Building trust at work: Focused transparency

Rocks and blue sky reflected in still, clear water at Joshua Tree National Park

Transparency, as a management principle, is complicated. In its simplest form, it’s just sharing information with your team. A policy of total transparency would mean that you hold no information back from your team, regardless of how small the detail and regardless of how much potential it has to change over time. It’s related to clarity and to trust, but there are important distinctions between all three.

I think of the difference between transparency and clarity as being essentially a matter of focus. To illustrate what I mean by that, think of a pair of prescription eyeglasses compared to a pair of fashion glasses with no prescription in the lenses. Both are transparent; only the prescription eyeglasses have a goal of increased clarity. Your goal as a manager is to be the right pair of prescription glasses for your team: some individuals will need a stronger prescription (more help focusing within the range of information that you’re being transparent about) and some will need less (just give them the facts, they’ll extrapolate for themselves).

Focused transparency is one of the raw materials needed to build an infrastructure of trust, because it helps a team understand what they’re trusting their manager to do. “I trust you” is a complete sentence, but in a work context, a more complete sentence is “I trust you to [verb].” That can be as general as “I trust you to act from our company’s core values” or as specific as “I trust you to catch any grammatical errors when reviewing my marketing copy,” but it’s always tied to some kind of action.

Building trust on a team requires that a manager is transparent about several categories of information:

What the team’s goals are

The statement you want from your team here is “I trust my manager to keep our focus in the right place.” If the team doesn’t know what its overall goals are, no one on the team can tell whether or not they are doing a good job, nor can they trust the direction that you’re leading them in (because they don’t know what direction that is). It’s the manager’s job to communicate the team’s goals, and to do it clearly and consistently. In a remote environment, having the goals recorded on a document that’s shared, easily accessible, and referenced often can help to bake this into an organization’s process. For example, if you have a shared meeting agenda, keep your high-level goals written at the top of the document and review them, along with any progress that has been made toward them, at the start of each team meeting. It’s also helpful to ensure that the team understands any major obstacles that need to be cleared in order for those goals to be met.

How each individual’s work ties back to the team’s overall goals

An individual who knows how their own work connects to the overall team goals will have an easier time trusting that their manager has a clear vision for their work. They’ll be able to trust that the manager is including them in the overall team strategy, and that the manager sees them as an integral part of the team. You can create this understanding by framing each new assignment with its potential impact on team goals (The Management Center has a great delegation guideline to help you make this framing a habit). Follow that up with regular check-ins in your one-on-one meetings with your direct reports, and reinforce it by bringing the team’s attention to high-impact individual accomplishments in a shared online channel or during team meetings.

How the team knows if their goals are being met

Now that the team goals are clear to everyone, being able to see for themselves when an overall team goal is being met is the next step in effective, transparent communication. Quantitative goals can be tracked through easily accessible (though maybe not easily editable!) reports in your team’s database, a well-placed pivot chart in a shared spreadsheet, or regular updates in a shared team channel. While it’s possible to track progress against a qualitative goal with regular team conversations, surveys, and individual check-ins, it’s worthwhile whenever possible to find quantitatively measurable/trackable questions that can act as proxies to indicate you’re reaching that goal (a “key result” in the “objective/key result” or OKR framework) that you can use to report on progress toward that goal over time. For more on OKRs, check out Christina Wodtke’s book Radical Focus.

How an individual’s work is evaluated

We’ve talked about the importance of a consistent feedback framework when you need an employee to change how they’re working; similarly important is a clear set of expectations around how an employee’s work is evaluated. We’ll dig into the value of clear evaluation rubrics in a future post.

When to limit transparency

There are also some forms of transparency that can negatively impact a team’s ability to work together. Just as important as sharing the information above, a manager sometimes needs to build trust on their team by keeping certain kinds of information confidential, only sharing with those need to know in order to do their jobs effectively:

  • Information about interpersonal conflicts
  • Personal or medical information a team member has disclosed because it’s affecting them at work
  • A team member’s status relative to any disciplinary action at work

There are also some areas where opinions and cultural norms vary widely regarding how transparent one should be at work, and whether you choose to be open about these will depend on your situation.

  • Salaries or salary ranges (my personal preference is to be transparent about salary ranges for every role, at a bare minimum)
  • Upcoming potential changes that aren’t confirmed, or not certain yet (in particular, this can negatively impact folks who have a tendency to be anxious about change – which is a lot of people! – without providing them with anything they can use to make a decision)

Although we’re rarely in a position to provide 100% transparency to our team, it’s incumbent upon us as managers to provide context to our teams to help them understand the relationship of their work to the effort of the team as a whole. Understanding that context helps team members understand what they’re trusting their colleagues to do, allowing them to reinforce and maintain that trust when they see the results of everyone’s work.

Building trust at work

That trust is an essential building block for functional and equitable teams might feel like it should go without saying. It’s the invisible infrastructure that enables clear, candid communication among team members, and like my beloved local subway system, it requires constant maintenance. A solid infrastructure of trust also supports you, the manager, in creating the space you need to do the work you’re uniquely situated for:

  • Setting goals for your team and communicating them clearly and constantly
  • Identifying and removing obstacles to your team’s effectiveness
  • Synthesizing your team’s work
  • Connecting the people with the right skills to handle different parts of a project
  • Helping your team recognize when they’ve achieved a goal together.

In other words, in order to do their best work, your team needs to trust that the goals you’re setting will get you where you’re collectively trying to go; that your primary motivation in making system changes is to enable them to be as effective as possible; that you have a clear understanding of the impact of their work (if not the details of how to do it) and what their skill sets are; and that you can both identify when a goal has been met and show that you value that effort.

As a leader in a mission-driven company, you’ve likely got a built-in scientific advantage in the drive to establish deeper trust in your team. Research in the neuroscience of trust has shown “that having a sense of purpose stimulates oxytocin production [in the brain], as does trust. Trust and purpose then mutually reinforce each other, providing a mechanism for extended oxytocin release, which produces happiness.” In a mission-driven organization, your team is more likely to be there because they share a commitment to your mission, which can provide a more direct sense of purpose… but you’ve still got work to do to keep that mutual reinforcement cycle humming along.

In an article for First Round, a website focused on resources for tech startups, Molly Graham describes the process of developing trust in your team as “giving away your Legos.” Often, new managers are in that position at least in part because they excelled at their work as an individual contributor. If you’re accustomed to getting praise for your work because of your ability to write an excellent blog post, provide outstanding direct customer service to your patrons at the box office, or capture the hearts and dollars of major donors, it can be difficult to adjust to a role in which the value of your work is measured in other people’s effectiveness. There’s a strong impulse to keep as much control over your team’s output as possible, often to the point of doing much of the work yourself. This can be effective behavior in the short term, but it isn’t sustainable. To expand your impact, you need to be able to give away your Legos – which requires you to build your infrastructure of trust.

At the same time that you’re developing trust in your team, you need your team to develop trust in you. In each direction, that trust is driven by transparency and reinforcement, and it’s demonstrated through autonomy and vulnerability; over the next several weeks, we’ll dig into each of those and how they play out in a management context.

Handling difficult conversations

A single orange rose

We’ve talked a bit about some of the reasons that corrective feedback conversations feel scary to people: we worry about how our feedback will be received, we worry that they’ll take it personally, we worry that we don’t have the full picture and therefore don’t have the “right” to deliver the feedback. Other kinds of difficult conversations carry their own fears: fear that we’ll undermine the other person’s trust in us, fear that we’ll lose credibility if we admit that we messed something up, fear that the information we have to share will negatively impact their lives… the list goes on. Adding the word “manager” to your title doesn’t mean you lose those fears, and it doesn’t mean you can ignore them, but it does mean that you don’t get to let the fear have the last word.

As an example of a difficult conversation that isn’t necessarily about corrective feedback, let’s talk about money. Most managers, especially in impact-driven organizations, will need to have a difficult conversation with a report about money within the first year or two of being a manager. Sometimes, that’s responding to a prospective hire who’s disappointed with the initial salary offer when you don’t have much flexibility; other times, it’s letting an existing employee know that the raise or promotion they requested isn’t going to happen.

Thinking about that kind of conversation might have already made you feel a little uncomfortable. That discomfort can make it really tempting, particularly when you’re dealing with an existing employee, to put the conversation off as long as possible. You might worry that telling your report that you weren’t able to get them the salary they’re looking for will make you look ineffective. You might even hope that the problem will resolve itself eventually.

Here’s how that problem will resolve itself if you don’t address it directly: your employee or prospective hire will get frustrated and lose faith in your ability to get things done. You will look ineffective. Not only that; you will be ineffective. Your report might start looking for other jobs, and your prospective hire will likely lose interest. It’s imperative that you, as a manager, initiate tough conversations when the need arises.

So how do you go about working through that discomfort and making the situation clear for your direct report?

There’s a common customer-service approach for times when a customer has asked for something you really can’t deliver: start by sharing what you can do for the customer to meet the same set of underlying needs, even if you can’t do the specific thing they’re requesting. I find it helpful to approach difficult conversations with the same framework: understand the set of needs that the employee is hoping to meet with a higher salary, and see if there are ways that you can help them meet those needs in another way.

You don’t have to guess at what those needs are, nor does your employee have to tell you specifically why they need more money; the end goal is “more money,” and that’s clear enough to make a plan. As you prepare for the conversation, it can be helpful to come up with a few ideas of how to make things work and be open to considering other ideas they might have. Think of some questions you can bring to the conversation (not all of these will be appropriate for every money conversation, and some of them are trickier than others, but they’re a start):

  • Do they need to build a certain skill set to be a good candidate for a promotion to something that’s in line with their salary needs?
  • Are there professional development opportunities like classes or conferences that you can help them identify/take advantage of at lower cost to the organization than the salary raise?
  • Would changing some of their responsibilities make their current salary feel fairer, or would that feel punitive?
  • Do they need a little more flex time to work on a side gig?
  • Are their personal growth goals better suited to opportunities outside your current organization?

As you ask these questions, be ready to apply your active listening skills so that you can fully understand the problem you’re trying to solve.

For the sake of clarity, it’s important to think about the first thing you say in the conversation; you don’t want them to shut down before you go into problem-solving mode. You could start the conversation with something like “I want to talk about the raise we discussed last week; while I can’t make the (full) raise happen, I’d like to talk about what we can do to make your compensation work for your needs – whether that’s an adjustment of hours, more flexibility, a different set of responsibilities, or something else that I haven’t thought of yet.”

If you’re still feeling apprehensive or fearful about the conversation, I’d encourage you to examine that fear and identify, as specifically as you can, what you’re afraid of. That’s not to say “there’s nothing to be scared of” but rather, “identify what you’re scared of, because that can help guide the way you approach the conversation.” If you’re afraid of not being clear, you can write down what you need to say ahead of time. If you’re afraid of seeming callous or “corporate” in delivering bad news related to money, practice the conversation with a friend, or better yet, a therapist. (They’re confidential and usually emotionally perceptive.)

I promise there will still be hard conversations. But you’ll be better equipped to feel in control of the situation if you can approach the conversation from a reliable framework, and from a problem-solving or problem-mitigation perspective. In fact, this isn’t really all that different from the feedback structure we talked about in an earlier post:

Initiating difficult conversationsInitiating corrective feedback
Clearly present the issue.State the behavior.
Be explicit about wanting to identify and solve for (or at least mitigate) the underlying problem.Discuss the impact of the behavior. (The impact is the underlying problem you’re trying to solve!)
Identify some ways you could use your existing resources to address the underlying problem.Identify some possible requests for future changes to the behavior.
Allow space for the other person to identify solutions you hadn’t thought of.Ask questions to gain additional context.

Perhaps more importantly, you’ll be better equipped to handle difficult conversations equitably for all the members of your diverse team, which in turn will lead to more equitable growth opportunities and increased effectiveness – in short, to a better team.

Ending the vague use of “potential”

It’s well-documented that people from underrepresented backgrounds are promoted at lower rates than white, cisgender men. The Kapor Center, for example, has gathered research on the impact of bias on advancement opportunities in the tech industry and beyond. Today I want to zero in on one factor that contributes to this lower promotion rate: the vaguely defined concept of “potential.”

It’s very common for hiring and promotion decisions to be based on someone’s perceived potential to be good at that job, rather than on past indications of performance. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing! It gives people an opportunity to grow into a new role that they might not have otherwise had. But in order for those decisions to be equitable, you need to clearly define what “potential” means for any given role. As I’ve written elsewhere, if it’s not carefully defined, the word “potential” can be a not-so-subtle stand-in for “reminds me of myself at that point in my career,” and that leads to promoting mostly people whose identity is close to your own. This leads to homogeneous leadership teams that are limited in their ability to identify problems that your organization should be solving, holding back both talented individuals and your organization as a whole.

Defining potential for a job means looking at the skills required for the role and being open and flexible about the way those skills could be developed. In particular, think about the “conventional” ways that job skills are often thought about as developing – often through expensive higher education or industry-specific experience that requires personal connections to establish. For example, if your most recent job posting for a particular role says that you require a Bachelor’s degree, ask yourself:

  • What is the specific skill or experience that the Bachelor’s degree signifies that relates to someone being qualified for this job?
  • Is there another way that skill or experience could be attained?
  • In what ways am I using the idea of a Bachelor’s degree as a shortcut for asking for the skill or experience I want from someone starting out in this role?
  • Can I reasonably ask for the skill or experience instead of the Bachelor’s degree?

Additionally, defining “potential” means thinking about what you’re prepared to train someone on and what you need them to already know, or be skilled at, coming into the role. Often, we write a job description with an eye toward what someone who is already succeeding in the role will be able to do. How important is it that the person be able to succeed at those things right away? Questions to ask yourself include:

  • What resources exist internally to help someone learn to do this role?
  • What industry resources exist outside our organization to help someone develop these skill sets?
  • How much time and money can I budget for training?
  • What do other roles in my organization require that would help someone succeed in this role?
  • What do I expect from someone in this role on their first day?
  • What do I expect from someone in this role after three months?
  • What do I expect from someone in this role after a year?

Having the answers to these questions will not only enable you to fairly assess a wider range of candidates – it will help you establish clear expectations and enable the person hired to be more effective in the role.

One more note on this: As a manager, you probably have a high degree of control over these things on your own team. You also have the power to advocate for your team members’ advancement into roles that you don’t personally manage. When you’re advocating for a colleague from an underrepresented background to advance into a role that someone else manages, talk to that manager about what they see as potential. Asking them these questions can help them see your colleague as a possibility where they might have previously dismissed them, creating space for a more equitable team to thrive.

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.