5 Rules for Leading Inclusively in Tough Political Times

19 May 2020

5 Rules for Leading Inclusively in Tough Political Times

We all try our best to stay focused on our jobs. But it’s hard to deny the deep divisions that exist in our country and the world right now. The Supreme Court is about to get a new justice and people are squaring off on different sides of the abortion debate; crying children separated from their parents at the border are broadcast on every network; companies and workers are concerned about looming trade wars; the plague of gun violence and debates about how to address it continue; and protests are mounting around the globe. Meanwhile, people are crossing heretofore agreed-upon boundaries to angrily confront political figures whose political beliefs clash with their own at restaurants, stores, and elsewhere. Depending on the headline of the hour, some of us are overjoyed, some are devastated, and others are numb.

We used to pretend that we could keep the social, political, and cultural issues in the larger society out of the workplace. But feelings about our current state of affairs are present on every level of our organizations, whether or not they’re being expressed.

As an inclusion strategist, whenever I walk into a company these days, individuals from the C-suite on down ask me what I think companies committed to diversity and inclusion should be doing in these turbulent times. They fear that balkanization, vitriol, and separation—across race, class, gender, ethnicity, religion, political persuasion, or all of the above—are leaking into their workplace cultures and may negatively impact their institution’s values of inclusion, respect, openness, and cooperation.

Inclusive leaders know it’s part of their role to create a safe space where people can feel respected and heard no matter their views. But they find it’s gotten harder than ever. Meanwhile, they understand that their organization’s ability to attract and retain diverse perspectives and competencies to enhance innovation and stay relevant and competitive is at stake. They don’t want the strife outside their doors to interrupt team effectiveness and cause their employees more stress, making them less productive and increasing illness and absenteeism.

Sound familiar? If you’re a leader or manager, here are five rules of the road that will help you support yourself, your teams, and your organization during these rocky times.

1. Stay calm and keep rowing towards inclusion. The worst thing you can do right now is put your head down, succumb to fear, or go into denial. People are looking to you to help guide them through times like this. In your role, you know that there will always be bumps in the road. You’ve weathered them before and you will this time too. Remind your staff of core diversity and inclusion principles—self-awareness; respect for the individual; accepting, recognizing, and appreciating differences; and resisting bias, assumptions, and stereotypes—and reinforce your expectations that all employees act in accordance with these principles.

2. Stay open and curious. Start with yourself! Be aware of how you’re feeling. Convene conversations with your team and your leadership to see how they’re weathering the political storms on a personal level. Lean towards wanting to understand different points of view, and help the leaders at the very top of your organization understand that although political issues don’t necessarily “belong” in the workplace, they’ll always be there, like it or not. Better to embrace this than ignore it or cross your fingers and hope that it will go away.

3. Look for the learning opportunities. So many disagreements are based on a lack of information, or staying in our own isolated realms. The workplace may be the only place many of us can talk to and build authentic relationships with folks who are not like us. This is an ideal time for you and other leaders to demonstrate the kind of inclusive behavior you seek, and model the openness, active listening, and empathy it takes for people to stay connected and learn from each other. A facilitated “brown bag lunch” or town hall, a letter to your employees, or an address by senior leadership are all great ways to remind people that you value diverse voices and experiences and want to hear them. You might also consider inviting employee resource groups and outside speakers to share information in open, facilitated forums. Don’t decide on your own what should be discussed; solicit feedback from a diverse group of people on what would be most helpful.

4. Speak up and tool up. If you see bias, exclusion, or injustices either within or outside of your organization, find ways to speak up about them. Focus on attacking the problem rather than individuals, and do your best to refrain from using words that blame and shame. Make sure your managers know that they’re responsible for managing inclusively and interrupting biases when they see them, too—and make sure they have the skills to do it. Many leaders don’t understand the impact of political, social, and cultural issues on their staff, or the effect one off-color joke or insensitive term can have. Make sure you and all of your leaders and managers are trained in cultural competence, so you know how to recognize and interrupt bias, engage employees who may be having a difficult time, and be empathetic listeners and problem-solvers.

5. Set up safe and caring spaces. Ensure that you have the resources and spaces to support employees who may be grieving, traumatized, or just feeling unsettled by everything that’s going on. Encourage employees to take advantage of these opportunities and make sure their supervisors know that there will be no negative repercussions for them doing so.

What else? Reach out. Call, email, text, yell. (Preferably not at work on that last one!) Inclusion strategists like me want to hear how you’re doing, and how we can help.

There’s never been a more important time to be an inclusion advocate. What leaders say and how they behave sends the signal throughout the organization. To survive these times and emerge stronger and more unified, we need true leadership—the kind that resists fear, shame, blame, and separation, and promotes understanding, courage, and compassion.

This blog post is also available as a white paper. Click here to view or download.

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