Previously published on Forbes
There is so much happening in our world right now. First, of course, is the pandemic. The numbers keep spiking and, along with them, a second wave of shutdowns. Working from home and mask-wearing are now part of our everyday experience. I don’t even have to think about wearing my mask anymore; putting it on is baked into my routine and memory. I wear it not for myself but out of consideration for others.
There’s also the Black Lives Matter movement, which has gained significant momentum. And to me, its impact is even broader — it’s a movement about human dignity, empathy and courage. Like the #MeToo movement that was launched in late 2017, I hope this momentum carries us to higher ground. I hope that we learn how to become better humans for other humans. This is important work for each and every one of us.
I thought about all of this earlier today when I was on a call with one of our team members who focuses on diversity, equity and inclusion. Colleen Yamaguchi shared that what she does in her work with clients is to create cultures of empathy, humility, caring and courage.
This is difficult work, and it requires “cultural humility.” Humility is defined as “a modest view of one's own importance.” To do the work of creating greater diversity, equity and inclusion in your organization, you may have to access your own humility. And that means you’ll have to admit that you do not know it all and that your way is not always the right way. It also means you’ll have to show you care about and include people who are very different from you.
Every one of us has a painful experience we can point to from our childhood or early adulthood where we were excluded — where it was clear we did not belong. I remember my first job out of college and my boss, Jeanine, who didn’t value me. She mostly ignored me, but when she did engage with me, her behavior implied that she presumed I was too young to contribute anything worth listening to. One time we traveled together to a client meeting, and as we walked through the airport in Chicago, she walked four paces ahead of me. I had to practically trot to keep up with her. Her pace communicated that I couldn’t keep up. And that she didn’t care.
Jeanine was a bad boss. But you couldn’t tell her that. She knew it all — in her mind, at least. Her actions made it clear that it wasn’t safe to speak up or bring my full self to work. As a result, she missed out on the full contributions I and plenty of others like me could have brought to the table.
Creating an Equitable Environment is Your Job
As a leader, you’re responsible for creating an environment of safety for your people at work. What you do and say makes it either safe for them to show up and fully be themselves or it communicates that they must be guarded and cautious around you. Your job is to create a work environment where every person on your team knows that it’s OK for them to bring their concerns, their strengths, their vulnerabilities and their creativity. Trust me, you want this. And it’s exactly why you ought to work hard to show you care. It’s how your people will know that you have their back and that you will stand by them.
Here are three ways you can show your team that you care:
1. Demonstrate cultural humility. Build a team culture where people are dedicated to learning and unlearning and making mistakes and saying sorry. One excellent way to do it is to share your own learnings and goof-ups and foibles. You don’t always have to have your act together.
Read and learn about racism. Ask questions and genuinely listen to others who are different from you. When you stop having all the answers, you’ll find that you become the one who has all of the questions.
2. Invite the quiet ones to speak up. You can’t expect everyone to adapt and adjust to the way the dominant group does things. Colleen shared a story from her experience as the only woman of color on a team full of mostly white male lawyers. The culture at the firm was one of competition and clamoring for air-time and attention. She wasn’t going to shout to be heard. So she stayed quiet.
But because her perspective was valued, one colleague would make a point to stop the arguing and shouting during meetings and ask her what she thought. He would invite her contribution. And people listened when she spoke. That communicated to Colleen that the team cared about her and what she had to say.
3. Get personal. Show interest in people’s lives. Ask questions and really listen. Remember important information such as birthdays, anniversary dates, the names of family members, important events in the lives of your team. Write them down if that helps. But above all, make a personal connection with every member of your team.
Make a point to learn something new about someone every day. Meet all new team members as they come on board. And if all of this puts you outside your comfort zone, that’s OK. Stretch yourself and do it anyway. The end result will be a more engaged team.
Showing your team you care during the deep disruption of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement doesn’t have to add a bunch to your plate. But it does have to be a priority in your days. Start small and learn as you go. Your team will thrive as a result.