understanding things! It’s because we never know the whole story. Ideally, it should be up to the manager to recognize when there isn’t enough context to make a decision or a plan, but there are times when an employee needs to take the reins (sometimes called “managing up”). 

Once you know that you don’t have the full context, how do you get enough to form an action plan? You…

Ask open-ended questions.

As your colleague describes a situation, you may identify moments where you think there’s more to be said. Listen to your instincts there; the phrase “can you say more about that?” is my go-to when I want them to elaborate, without inserting my interpretation of what they mean. I’ve often made a guess about what they mean before asking them to say more; asking in this way allows me to check my guess before it becomes an outright assumption.

Open-ended questions open possibilities for your colleague and that give them a chance to describe a situation in detail. The goal is to get more context, not drive advice or a solution. 

Aim to understand the impact of the issue on the person

Often, if someone is raising a problem to us that we weren’t previously aware of, it’s not because we didn’t know that the situation existed – it’s because we weren’t seeing it as a problem. That is to say, we didn’t understand the impact that the situation was having on our colleague. This is a key part of the context that we’re often missing.

It can be tough to recognize when we’re missing this part of the story. Some indicators that there’s more for you to understand about the impact on the person:

  • The question “what’s the big deal?” is sitting at the front of your brain. Find a way to let them answer that question earnestly, such as “how is this impacting you right now?”
  • Your colleague is from a marginalized identity group that you aren’t part of. Our identity shapes our experience in ways that may be difficult to communicate, so if they’re telling you about their experience, believe them.
  • You think you know what the impact is, but they haven’t said it. Say what you’re hearing to be at stake for them, and ask them how that lines up with what they’re feeling. 
  • You know how you would feel in their shoes, and are assuming they feel the same way. Let them have their own feelings!

Identify what feels important to them

As you learn more about the impact on the person, you’ll also be learning about the things that are important to them. This can help shape your approach to future conversations in ways that can make it easier to communicate candidly, fluidly, and with trust. Seeing and acknowledging what matters to your colleague is one of the clearest ways to demonstrate that they matter to you, which will bolster your team’s trust in the long run.

Empower Work volunteers are trained to use these skills and more to suss out what’s important to the person connecting for support, understand what the impact of their situation is, and to identify the right moment to work with the person seeking help on achieving an outcome that works for them. As different as those conversations are from our day-to-day work relationships, they can share key approaches: Whether you’re in an anonymous, one-time conversation with a stranger or in your regular weekly one-on-one with your manager or direct report, being curious and ready to set aside assumptions about the other person’s context, values, and impact are critical to getting to the heart of just about any workplace issue.

Intentional culture

A bouquet of spring flowers viewed from above, against a white tabletop

Imagine it’s your first day on a new job. You’re excited about the role that you’ve taken on, you’re excited about the company – what you know about it so far, anyway – and you’re eager to get started.

How do you start to understand the culture of the organization? I’m not talking about the mission, vision, and values – although you should definitely also know what those are – but the concrete ways that those values play out (or don’t) in your relationships with your coworkers.

In a co-located space, you can rely on clues from the space around you, especially visual cues if you’re a sighted person and auditory cues if you’re a hearing person. Without consciously thinking about it, you can glean the answers to a lot of questions:

  • Is the unofficial team motto “work hard, play hard”?
  • Are people around you eating lunch at their desks or getting up to go outside for a walk?
  • Is there a lot of non-work “water cooler” chat?
  • Can you see the various office cliques that form around non-work conversations?
  • How are people dressed?
  • Are plans being made to spend time together outside of work? (Who is left out of those plans?)
  • When talking about work, are there a lot of silos and territorial approaches, or are projects approached more collaboratively and cross-functionally?

These are all cues about how we act and relate to one another that don’t exist if you’re working remotely (and, by the way, are a lot harder to pick up if you don’t have access to sight or sound, or if it’s difficult for you to read social cues for whatever reason). Often, we pick these kinds of things up organically, by observing how our more established coworkers interact with each other (and, if they are especially nice or have a good onboarding protocol, how they interact with us).

When we’re new to a remote environment, whether we’re used to physically working together in person or not, we have to build up those elements of culture intentionally as if we were asking those questions for the first time. Left to our own devices, remotely, most of us won’t initiate a conversation that isn’t directly relevant to work, so we lose some of the connections that we establish with co-located colleagues that way; plus, in work-related conversations, we have to learn how to convey our intended tone without always relying on in-person social cues.

As a manager, it’s important to ask yourself: how do you think questions like the ones I’ve framed above should be answered on your team? What are the answers to those questions that best reflect your company’s core values? Then, make that answer explicit and work with your team to figure out the best ways to enable it to happen. Some considerations that might come up:

  • How will you approach scheduling in a remote environment?
  • What channels work best for which types of communication?
  • Can you identify cliques that already exist and what impact they’re having on who has power and influence at work? (I promise there are cliques influencing power at work, and if you’re not thinking about who’s in them and why, they are very likely to leave behind your colleagues from minoritized and underrepresented backgrounds.)
  • How can you provide intentional space for non-work conversation in meetings that you run?

It will feel forced and awkward at first to do things like announce in your chat app that you’re going to lunch or stepping away to take care of your family: you are forming new habits, and if new habits were easy to form, we would all have impeccable flossing routines. Be candid about the fact that it feels forced and awkward, and encourage your team to let you know (maybe by means of an anonymous form they can fill out) if “forced and awkward” starts to cross a line into “uncomfortable and invasive.”

I’m not the first to observe that remote management requires a level of intentionality and focused communication that’s easy to let happen naturally in a co-located context. In this article by Juan Pablo Buriticá, and Katie Womersley, Buriticá writes “Remote teamwork doesn’t happen by accident, but through deliberate systems and practices around communication, coordination, collaboration, organization, operations, and culture.” Those deliberate systems and practices, I’d argue, are worth your time to create even if you think you’ll be fully co-located post-quarantine.

Establishing a culture that’s intentional, explicit, and focused on your core values is critical to the success of a remote team. When applied to co-located teams, it helps to ensure that the culture that develops among your staff is aligned with the values you want your organization to reflect and the mission you want to achieve. Even if your organization is entirely co-located, you shouldn’t be relying on teamwork happening by accident; instead, I encourage you to consider the ways you’ll do things now that you don’t get to rely on happenstance.

Receiving difficult feedback from your team

Looking up at a pair of joshua trees

Last week we looked at a framework for delivering feedback with clarity and equity. Now let’s examine the other side of the coin and talk about one of the toughest kinds of work conversation: when a report needs to tell you about something you’re doing (or not doing) that’s having a negative impact on the team.

When your team members tell you candidly about things that you need to improve personally, it’s important for you to model the way you want constructive feedback to be received. Often, the first time a team member gives you this kind of feedback, they’re feeling pretty vulnerable; they might trust you generally, but don’t know how you’re going to react to this, so being candid about what needs to change can feel like a professional or personal risk. You want them to feel supported in that vulnerability, and for them to understand that this was a risk worth taking.

My own mantra about this is “don’t take it personally; do take it seriously.” I even repeat this to myself before responding to criticism. This is easy to say, but it’s very difficult not to take feedback about your work personally. As I’ve talked about before on this blog, we live in a work culture where our personal – even moral – value is often equated with how much we work, and how hard we work. This is harmful for a number of reasons. For one, it makes it difficult to separate your fundamental worth as a person from your need to improve at some particular task or your need to pay more attention to some particular thing. That may sound overstated, but in many cases it’s what it feels like to receive negative feedback at work.

To help keep those feelings from getting the best of you during the conversation, I find it useful to return to start thinking about it in terms of the feedback structure we talked about in the last post. When you’re on the receiving end of critical feedback from your direct reports, you have an opportunity to reinforce your feedback structure, and to use it to help establish the parameters for how this difficult conversation proceeds. Just as you would try to do when delivering difficult feedback, you want your report to describe what the behavior they’ve seen is, tell you what the impact of the behavior is on them/their teammates, and if they’re clear on what they’d like to have happen in order to resolve the issue, make a request.

If you don’t fully understand the behavior they’re describing, its impact, and the request that’s being made of you, ask clarifying questions once your report seems done sharing what they’ve had to say. Practice approaching your questions from a place of curiosity instead of defensiveness. Framing them with “help me understand…” or “can you say more about…” can remind you of the tone you want to set and help you focus on the end goal of the conversation, which is identifying the areas in which you need to improve. Asking these questions before offering any reasons or justifications for your actions can also help reduce real or perceived feelings of defensiveness. If it feels appropriate, go ahead and offer context when you’ve demonstrated that you understand the impact of your actions, particularly if your report is asking you to change behavior that needs to remain in place for a specific reason.

Receiving difficult feedback about someone else

If you have more than one direct report, it’s also important to encourage candid communication among your team members, and to understand when it’s important for you to step in during a potential conflict. If Colleague A comes to you with a concern about the behavior or work of Colleague B, there are a couple of questions for you to consider:

• Are you the right person to deliver this feedback to Colleague B? Sometimes, receiving difficult feedback from a third party can trigger feelings of defensiveness – the person receiving the feedback ends up focusing on “why didn’t A just tell me themselves?” rather than on the behavior they need to adjust.

• Is this feedback really for Colleague B, or is it for you? It may be the case that your team members don’t have accurate expectations around each other’s job responsibilities, and it’s your job to help make that clear.

If you think the feedback is something that Colleague B needs to hear, and that Colleague A could reasonably/safely approach B about it directly, go ahead and ask: “is that something you’d feel comfortable talking to B about directly?” Often, the answer will be yes, and the report may have come to you because they were unsure about protocol or worried about overstepping boundaries. Make it clear that even though you’re encouraging them to have that conversation, it’s good that they brought the concern to you, because sometimes that feedback really is for you and not the other person.

In many cases, Colleague A may just need to hear a little encouragement and permission to provide that direct feedback to Colleague B. Remind them of your feedback structure as a way to guide them through the conversation; if they haven’t brought the concern to you already formulated in terms of behavior-impact-question/request, work though the structure with them to make sure they can do that before sending them off to talk to Colleague B.

If the person reporting the behavior wouldn’t feel comfortable talking about it directly with their colleague, you’ve got a little more digging to do. In this kind of situation, the person reporting the issue to you is not responsible for coming up with a specific request for how the issue gets addressed. You need them to tell you about the behavior and its impact; following the rest of the feedback process is your responsibility.

If the issue is more along the lines of a serious concern about the individual’s job performance, you’re likely the right person to handle the feedback conversation. If at all possible, keep the name/role of the person who reported the behavior confidential; if you can’t reasonably provide the feedback while maintaining confidentiality with Colleague A, make sure to tell A that before you talk with Colleague B.

Maintaining your curiosity and your commitment to using consistent, structured feedback when you’re on the receiving end will help build trust with your team. You’ll need that trust to get through the current moment of uncertainty, and it will serve you well as the world continues to change in unexpected and unpredictable ways.

Note: In situations where the behavior being reported is harassment, or potentially illegal, you may need to rope in human resources, your board, or another oversight authority (up to and including your organization’s legal counsel, your local or state employment commission, or if you’re in the U.S., the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, depending on the severity of the issue) to identify next steps. If you’re not sure about your situation or what the right course of action is, WorkplaceFairness.org may be a good place to start learning more.

Delivering feedback with clarity and equity

I don’t think I need to lecture you on why clarity is important here in May of 2020; we’re all starved for it and are looking for it in whatever corners of our lives we can. What I want to do is call out a couple of ways that you can use an everyday manager process – providing feedback – in a way that improves clarity and helps your team operate more equitably.

Provide structured feedback

Providing corrective feedback is one of the skills that’s most important to develop as a manager, and it’s also one of the scariest for a lot of people, because it can feel like initiating conflict. It’s easy to convince ourselves that we don’t really need to tell people explicitly when they’ve done something that isn’t right or has caused problems; we may think “oh, I’m sure they know what went wrong and it won’t happen again.” We may think “I don’t have the full picture here, so I’ll just keep quiet rather than jump in where I don’t belong.” We may worry that the recipient will take the feedback personally. If we’re a member of a privileged identity group relative to the direct report, such as a white person providing feedback to a person of color, we may think “I don’t want them to think that I’m holding them to a different standard because of their race, so I won’t say anything.” Any of these thoughts can hold us back from doing the right thing.

One of the reasons corrective feedback is so scary is that we often aren’t sure how to say it in such a way that it will have the intended effect: allowing the person receiving the feedback to improve their work, while maintaining a sense of proportion about the impact of the mistake or errant approach. As author and management coach Lara Hogan puts it in her book Resilient Management, “[the] best feedback is specific, actionable, and delivered in a way that ensures the receiver can actually absorb it.” That last bit – ensuring the receiver can actually absorb it – can involve a number of different factors, including how quickly you deliver the feedback relative to the occurrence of the behavior, how emotional you feel about the behavior, the severity and scope of the behavior’s impact, and the broader context of your report’s general standing in relation to their job – if they’re new or already having trouble at work, a more minor mistake might feel like a big deal.

Having a consistent structure for delivering feedback, and providing feedback regularly, helps to avoid the pitfalls of conflict avoidance and unequitable approaches to criticism at work. I try to use a method that combines the one Hogan outlines in her book with the one outlined in Managing to Change the World by Alison Green and Jerry Hauser. By the way, this works for positive feedback too:

  • Decide on the timing for the feedback. Is it urgent enough that your colleague needs to be made aware of it immediately? If so, reach out to them via chat or email first to say “Hi, let’s talk about X, because we need to make a plan – can you meet me in a video chat at Y time?” If it doesn’t require immediate attention to fix, could it wait until your next scheduled one-on-one so that you can integrate it into a consistent pattern of providing feedback? If so, add it to your shared agenda (which you’ve got, right?) so that they know to expect the conversation.
  • Describe the behavior – stick to what you’ve seen occur, and avoid making assumptions or conjectures about why the behavior is happening. If you’re giving feedback about a pattern of behavior, have concrete examples of recent instances to refer to.
  • Share the impact of the behavior – wherever possible, tying the impact to the goals that you’ve already set with the team and the individual, if not back to the mission of your organization as a whole.
  • Request/recommendation and/or question – if there’s a specific action that you need to happen in order to rectify the issue, ask for it. Regardless, ask open-ended questions to make sure that you understand the context around what happened. Sometimes it’s appropriate to let your direct report come up with the next best action, but the question part is critical to establishing trust with them. Assume that you don’t have the full picture (you don’t!), and that there may be factors that you weren’t aware of causing the behavior or preventing the report from fulfilling the request that you’re making.

In addition to considering the best way to deliver the feedback so that the recipient is prepared to receive it, you may also need to think about how you’ll prepare to receive their response. If you’re feeling especially emotional – particularly if you’re feeling angry or frustrated – it may be worth giving yourself a bit of time to distance yourself from the immediacy of the event before discussing it with your direct report, so that you can be prepared to take their perspective into account and so that the meeting can stay focused on identifying what your report needs to produce the desired outcome, not on their fear of your feelings.

Use the feedback structure for everyone

I mentioned earlier that managers who are of privileged identity groups relative to their reports can sometimes be wary of providing feedback because of a fear of being seen as racist, sexist, etc. This fear harms both parties.

Not only does withholding feedback prevent your team from improving at its ability to achieve your mission, failing to give your underrepresented colleagues feedback that can help them grow and develop is a surefire way to keep them from achieving their growth potential and perpetuate the cycle that keeps underrepresented people out of positions of leadership and power. Withholding critical feedback sabotages their growth, and it is incumbent on you, their manager, not to do that.

Conversely, you might be a member of an underrepresented group relative to your direct report, such as a woman of color giving feedback to a white, cisgender man. In that case, you may be concerned about how to deliver the feedback in such a way as to ensure that you’ll be taken seriously. Holding to a consistent feedback structure like the one outlined above – maybe even making it a written company policy – can help you ground that feedback conversation in the impact to the organization, making it less “about you” and how seriously anyone takes you personally, and more about the team as a whole.

By keeping your feedback about the behavior, not the person, by using the same structure for corrective and positive feedback, and by making both part of a routine that everyone who reports to you can come to expect, you’ll be able to impart a little corner of clarity into your colleagues’ lives, and to do it in a way that supports equitable development across the team.