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Managing teams in times of political trauma — what to do, what to say to boost psychological safety

We talk a lot about creating an inclusive workplace culture. We attend workshops, watch webinars, bring in guest speakers, implement less bias-prone recruiting processes… but none of these matters if your direct manager sucks. 

People leave their managers, not their jobs. 

No matter how much the company says it cares about diversity and inclusion, if it fails to empower managers to actually act as inclusive leaders, change won’t happen. 

When we promise our teams to “bring their whole selves to work” — remember that this includes acknowledging how their lives are impacted by forces outside the office. And just another surface level “unconscious bias training” isn’t going to cut it. 

The Muslim ban, Charlottesville, trans military ban, police brutality and killings of black lives, the looming threat of DACA ending… there’s a lot of political trauma people are experiencing these days. 

Now, if you are feeling overwhelmed and depressed, it’s completely normal. You may even be thinking, “All of this is so terrible and sad. I need to turn off social media so I can function.” Do whatever you need to get temporary relief from the news — caring for yourself is important so that you can come back and engage productively. Key words here are “temporary,” “come back,” “engage.” Please don’t mistake self-care with apathy. Turning off social media for a couple of days so you can ground yourself before standing in solidarity with marginalized communities is not the same as choosing indefinite ignorance or eating sheet cake every night. 

If you are able to disengage and not think about these issues, recognize you have privilege. Many people who are directly or indirectly impacted do not have the option to “turn off.” 

We’ve all learned to enter the office pretending to “have it all together.” But the truth is, when your child is sick at home, when your roof is leaking, when you’re going through a terrible breakup, or when someone you love is diagnosed with cancer, we can’t “be there” 100%. Now, imagine these feelings piling up each time you see traumatic public news impacting various marginalized communities. Add to this pile of emotional shit the additional burden marginalized workforce feel to “cover” their whole selves at work.

Your diverse workforce is suffering. Today. Right now. 

If you are wondering whether your team is distracted or feeling less engaged at work because of current events, stop wondering. They are

And this is why it’s imperative for all people leaders to learn to hold space for their teams in political trauma. You never know who may be feeling completely distraught by what is happening in the world today. 

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had both individual contributors and well meaning managers tell me their internal dilemmas in light of recent political events: 

People Managers tell me:

  • “I feel like I should say something but I don’t know what to say.”
  • “I don’t want to open up a can of worms / pandora’s box”.
  • “I don’t want to alienate some people by talking about my political views.”
  • “I feel like talking about politics at work is inappropriate.”

Individual Contributors tell me: 

  • “My manager (or leadership / CEO) hasn’t said anything about ______. Do they even care?” 
  • “I feel like my office doesn’t even know what’s happening. No one’s talking about it. ”
  • “I want to talk about what’s happening, but I don’t know if it’s appropriate for me to bring it up. I’m scared I’ll be seen as too ‘political.’” 
  • “I feel alone in feeling depressed by everything that’s going on.” 

NEWSFLASH: Not talking about politics won’t stop people from thinking, feeling, or whispering it. 

Your team will remember your silence. Your team will also remember your compassion. Which one do you want them to remember? 

So what are managers supposed to do in times of ongoing political trauma? Here are some tips and actionable strategies. 

1) Acknowledge what is happening

It doesn’t take a lot for you to just name what is happening. Let your team know you’re paying attention and that you believe it’s important enough to acknowledge it. Don’t be afraid to share your emotions — vulnerability builds trust. 

Phrases you can use: 

  • “I want to acknowledge what is happening in our country…” 
  • “I am devastated by what happened over the weekend…”
  • “There’s a lot going on politically right now…” 

You might be thinking, “what if someone doesn’t agree with my beliefs?” Well, this is a real possibility. At some point, you have to make a conscious decision to take a stand by asking yourself: are you okay with your team thinking you don’t care or worse, that you condone what is happening? 

Remind yourself that we’re not talking about some nuanced tax policies or foreign affairs strategies right now — we’re talking about you taking a clear stance against obscene and direct attacks on marginalized communities rooted in racism, transphobia, Islamophobia, and other forms of oppression. 

2) Check-in with your team

Be proactive in checking in with your team and letting them know you care. Present yourself as a resource in case your team needs support. Leverage your existing communication channels to check in with your team.

Ways to check-in with your team: 

  • Do a group check-in in the beginning of your team meeting.
  • Check in with your direct report during your 1-on-1.
  • Send a team-wide email or chat. 
  • Schedule a team lunch, or coffee break.
  • Take a walk with your direct reports for your 1-on-1, or even as a team if your team is small enough, to get out of the office setting.

Phrases you can use:

  • Team meeting: “Let’s go around and do a quick check-in on how everyone is feeling. Name one emotion you’re feeling, and one thing we can do to support you this week.”
  • Team lunch: “How’s everyone feeling? How are you taking care of yourselves with everything that’s happening?”
  • Email / Slack: “In light of _______, I just want to check in with you all and let you know that I am here for you if you want to talk or need support. Schedule a meeting with me or come by to chat any time.”
  • Walk: “How about a walk outside of the office? With everything going on, I think we can use some fresh air and breathe.” 

3) Reduce or redistribute labor / emotional burden on your team

This is where your understanding of your organizational power and privilege as a manager comes in handy.

Immediately following a traumatic political event, consider reducing the labor burden on your team. You can do this in multiple different ways, depending on the business context. If you have the flexibility and power, allow folks to leave work early to dedicate time for self-care. Allow or encourage people to work remotely if needed. Ask your team how you can shift work deadlines or priorities for them. Involve your team in redistributing people’s workload collectively.

Phrases you can use:

  • “Would it be helpful if we pushed the deadline for ______ to next week?”
  • “Let’s revisit our priorities as a team: what are the most important things we need to get done this week? What can we punt to next week, when we may be more effective in achieving our goals?”

Take on additional emotional burden so your team members representing marginalized communities (e.g., people of color, trans people, etc.) don’t have to. This means you, as a person with more organizational power than your direct reports, should step in to educate or answer questions from employees in dominant groups (e.g., white, cis-gender, etc.) or intervening when you observe microaggressions

Note the dynamic may differ if you as the manager are impacted and need to offload labor or emotional burden — look for allies among your peers or superiors to support you. Remember that you need support, too. 

4) Care for your team as people, not just workers

This is an opportunity for you to be human and treat others like one. Genuinely care about your team’s well being. Half-decent managers should be doing this all the time, by the way.

Ways to care for your team’s well-being:

  • Share articles about self-care and hold your team accountable for practicing self-care.
  • Organize or participate in events showing your solidarity with communities impacted — do this as a team, or let your team know they can join you (e.g., volunteering, protest, phone-banking, etc.).
  • IMPORTANT: Some of your team members may seem distant or disengaged for some time. Recognize this is a valid self-care strategy. Respect their boundaries and ask what support looks like for them. Caring for people sometimes looks like giving people the space and boundaries they need. 

5) Host safe discussion spaces

Collaborate with other emotionally intelligent and inclusive leaders to form ad-hoc discussion circles. Send an invite to your teams or announce it more broadly so people not in your department can also join. It’s extremely important, though, to recognize safe discussion spaces take conscious planning and skillful facilitation. If not done well, you may end up causing more harm and lose control of the room to a few vocal, well-meaning but not-so-self-aware individuals. If you don’t know how to handle the “but isn’t that reverse-racism?” conversation, you’re probably not ready to host a discussion space. 

Tips for creating a safe discussion space:

  • Set clear goals and expectations for the space: why are you meeting? Is the space for venting, action planning, or something else? Communicate these expectations prior to the meeting.
  • Ensure the discussion space feels safe physically: go for a sound-proof conference room vs. open lunch area. Limit the number of people to a manageable size that feels intimate. 
  • Secure a skilled facilitator: ensure there’s a facilitator who knows how to work with different personalities, navigate through tension, and address tough questions. If you don’t have anyone who can fill this role, you may want to consider an external facilitator.
  • Set ground rules (aka “community agreements”) before discussing: these rules can include confidentiality, right to pass, speaking from “I” perspective, etc.
  • Depending on the discussion topic / context, you may want to consider having closed-group sessions for different identity groups. For example, if you want to create a safe space for healing dialogues after a traumatic event like Charlottesville, you may want to create two separate spaces, one for employees of color and another for white allies.

Again, I can’t stress enough the importance of learning how to do this well. You can cause more harm if you don’t do this thoughtfully. You’ve been warned. If you’re interested in hosting a facilitation training workshop for key leaders at your organization, contact Awaken.

6) Develop a formal response as a leadership team

This is some what of an “advanced” tip, given you may not have the right level of influence or power at your company. But for you brave souls, if you haven’t heard anything from your executive leadership team, make a suggestion to release a formal response. It doesn’t have to be an external statement — an internal memo of acknowledgement can go a long way. If you’re a part of the executive team, consider discussing with your CEO the impact of the leadership’s silence on the workforce. Get inspiration from other progressive companies making a public stance on important issues affecting their workforce. Even better if your company can put money where its mouth is.

What to say to your leadership:

  • “Have you seen the public statements released by companies XYZ? I think it would go a long way for us to do something similar, and let our employees know we care.”
  • “I’m feeling our teams are struggling with what’s happening politically. What can we do to acknowledge what’s happening and empower our managers to create a safe space for their teams?”

7) Get support for yourself

You can’t pour from an empty cup. You need to feel supported in order for you to provide support for your team. If you’re not whole yourself, your acts of service will feel performative and hollow. Do you have a workplace bestie you can confide in? Do you feel supported by your manager? What do you need to do to feel grounded and whole? 

How managers can feel supported:

  • Form an informal group of inclusive, socially conscious leaders. Meet regularly to brainstorm ideas to reduce bias-based harm in the workplace, share ideas on how to cultivate an inclusive team culture, and to lean on each other for support during challenging times.
  • Seek out external support groups or network of leaders committed to practicing inclusion. If you’re interested in being a part of Awaken’s Inclusive Leaders Circle, sign up here. You’re not alone in this journey!
  • Practice self-care! Create your own “self-care toolbox” — trust me, you’ll need this.

Practicing inclusion takes real work. Inclusion starts with every leader in the company making a conscious decision to practice courage and vulnerability. 

You don’t have to be a diversity and inclusion expert to be a great manager, but it takes a great manager to practice inclusion.

We’re living in an era where everyone is trying hard just to survive and resist completely breaking down any moment. As a people leader, you have an opportunity to allow for some breathing room for your team. 

Try out some of these tips and report back in comments. We’re rooting for you!

 

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About Michelle Kim

Michelle is an entrepreneur, activist, speaker, and a coach passionate about empowering individuals and organizations to create positive change. She is the co-founder of Awaken and owner of Michelle Kim Consulting.

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Ex-Google employee's "anti-diversity manifesto": Proof that today's D&I workshops are failing us

By now, you must have heard about the "anti-diversity" manifesto by (now a former) a Google employee that got published. You may also know that he was fired just a few days later for "perpetuating gender stereotypes."

While I applaud Google for prioritizing the need of women at the company and taking swift action, I'm also afraid this is yet another milestone for further polarizing the tech community (and probably the broader, divided nation) along the party line. The "free-speech" protecting right (or self-claimed "rationalists") vs. the scattered left. 

What's truly sad (but not shocking) about this whole situation is that this person, James Damore, a Havard educated, seemingly well-intentioned fella, had steadfast beliefs based on his complete misunderstanding of how "sexism" or "discrimination" actually work

And that's the problem with the way we talk about diversity and inclusion in the business world. 

People are learning about unconscious bias WITHOUT the foundational knowledge of the cycle of socialization

People are learning about microaggressions WITHOUT the context of power dynamics

People are learning about "diversity programs" WITHOUT true understanding of concepts such as privilege or allyship

People are learning about diversity-recruiting WITHOUT the awareness of structural and institutional injustices that impact the pipeline. 

People are learning about inclusion WITHOUT the exposure to exclusion.

We CANNOT talk about "D&I" without bringing in these decades-old, fundamental social justice concepts!!!

As a lifelong social justice activist who worked in grassroots activism prior to working in the for-profit sector, I feel the “D&I” conversations sometimes feel disparate / distilled down from what’s actually in play in our society.

Whenever I hear people throw around terms like "reverse -ism" or "reverse discrimination," I realize we need to take many steps back and start the conversation over and talk about core, fundamental sociology concepts such as power, privilege, and systemic oppression. But how many of us actually do? While I've seen an uptake in people wanting to be more active and socially conscious, I've also seen an equal, if not more, increase in people engaging in slacktivism in the form of mindless social media sharing, dragging people for public shaming purposes (or for their own political capital gain, because #clappingback gets you noticed) without any intention to call IN, or simply blaming without understanding these important concepts themselves.

Now I'm not saying the onus should be on the marginalized folks to do this labor. What I am saying, though, is that companies and people in positions of power, including those whose job it is to educate people on "diversity and inclusion" issues (many of them often white folks, ahem), have the obligation to make their programs and workshops actually effective in delivering real learning outcomes that bring positive change versus creating more harm or creating a culture of shame (vs. accountability). And if your company's in-house team is not equipped to do this, hire experienced people -- but do your homework in vetting the right people (like my team via Awaken, but really, there are many others), and try to hire folks from marginalized communities (black, brown, queer, women, trans) and those whose teachings are grounded in social justice. I always prefer non-corporate bred trainers when it comes to D&I stuff -- people who have done work at the grassroots level, who know how to hold space for various folks, navigate tension effectively, and educate people not at the expense of marginalized people in the room. Those are my types of peeps. 

James Damore's world view did not include some of the most basic, fundamental understanding of how our society operates. He had so much conviction in his own "logic, evidence-based" perspective, and no one seemed to have had made an impact on uncovering his blindspots. I'm truly saddened by this reality, but again, not at all surprised. I can't help but feel defeated in knowing this incident has caused even further divide among people who may actually care and want to do the right thing, but may not know how to, or have a misguided perspective on what is the right thing to do. Truly, I feel sad for all of us, because the truth is, we are all losing. 

So what is Google going to do now? Here's a list of 5 first steps that I HOPE to see: 

  1. Review all existing D&I training materials and ensure they get at the heart of the real issues, some concepts mentioned above
  2. Ensure folks are taught how to talk about uncomfortable topics -- get people to be really good at handling tough, uncomfortable conversations by learning effective communications skills (yes, we are still talking about communications skills) 
  3. Help people understand the difference between personal experiences vs. structural / systemic injustices 
  4. Build an accountability culture vs. blame / shame culture through educating folks on how to identify and communicate their needs and helping them practice listening to others' needs 
  5. Start demonstrating commitment at the leadership level -- do all of your leaders, including the board members, actually understand / prioritize the need to have some of these uncomfortable conversations? Or do they believe these programs are a marketing imperative? Ponder that. Then commit them to holding each other accountable and leading by example

We have so much work to do. Let's begin to engage in tough dialogues to bridge the widening gaps among us, and meet each other with compassion and criticality. I truly believe this is the only way for us to start healing collectively. 

Why I'm tired of "Diversity" Workshops

I always shuddered at the thought of building a services company. I had always envisioned starting my own company one day, perhaps a product company with rapidly growing recurring annual revenue and a kickass margin. Super scalable. All the sexy buzzwords, throw them in there, I wanted them.

Never did I imagine myself becoming a workshop provider (or a career coach, for that matter). 

Well, life happens. And like Oprah said, you just have to lean in to life.

Ever since I was a student, I wanted to start my own business. Not because I wanted to be “my own boss” or because I wanted to build the next billion dollar unicorn (btw, did you hear unicorns are falling?).

I wanted to build a company I can be proud of. A company with my values and principles deeply embedded throughout. I wanted to create an alternative reality. I wanted to build a company that:

  • Treats all people with respect and dignity
  • Is radically transparent
  • Pays people well unapologetically and equitably
  • Hires and rewards people with integrity, grit, and empathy
  • Fires jerks and bros (or don’t hire them to begin with)
  • Is truly diverse (not some “diversity of thought” bs)
  • Allows people to be their whole selves
  • Is unafraid to take a stand on political issues no matter how risky
  • Roots for the underdog
  • Wants to do good, for the sake of doing good, not for ROI
  • Cares about social justice

When I imagine my perfect “company,” I remember the time I co-led a queer student organization at UC Berkeley. We were made up of majority queer people of color, and had members from all identities and intersections. Our mission was to create an inclusive space for all queer people — folks of color, folks with disabilities, undocumented folks, truly.. all people on the margin who wanted to come together and build community, participate in developing youth leaders and empowering ourselves.

I thought I could one day achieve this vision by starting a sexy, scalable product company. Well, maybe I still could one day. But for now, I’m doing workshops.

So why did I decide to start a company providing “D&I” (Diversity & Inclusion) workshops?

I got tired.

I got tired of sitting in so-called “diversity workshops” that barely scratched the surface.

I got tired of seeing old white people dominate conversations around race and gender, “diversity,” and what it means to be an inclusive leader.

I got tired of corporate-bred D&I workshop facilitators (again, most of them old white people) diluting critical social justice concepts into palatable talking points for straight white men.

I got tired of seeing white, cis, hetero people never once feeling uncomfortable when being educated on D&I, but feeling absolved after having “checked the box.”

I got tired of seeing my friends and mentors not get paid for their social justice work. Being discounted to “soft skills” facilitators, not warriors, activists, and mission-critical educators.

I got tired of feeling the only reason why companies tolerated my outspokenness was because I was a high performer (and that I was a less threatening East Asian woman) and I had to continue to earn my right to call shit out .

I got tired of seeing companies using “Diversity and Inclusion” as marketing catchphrases to gain public validation, yet never wanting to dig deeper or put money where their mouth is.

I got tired of talking about metrics I didn’t care bout, I got tired of losing myself, I got tired of covering.

I got tired of doing extra emotional labor around D&I issues because no one else would.

I got tired of dealing with “brilliant jerks.”

I got tired of feeling like dying a slow death by a million paper cuts made by daily microaggressions.

I got tired of seeing my peers be mistreated.

I got tired of being let down by people.

I got tired of losing faith in humanity.

I got tired of never feeling free.

Every time I sat through a divershitty training (yeah I just made that up), I wished someone would come in and do a REAL workshop. Encourage REAL TALK. Make me and others feel uncomfortable, because without discomfort there is no real learning when it comes to understanding systemic and institutional oppression.

I wished someone would bring in critical social justice concepts into the workplace, and not be afraid to talk about structural racism, misogyny, and homophobia, and how unconscious bias stems from our deeply socialized identities that are perpetuated systematically.

I wished someone would actually name white privilege, misogyny, heterosexism, ableism, and gender binary. I wished someone would actually say the word queer or trans. I wished someone would acknowledge the mass incarceration and killings of black people by the criminal justice system.

When the time came when I no longer could stay in the toxic tech industry as an employee, I, along with thousands of women who have left before me, left.

So now I’m trying to make my distant dream and wishes a reality. I’m trying to unlearn the toxic shit I had to pick up in the corporate world, and bring back the old, authentic me. The old me who was unafraid to call shit out, who was passionate about building solidarity and coalition, who took risks and used privileges to provide access to others.

Awaken Team facilitating a workshop at General Assembly SF

Awaken Team facilitating a workshop at General Assembly SF

 

I’m rolling up my sleeves and applying everything I’ve learned from my social justice activism and surviving the corporate / tech world to redefine “D&I workshops.”

I’m working to bridge the gap between “Diversity and Inclusion” and social justice activism. I’m working my ass off to get well-deserving, non-corporate-bred folks paid.

In order to create change, we need to embrace discomfort. We need to create a compassionate space for uncomfortable dialogues, where we allow each other to fuck up, but also hold each other accountable. We need to acknowledge that change doesn’t happen overnight, but it can happen incrementally.

While I would never claim “D&I Workshops” will solve all your companies’ toxic culture problems, it can help begin the conversation. It’s a starting point.

There are so many amazing people trying to do different things to move the needle a smidge on creating a truly inclusive culture. And we need all of them. We need all of the process changes, policies, culture shifts, engagement surveys, ERGs, D&I consulting, anti-sexual harassment training, offsites, Artificial Intelligence based recruiting, VR training, VC accountability… we need everyone and we need all of them.

The problems we are trying to solve are so massive and so ingrained. We need all the help we can get to have a fighting chance at moving the needle.

So here’s me, choosing to do what most software junkies call “unsexy” work (but you just wait). And you can help me by spreading the word about Awaken (and our upcoming workshop series).

Come on, let’s wake people up.