Leading Black Employees During Times of Social Unrest

Photo: courtesy of Deposit Photos

There was a time when speaking about certain topics at work was strictly taboo. Any discussion of religion, politics, or sex could result in disciplinary action, a one-way ticket to the unemployment office, or even a lawsuit. But increasingly, political discussions are pervading the workplace. Recent data from Gartner’s Election 2020 Survey reveals that 78% of employees report discussing politics at work. In addition, 31% of employees who talk politics at work report these conversations to be stressful and/or frustrating.

And it’s not just election politics. Massive social change and civil unrest are dominating our global landscape. Protests, demonstrations, and periods of social upheaval have had an exhausting impact on all of us.

In the U.S., on a daily basis, we’re confronted with racial injustice, including the abuse and deaths of Black people. Whether it’s at the hands of police officers or racist individuals, the devastating effects of this behavior and disparate treatment are front and center. TV. Radio. Social media. Books. Blogs. Murals. Songs. Poetry. We’re bombarded.

Black employees can’t ignore it. We can’t turn off the TV. Sure, we can unplug from social media for an hour, a day, or a weekend, but we can’t turn off our blackness. We must bring our whole selves to work with the enormity of these tragedies invading the corners of our hearts and minds.

If you’re a leader, you know that problems don’t go away on their own. They must be addressed, and if not resolved, at least monitored. What’s happening in the world today is no different. Instead of being a victim of change, you can tackle it head on and manage it. Here’s how:  Acknowledge, communicate, watch for stressors, and give us grace.  

Acknowledge

Recognize and publicly acknowledge that there is a problem and that Black employees are being affected. By publicly, I don’t mean jump on social media and post a popular tagline with no meaningful action plan. Start with your direct report(s), your team, your department, or your organization. You might choose to address each person individually or if you have multiple employees, schedule a team meeting to give a consistent message.

Acknowledge the situation. Express empathy. Reassure employees that your door is open, and you are here to talk if they need you. Boom. End of story. Nothing else.

This is not the time for you to interject your politics or discuss whether you have “many Black friends” or whatever. Don’t say you understand how they feel because you probably don’t. This is presumptuous and may come across as unauthentic. It is acceptable to say, “I can only imagine how you feel” or “I understand that a lot of people are hurting right now.” It’s okay to be vulnerable, but remember, this is not about you.

Employees just want to know that their leaders are good, decent human beings who have their backs. Showing your support and to commitment diversity and inclusion and issues that impact them goes a long way. If you’ve always been transparent and fair, you should have no problem with this part. On the other hand, if these attributes have been absent from your leadership style in the past, it may be harder to inspire trust from your employees, but it’s never too late to start.  

Communicate Properly

Leaders are expected to be effective communicators. However, this can be difficult for leaders who aren’t skilled in developing employees and cultivating relationships. If your company culture doesn’t encourage frequent one-on-one meetings with direct reports, take it upon yourself to schedule regular touch bases. It’s one of the best ways to build trust and learn about your employees’ work habits and personal lives.

Take the time to really listen to what employees have to say. Whether in person or remotely, find an area free of distractions where you can focus on them. Look at their body language. Hear their tone of voice. Provide a safe environment for them to share their stories and their feelings. If they tell you something looks/feels/sounds hurtful or offensive, believe them. Don’t get defensive. Don’t ask for proof. Don’t ask why something is offensive. Just know that it is.

Communication is a two-way street. After you listen, ask what you can do to help. Ask what they need from you. Let them know you’re on their side and you care about them. If you’re communicating through writing, do something as simple as sending an email to check on them. My manager frequently sends texts reminding me that she’s available to talk no matter when I need her. Those texts have made me feel valued and appreciated.

When communicating, watch your language. The verbiage you use can derail any good intent you may have had. If you refer to protestors and demonstrators as rioters or looters, it has a negative connotation. You don’t have the right to decide what is an acceptable form of protest. Keep in mind that an increasing number of colleagues (Blacks and non-Blacks) are participating in social activism. Depending on how you come across, an employee may see you as part of the problem instead of an ally. Don’t do anything to distract from the positive message you’re trying to convey.

Courtesy of Pixabay

Watch for Stressors

When employees trust you enough to share their feelings, consider yourself fortunate. This means they have faith that you can handle the truth. The old saying that feedback is a gift is true. Being plugged into what’s happening in your employees’ lives can be a valuable superpower. Watch for signs of distress. Are they restless? Are they considering leaving? Are they unfulfilled? Are they missing deadlines? If a usually talkative employee has been quiet or distant during the last few meetings, the silence could be a sign of stress. Reach out and check on them for any behavior that may indicate an underlying issue.

Broad, sweeping social change prompts many people to make life-altering decisions, both at home and at work. Having your finger on the pulse of what’s going on shows not only that you care, but that you’re proactive and intentional about retaining talent.  

Lastly, if employees communicate any issues that are beyond your area of expertise, don’t freak out. You don’t have to handle any of this alone. Use your resources (HR, Diversity & Inclusion department, Leader toolkits, and/or HRBPs). And remind employees of any available company resources, such as EAP, employee resource groups, self-care/lifestyle programs, company town halls and webinars.

Give us Grace

This constant cycle of death is exhausting.

While we may not have known George Floyd or Breonna Taylor personally, we’re still impacted more than you know. Last week after the shooting of Jacob Blake, I had to have “the talk” with my sons again. Not the Facts of Life talk, but the Living While Black talk to make sure they know what to do when they encounter the police. It doesn’t matter if they’re minding their own business, bowling at the local bowling alley, or picking up groceries at Walmart. They could be killed during a routine traffic stop.

I think about all of this while I’m on conference calls with stakeholders. I think about it when I’m sending an email to my team members. I think about it whenever the phone rings with an unfamiliar number. It weighs heavily on my heart and mind. Yet I must still bring my best self to work and exemplify the professional standard I’m known for. While beneath the surface, all this angst simmers like a pot on a stove that constantly needs to be watched.

And I’m not the only one who feels this way. Black colleagues have shared identical stories with me. White co-workers have told me they have grandchildren of color, and they have these same worries. As a leader, you need to recognize that many of your employees may be dealing with raw emotions you cannot visibly see.

Leading a remote team presents another set of challenges. You can’t just pop into someone’s office or drop by for an impromptu coffee break. Employees who are working from home may feel even more isolated and disconnected from their leaders and the rest of the team. At home, there are no restraints on how much news we consume. Remote workers can get bombarded by even more TV and social media. Throw in COVID issues and family drama, and it’s easy to quickly feel overwhelmed.

It’s even more critical for leaders to check on the mental well-being of these employees. I’m not telling you to get on a Zoom call and start singing Kumbaya. Just be aware that we’re going through some major stress right now. We may need flexibility in our schedules. For example, moving morning meetings to afternoons so we can help with our kid’s online math class. In short, remember to give us grace.

This may seem like more than you bargained for. Big changes can cause deep divisions or they can bring out the best in people. Likewise, your actions can close the gap or expand it. Don’t look at this change as something negative. Focus on the positive. This is your opportunity to set the standard and lead by example.

One final caveat: Black people are not a monolith. You may hear this all the time, but really let it sink in. While we share many experiences, our approaches to them vary far and wide. As a fifty-year-old black female with over ten years of experience leading teams, I could probably write a book on this subject. For more information or to hire me for a customized speaking engagement, reach me through the Contacts page.

Give a d.a.m.n. about your stakeholders

Instructional Designers walk a fine line between providing what stakeholders want and what learners need. On top of that, we have to create engaging content that gets results. It ain’t easy wearing so many hats, but if you give a D.A.M.N. about your stakeholders, you can make your job a lot easier. So, how do you do that?

DON’T overpromise

In our excitement to attract or keep customers, we can get so caught up in wanting to please that we commit to things we’re unable to do. Whether it’s purposeful or it’s simply miscalculating your capabilities, overpromising can have detrimental effects on your relationships with your stakeholders.

Overpromising can cause distrust and lack of confidence. When done repeatedly, it can irrevocably damage your credibility. In extreme cases, it may even have financial impacts that jeopardize a department’s bottom line or a company’s reputation.

Examples of Overpromising include:

  • Overstating your talents/knowledge/resources
  • Agreeing to a deadline you know you cannot meet

Perhaps you’ve heard the adage, ‘underpromise and overdeliver.’ There’s a school of thought that advises designers to “pad their promises” to give extra room for unforeseen delays. Who doesn’t want to impress stakeholders and look like a hero when you exceed expectations?

Examples of Overdelivering include:

  • Completing a project before the due date
  • Coming in under the projected budget

However, overdelivering can cause unintended, negative consequences. Your stakeholder may be wondering why you came in so far under budget? Why were your numbers off to begin with? Can you be trusted to be accurate next time?

Instead of underpromising or overdelivering, don’t do either. Be honest and transparent to begin with. Use whatever tools are at your disposal to give stakeholders a realistic indication of what you will do and when you will do it by. Put your efforts into delivering the best product/service you can and let your work speak for itself. In other words, make a promise and keep it. Anything other than this is doing yourself and your stakeholder(s) a disservice.

ALWAYS set clear expectations

Setting clear expectations is the cousin of keeping your promises. Aligning on expectations up front saves a lot of heartache on the back end. When everyone is aware of what’s expected, it’s easier to keep each other accountable.

Examples of setting clear expectations include:

  • Defining project roles and responsibilities
  • Providing a detailed communication plan
  • Creating a course blueprint  

A Statement of Work (SOW) is a great tool for documenting expectations. The project’s purpose, roles, milestones, approvers, and deadlines are clearly spelled out. Some people prefer using a project plan for this same purpose. Others opt for an informal email listing the high-level details. No matter what method you use, when everyone knows what’s expected of them, it keeps people and projects on track.

MAKE sure to listen to their needs

A few years back, a video went viral of a little boy pleading with his mother, “Linda, Linda. Listen, Linda!” It was cute (at least those of you who don’t have kids probably thought so). This poor little fellow was trying so hard to be heard that he kept repeating the phrase over and over, not really listening to what his mother had to say.

Your stakeholders might not plead with you to hear what they’re saying. If you don’t listen to their needs, they may get angry. They may yell at you (or complain to your boss). Even worse, instead of giving you an opportunity to fix things, they may walk away and refuse to work with you again.

It’s critical that you take the time to actively listen to what your stakeholders are saying. Listening doesn’t just involve hearing what they have to say and then repeating it or using clarifying phrases. By the way, you can tell when listening is ‘artificial.’ For instance, I hate it when people tell me, “So what I hear you saying is…” That language sounds so scripted. Don’t treat stakeholders like a script. Treat them like humans who’ve come to you for a solution. They chose you. Look at it as a privilege that you’re able to lend your expertise.

Examples of listening to stakeholders include: 

  • Paying attention to what they request, whether on a phone call, in person, or when reading/responding to written communication
  • Completing a needs analysis to help pinpoint what they need
  • Accepting feedback graciously—even if you don’t agree. Focus on the behavior, not the person. Don’t take it personal. Designers must have thick skin.

NEVER say no

In my decades of designing training solutions, I’ve had some weird requests from stakeholders: Design an entire eLearning course for one learner. Create a training video with a House of Cards theme. Convert a classroom ILT to an outdoor skills-based obstacle course. For each of these requests, my first thought was “Aw, hell no.” And my second thought was, “Hmm…is there a way we can pull this off?”

I like solving puzzles. Sometimes, the challenge of attempting to fill these unusual requests piques my interest and takes over my common sense. But even for the most diehard puzzle-solver, there are some instances where things simply can’t be done.

Whether you design for internal or external customers, the art of saying no is a trait that is tricky to cultivate. Nobody likes the word, no (unless it’s no tax or no stress). Instead of telling stakeholders what you can’t do, tell them what you can do. Focus on the positive.

For example, if a stakeholder requests an eLearning module in 24 hours, try these tips:

  • Tell your stakeholder what you can do (“If you need something created within 24 hours, I can design a fantastic job aid.”)
  • Offer other options (“If you want a simple, level 1 eLearning course, it will take 80 hours to complete. A level 2 course with more interactivity and engagement will take 150 hours to create.”)
  • If you already have a project in progress and the stakeholder wants to add on (what I affectionately call scope-creep), remind them that any significant changes will impact the final deadline. Many times, the mention of a deadline makes people think twice about if the change really needs to be made. Handling scope creep is another fine art that I’ll cover at a later time.

In case you’re wondering, the example of the stakeholder who demanded an eLearning be created in 24-hours is real. In her defense, she’d been put on the back burner multiple times, and her team had suffered a massive restructure during a department consolidation. She wanted training—and she wanted it yesterday. I learned all of this simply by asking the reason for her urgent request.

In the end, we agreed to a hybrid solution of proficiency testing (testing out) and a series of microlearnings with satisfactory deadlines for her team. Sometimes, not saying no involves having a deeper conversation with your stakeholder and listening to find out why they need what they need. Here’s a snapshot of the course.

Now you know how to give a D.A.M.N. about your stakeholders. I hope you found these tips helpful and you’re able to put them into practice.

HOW NOT TO MURDER YOUR SPOUSE (while working remotely, during a pandemic)

They say the true test of a relationship is to take a road trip together. I would argue that the real test is working remotely in the same house, while under stay-at-home orders—during a pandemic.

In fact, this can be downright traumatic for some spouses. So I’m sharing a few tips to help you keep your sanity and your marriage intact.

Designate separate spaces

A few weeks ago, I was on a video conference call with my director when my husband strolled through the room wearing a T-shirt and boxers. In a move that would have made Usain Bolt proud, I made a mad dash to cover my webcam. I don’t think my director noticed, but I was mortified.

My husband said he didn’t realize I was on a video call. I have a naturally loud voice that carries (for miles). Plus, that day, I actually combed my hair and applied a liberal shade of red lipstick. So, I don’t know how he didn’t realize I was on a video call—but that’s a story for another day.

My biggest tip for working remotely with your spouse is to set boundaries regarding space. Some things I recommend are:

  • Utilize separate rooms with a door that can shut out distractions and ensure privacy. If necessary, post a Do Not Disturb sign on the door to minimize interruptions. Here’s a clever one I found on Etsy.
  • If you don’t have the luxury of separate offices, use a folding room divider (like the ones shown here). These work great for smaller spaces, studio apartments, or open floor plans.
  • Share calendars and respect schedules. If you have a weekly Tuesday call with your project team, let your spouse know that you can’t be interrupted during that time.

I’ve heard of people doing some insanely creative things to carve out a slice of privacy.  One of my coworkers told me she had to take a conference call in her car just to get a little peace and quiet from her kids. Hey, whatever works!

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Use headsets/earbuds whenever possible

Another thing my husband likes to do (and I promise this is not a hubby-bashing post) is watch video tutorials on his laptop. While I can appreciate his quest for knowledge, I don’t want to hear every word of the videos. And when we’re in close quarters with both of us working remotely, I confess, I might be tempted to listen to his video while I’m supposed to be doing my own work! In some situations, both of us are viewing a video at the same time. As you can imagine, this cacophony can be quite disruptive.

Whether you’re on a conference call or watching an online tutorial, be cognizant of how loud noises may affect other people. Use a headset or earbuds so you don’t drive each other nuts. That way, you can crank up the volume without bothering the rest of the household.

If you don’t have a headset, check with your employer. Many companies will supply one because it’s considered a work-related expense. Or if you’d rather buy your own, here’s an approved list from Consumer Reports.

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Embrace the Mute button

There are times when noise is simply unavoidable. Life happens. Kids run amuck. Smoke detectors go off when your teenagers are so busy watching Fast & Furious that they forgot they left a grill cheese sandwich cooking on the stove. Ahem, not that that has ever happened to me.

At any rate, you should always know where the mute button is located. Your phone, your computer, and most conferencing tools (Zoom, WebEx, Adobe Connect, etc.) have a mute button. I make it a general rule to keep myself on mute unless I have to speak. Not only does this avoid any accidental background noises on my end, but it’s also respectful of the other attendees on the call.

There’s nothing worse than hearing someone pecking on the keyboard, or whipping up a smoothie in the blender, or smacking gum in your ear while the presenter is talking. Don’t be that person who contributes to the racket.

Give each other grace

Even though working remotely together may seem stressful at times, try to focus on the positives. This virus won’t last forever. Many states are already lifting their stay-at-home orders. In the meantime, you may never have another opportunity like this to spend time together. Some people don’t have the luxury of working from home, so count your blessings.

And remember to cut each other some slack. Focus on creating good memories. My husband and I take walks together two to three times a week, and we try to eat lunch with each other as much as possible.

Working together is just like every other relationship in life: It’s a series of compromises and being respectful of each other. If you keep these tips in mind, you might actually start looking forward to working remotely with your spouse during a pandemic—or any other time.