Leaders Can’t Shy Away from Sensitive Topics, Even When It’s Awkward

Executive Summary

We are reckoning with difficult and emotional issues in our society — sexual harassment, racism, and deep political divides — that don’t get checked at the office door. We shouldn’t avoid having conversations about these issues at work, but we often do. If we really drill down on what holds us back, it usually comes down to fear. We fear looking stupid. We fear not saying the perfect thing. We fear how awkward the conversation will be. However, if done with genuine humility and the intent to seek true understanding, an awkward conversation can be one of the best ways to deepen relationships. And staying silent is actually the worst option.

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Jorg Greuel/Getty Images

We are living in times when it’s increasingly difficult — if not impossible — to go into the office and leave what’s going on outside behind. We are reckoning with difficult and emotional issues in our society — sexual harassment, racism, and deep political divides — that don’t get checked at the door. We are only human; it’s impossible to think we can come to work and not continue to feel angry, hurt, or disappointed by issues that don’t originate with our companies or our colleagues.

As the dean of a business school, I have many conversations with business leaders who are telling me they feel increasingly challenged by how outside issues are affecting their team members. For many people, topics involving politics or social issues have been considered taboo at work. How do you handle them? What if you say the wrong thing? What if you sound stupid? What if you offend someone? What if it’s awkward? After all, as the old maxim goes, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”

When it comes to the context we live in today, I respectfully disagree and offer this humble piece of advice: Talk. There is a danger in remaining silent. In the absence of conversation, people make assumptions. They may assume you don’t care or that you agree with a viewpoint that makes them feel marginalized. They may make assumptions about who you are or that you aren’t acting with positive intent.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had recently with WNBA President Lisa Borders that illustrates the peril of silence. We were discussing race relations in the United States. Lisa’s take is that we are in such a bad place because we passed legislation 50 years ago, and then lots of us stopped talking about the problem. As Lisa says, “If you didn’t clean the gutters on your house for five years they wouldn’t control the rainwater. They might even fall off your house. So what makes you think we could pass a law, not pay attention for 50 years, and not expect our society to devolve into chaos? It makes perfect sense where we are.” It makes sense to me as well. Silence can make the problem worse.

If we really drill down on what holds us back from having these conversations it usually comes down to fear. We fear looking stupid. We fear not saying the perfect thing. We fear how awkward the conversation will be. However, if done with genuine humility and the intent to seek true understanding, an awkward conversation can be one of the best ways to deepen relationships.

I’ll give you a personal example. I wanted to hire an extremely talented faculty member away from a peer business school a few years ago. She is a top-notch researcher and teacher who also happens to be a black woman. I planned a trip to go see her in hopes I could sway her in-person to make the move to Duke. However, as the trip approached, I became increasingly anxious. I wanted to make sure that this professor didn’t think I wanted her to join us solely because of her race and gender.

I decided to consult a trusted colleague who also happens to be a black woman. She tells it like she sees it and I knew she’d be honest with me. Although, I have to admit I definitely felt awkward broaching the subject. Here’s how that conversation went:

Me: “I really want to hire this woman regardless of the color of her skin, but the fact that she is a black women is also appealing to me as I strongly believe in the value of diversity. However, I don’t want her to think I want to hire her just because of her race and gender. What should I do?”

Colleague: “Get over yourself. Tell her what you just told me.”

I had no counter to my colleague’s advice, other than the conversation would make me uncomfortable. So I did what she suggested. I got over myself and had the conversation with the woman I was trying to recruit. Surprisingly, it wasn’t actually awkward. We spoke openly and I believe we both felt better about having addressed what could have been an elephant in the room.

It takes humility to have these conversations. You must be willing to be vulnerable. You need to have trust to really engage in productive dialogue. You must also get permission from the other person. You can say something like, “I’m not sure how to say this, but I feel like we need to talk about this. Is that OK?” Or, “I realize this is awkward, but I truly want to understand more about how you are feeling. Would you be comfortable talking about this?”

One of our alumni shared a powerful example of this approach recently. A member of his team is gender ambiguous. Our alumnus wasn’t sure how to appropriately interact with his colleague and was worried about offending the individual. He approached the person and asked permission to have an awkward conversation and receive reverse mentoring from his team member. The result was that our alumnus became educated about what it meant to be gender ambiguous and also got to know his colleague as a person. Their relationship became stronger and as a result the work they were able to produce as a team was even better. By showing vulnerability and a commitment to making sure his colleague felt truly embraced and comfortable, our alumnus was able to forge a relationship that encouraged a team member to truly be authentic and thus give their individual best to the team.

I love that story as it illustrates how these conversations can be so powerful at a human level. It’s easy during such polarized times to retreat into silos and not address difference or individual feelings. It’s easy to remain silent and subscribe to the argument the office is no place for dialogue beyond the business issue at hand. However, we must be willing to embrace the awkward to develop the capability to have open and honest conversations about divisive or personal issues that are so important — or risk having these issues impact our employees and our business in negative ways.

Asking permission to be awkward and encouraging honesty is the only way we can come to a common understanding in such challenging times — even at work.

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