When an employee finally musters the courage to reach out to you after being subjected to a toxic and harmful situation that has involved several parties, including your leadership team, who have either:
1) Been the cause of said harm or
2) Failed to adequately acknowledge or address the harm
Your response should NOT be, “I’ll look for time in the coming weeks”.
Offering vague promises of meeting in the near-ish future is patronizing and highly irresponsible. True and effective leadership is grounded in action and accountability, specifically, knowing when to activate each. When an issue is brought to your attention, the onus is on YOU to take the concern(s) seriously and then action accordingly.
“I’ll look for time in the coming weeks”, or expressions of similar sentiment, are indicative of a failure in leadership because they are devoid of both compassion and urgency. Furthermore, a distinct message is implicitly conveyed to the receiver, 1) “You don’t matter;” and 2) “This situation is not worth my time, attention, or effort.”
The reality is, we all make time for what matters to us.
Whether your initial understanding of a situation leads you to believe that it is inconsequential or one that could wait, recognize that it is of significant consequence to those who have been on the receiving end of harm. Discrimination, oppression and othering experiences can dramatically alter a person’s mental health and negatively impact their overall well-being and performance. These experiences can also lead to the severe erosion of organizational trust and are often damaging from a cultural and brand reputational perspective.
As a leader, you have both an ethical and operational obligation to promptly lean into situations that have been escalated in order to assess current and potential impact and risks. Of course, there will be times when you are unable to engage immediately; however, it is important that you respond to outreach in a timely manner to;
- acknowledge receipt and confirm your desire to connect
- express regret that the situation has not been addressed satisfactorily for the individual thus far and,
- provide at least 3 alternative options for connection within a reasonable timeframe (e.g. no more than 2 weeks out).
Following the action steps presented will signal your willingness to work towards resolution and also convey your respect for the individual as both an employee, and fellow human being.
If, for some reason, you are struggling to connect with and have empathy for the employee and the situation at hand, we invite you to interrogate your own biases (gender, racial, ableism, class, etc.), beliefs, and inner thoughts, etc. You could start by asking yourself questions along these lines:
- Why doesn’t this feel important to me?
- Why am I having a hard time understanding why this is upsetting to my employee?
- If I were in an upsetting situation, how might I want to be treated/spoken to?
- Does the situation make me uncomfortable? If so, what is causing the discomfort?
- What resources can I engage to better respond to the issue at hand?
Additionally, engagement, acknowledgement and self-reflection are clear demonstrations of emotional intelligence, a critical and at times underdeveloped leadership skill.
In part 2 as we’ll provide an alternative and more inclusion-anchored response that demonstrates true leadership.
Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not when he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy”. Where are you standing?
As a leader, it IS your JOB to engage and to do so immediately, respectfully & empathetically.
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