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Race Matters: 11 Tips For Successful Race Relations Leadership

How leaders can successfully engage with their teams in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement

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At a time when we’re experiencing societal unrest around race relations, it’s more important than ever for business leaders to provide their employees with guidance, reassurance and a sense of belonging. To have meaningful and effective conversations about race relations, it is prudent to prepare in advance. Here are my top tips to guide you before, during and after the conversations.

Acknowledge what is happening

State your values on the issue and share your empathy. Failing to acknowledge – or saying nothing – sends a crucial and loud message that what is happening does not matter, and nor do people’s emotions matter.

Respect where people are emotionally

Ask black colleagues if they would like to make space for a discussion first – before you make space for them. Your black colleagues may already be feeling exhausted and traumatized before they begin their working day. If they are in several meetings per day, this could mean potentially having several conversations on the same subject. Be prepared if black colleagues decline to comment or respond, even without an explanation. Allow space and time for engagement.

Be thoughtful of how meetings are started

Be mindful of opening up meetings and interactions with questions like “how are you?” or “how was your weekend?”. This could send a signal of being tone deaf or it could trigger/re-trigger experiences for some employees.

Listen

That sounds so simple, yet it is not simple at all. In fact, when it comes to race, it’s really hard for all of us to truly, empathetically, actively listen – to listen without the counterarguments popping up in our heads, to listen without filtering someone else’s experience through our own ways of seeing the world, to listen without giving our own experience in return, to listen without feeling the need to take action. But try.

Show support without asking for anything

Recognise that some black colleagues may be feeling overwhelmed, tired, taxed, furious, and just downright frazzled right now. The cumulative effect of a lifetime of being treated unfairly cannot be underestimated. Try to avoid reaching out in a way that puts more work on others by asking for a response. Don’t make them have to take care of you.

Do the work

Avoid burdening black colleagues by asking them to explain things to you – but, if they are explaining things to you, allow that too. There are mountains of resources out there that can explain the current situation – books, movies, articles, blog posts. What has happened and is happening cannot be understood quickly and easily. It takes work. Recognise you are on a journey of understanding and settle in for the long haul. And try to recognise that all that information is still not the same as someone’s lived experiential knowledge. In the short term, you can get answers to immediate questions by Googling them.

See feedback as a gift and accept it graciously

Recognize there is more than one truth and people have different realities, based on their lived experiences. When you mess up, hear the feedback and take it in graciously. Most of us are trying hard to be good people. When someone speaks up to you about something you said that might not be appropriate or might be offensive, they are risking their own comfort to help you and to build a trusting relationship. Use the opportunity to grow as a person and a leader. Assume positive intent and acknowledge when you’re wrong.

Speak up, even when it’s uncomfortable

When someone speaks up on a matter that’s offensive or distracting from the real issue, says something that’s knowingly incorrect or behaves in a manner that is wrong, it’s important to not let it slide – even if it feels hard or awkward to speak up. Allyship is neither easy nor performative. It takes work, and we have to do it as much as we can so that others who are more directly affected don’t always have to.

You don’t have to have all the answers

When someone says something biased or subtly acts in an exclusive manner, you might not know what to say. That’s OK. You can try saying: “I don’t know why this feels uncomfortable to me, but it does. Can we explore this together?” If you wait until you know the perfect thing to say, you will likely end up not saying anything. And get comfortable with the fact that you will never have all the answers. No one ever does! It’s imperfect, and vital to try.

Be gentle with your teams

Be gentle with your teams. They may not be willing or able to share with you their fears and their challenges right now. But that does not diminish the impact those anxieties have on daily performance.

Avoid claiming you know what it’s like

If you’re non-black, avoid claiming that you know what it’s like for a black person. While the intent is to connect through empathy – which is important – part of acknowledgment is also acknowledging and honoring that your lived experiences are distinctly different.

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