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What we say, what we do, and how people feel

| April 6, 2021

by David Sweetman

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is by Dr. David Sweetman, MOR Associates Leadership Coach and Consultant.  David may be reached at [email protected].]
Last week I had the opportunity to facilitate some dialog with undergraduate students regarding the large increase in racism against members of our Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community over the past year.  It was a rich and constructive dialog I felt could also benefit this community as a Tuesday Reading.
To begin, let us consider this story: I received a random email message from someone I don’t know telling me to go back to China, blaming me for Chinese politics, calling Chinese “heartless robots” and telling me America doesn’t need me to be part of the workforce.
This heartbreaking story is not isolated.  It is one of over 3,800 such reports logged by over the past year.  While the example above is hurtful, this particular incident is also far tamer than many other occurrences, which include emotional as well as physical harm, and even death.  The significant rise in racist acts against the AAPI community is deeply troubling.  Our concern and our support is with those of us who have been both directly and indirectly impacted. 
As leaders, what can we do to rise to the occasion in times such as this?  The core of our response is to create inclusive environments where people experience belonging and thrive in doing their best work, where our diverse backgrounds are appreciated, and where empathy is woven into the fabric of our culture.  There are many ways to implement each of these important ideas.  Here are some thoughts to consider:
Words matter.  Consider the written and spoken words you use to make sense of the complex world around us.  Are they words of blame, attributing failures and shortcomings to others?  This could include other individuals, other teams, other organizations, or even other social groups.  This could be as big as the labeling of COVID-19 by a specific country, a politically-charged notion which has led to the recent increase in racism against the AAPI community.  This could also be much more localized in our organizations through choosing to attribute challenges to another team or role, rather than confronting those challenges together as an organization.  Such us-versus-them sensemaking builds walls and silos.
Let us instead build inclusion across diverse teams or social groups.  In place of words of blame, consider words of appreciation and look at how people are striving to contribute.  To be clear though, this does not mean avoiding difficult conversations or not confronting challenges.  Rather, this means respectfully working together to solve problems, not to blame our problems on others.
Actions speak louder than words.  While words matter, as leaders people also pay more attention to what we do.  If we expect inclusive behavior, we must model that behavior.  This comes down to two fundamental questions: how do we spend our time?  And, as a leader, how do we expect others to spend their time?  Do we spend our time surrounded by people who “look like us”, who work in similar roles, or who work in the same team?  While the in-group identity of any particular team can strengthen the cohesion and productivity of the team, that productivity can wane when it is at the expense of connection with other groups.  How are we spending our time in ways that build relationships and build people up across our organization?  How are we leveraging the rich diversity of our collective experiences and perspective in accomplishing our shared goals?
In addition to the more proactive actions above in furthering the belonging and thriving of our teams, there are also the actions that occur in response to the world around us.  As an organization and as an individual leader, what do we do when we learn of difficult situations and contexts that are potentially inhibiting some members of our team?  Such preoccupation can make even basic contributions difficult, let alone experiencing the ability to thrive.  Awareness and education is a great place to start, both for ourselves and others.  If you feel you could benefit from a more thorough and historic perspective on Anti-Asian hate in the US, here’s an excellent video.  Increasing awareness and education however are alone insufficient.  We must also create safe time and space for discussion that is oriented toward action that you and others can take as a team, organization, or community.
Empathy above all.  One of my favorite quotes is that attributed to the U.S. Civil Rights icon Maya Angelou: People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.  Empathy is our capacity to understand and share in another person’s feelings.  As leaders, our ability to be empathetic can in turn help us to anticipate how our actions will make others feel, and to choose actions appropriately.  Honing our empathy begins with being present in the moment when we are interacting.  When we’re engaging with someone, ensure we are free from distractions, including those many notifications that could pop-up on our screen while talking.  Consider not only what the person is saying, but also what they’re not saying: non-verbal cues, motivations behind sharing, and whether they are looking for you to listen and take action, or they simply want to be heard and appreciated.
Our words matter, our actions matter, and how we make others feel matters.  To excel as leaders we both need to be inclusive as well as strive for excellence through that inclusion.  Which of the above strategies could you apply over the next week?  Please make your day a leaderful one for you and your team,