A couple of months ago, I hosted my first hybrid keynote event since the COVID-19 pandemic began. A portion of the audience was in the conference hall with me, wearing masks and strictly adhering to social distancing guidelines. The rest of the audience attended virtually, watching and participating via teleconference technology.
In all honesty, it was absolutely delightful to hold a hybrid event. It felt so natural to return to the stage and be in community with an audience. After so many months in quarantine, it felt healing. I enjoyed being in proximity with other like-minded people, and seeing their eyes light up above their masks.
Of course I’ve felt at home speaking on stage for years, and over the past few months I’ve gotten used to speaking only to a camera or computer. But I’ve never had to bring those two formats into the same space and balance them simultaneously. In my keynotes, I lead with a very interactive and engaging speaking style. At times I ask the audience to answer questions, raise a hand, or stand in response to a prompt. In the wake of recent events, I’ve had to adapt my style to the digital realm, and find new ways of maintaining audience engagement. My first hybrid event was the ultimate test to see if I could synthesize my past experiences, and tailor my voice to a changing way of work, while staying true to my approach.
Though bouncing between the in-person and virtual audience was a challenge at first, I had to be comfortable rolling with whatever punches life threw at me. Caring leaders must do this too, by modifying their leadership approach to best fit whichever circumstances they find themselves in.
My goal as a speaker is always to engage audiences and make them feel included, and this hybrid event was no different. Even from behind a mask, I still maintained eye contact and showed signs of active listening. I also had a colleague keeping tabs on the online chat, so she could give me real-time feedback and questions as they came in. I integrated all this information into my presentation right then and there, and let it guide my approach. In this sense, I symbolically brought my digital audience into the room, and made them feel part of the larger group. From the rave reviews in the chat, I could tell this gesture meant a lot to those who weren’t able to attend in person.
I talk a big game about engagement and inclusion, but I back it up by aligning my voice with those values in every aspect of my life. The same approach I use to make others feel welcome in my presence is the same strategy I use as a speaker, manager, friend, and even as a mother. By asking questions, allowing participation, and making my presentations accessible for all individuals, I’m always seeking innovative ways to host a space for others and show them that their voice is as important as mine.
Caring leaders should open a dialogue that allows everyone to operate within a space that welcomes both their strengths and weaknesses. As we navigate this new normal, we must customize our methods to meet our people where they are—whether that’s behind a mask or behind a screen.
Recently, I had the pleasure of attending a virtual diversity, equity, and inclusion course. It was fantastic to be in community with other thought leaders and colleagues within the DEI space, and take our collective learning to the next level. Even as someone with years of experience in the field, I can always stand to learn something new from others, and I cherish that process.
On the first day we got to know each other and began to better understand our backgrounds. This early stage of relationship building can be awkward—and the awkwardness is exacerbated by the distance technology creates—but we were lucky enough to progress past this phase quickly. Our informal conversations allowed us to quickly understand where our hearts are, how our histories led us to this point, and what our hopes for the course were.
But as with any new group of peers, it wasn’t entirely smooth sailing. At one point, a Lebanese American woman, who presents more as white, was sharing a story. All of a sudden, she used the term “colored person” in passing, but it definitely struck a chord with those of us who caught it. Another participant, an African American woman from the South, rewound the conversation to correct her. She explained that “colored person” is an outdated and offensive term, and that she felt hurt by its use. The woman who said it was taken aback, as she hadn’t even realized what she said. She of course apologized, and we moved on.
The next day, we learned that the Lebanese American woman texted the African American woman in private afterwards, explaining that her intent was never to offend anyone, but that she takes full responsibility for the mistake. Whereas most people would try to brush off such a blunder or deflect accountability for it, this woman was vulnerable in admitting the harm she caused and listening to how her words affected those around her. The two of them brought this exchange to the larger group, and I was heartened by the display of camaraderie between all of us. We explained how we knew her intentions were positive, so we all felt safe in extending grace to her for an honest mistake.
These two women are perfect case studies for different yet equally powerful kinds of caring leadership. The person who made the hurtful comment demonstrated authentic self-leadership in how she expressed remorse, compassion, and vulnerability. Instead of getting defensive or angry, she listened to her peers and made a small commitment to not only repair the harm she caused on an individual level, but to better herself moving forward as well. On the flip side, the woman who called her into a learning moment exemplified the power of holding others accountable, and genuine forgiveness. She was mature and well-spoken in how she articulated the harm she experienced, and accepting and collaborative in how she opened up a dialogue with the person who offended her. Together, these two individuals used their relationship to teach the rest of us about all of these emotional tools, and how caring leaders can utilize all of them to give and receive grace when a mistake is inevitably committed in the workplace.
Of course, there will be some instances of offense that may feel too drastic to overlook or move past, and those moments will require a distinct set of strategies. But when you feel slighted by a comment made under someone’s breath or hurt by an offhand statement, I urge you to embody the characteristics these two women did. If you’re upset by something, give yourself the time to stop the operation and tend to that wound. If you cause distress by something you did, listen to why your actions caused harm, work with the other person to find a mutually agreeable solution, and internalize the lessons learned. At the end of the day, mistakes are inevitable, but failing to learn from them isn’t. We only evolve when we open ourselves up to the mere possibility of growth.
I’ve worn glasses since I was eleven years old. I attribute my nearsightedness to watching way too much television when I was younger, and my vision has only gotten worse as the years have passed.
A while ago, I was having difficulty seeing clearly out of my glasses, which was beginning to impair my productivity and ability to lead others. So I scheduled a check up with the optometrist to see what was going on and get some medical advice. For some reason, I didn’t end up taking their suggestions; perhaps it was a timing conflict or an effort to save money, but the point is that I shrugged off their counsel without a second thought.
As you might guess, my vision continued to worsen, until I had no choice but to do what the doctors said. Of course, when I took their advice and updated my prescription, it was like magic. Suddenly I could see everything in incredible detail, and it felt like a huge weight was lifted off me.
This moment reminded me of how leaders often get jaded with time, or their judgment becomes clouded under the fog of endless responsibilities and lengthy to-do lists. When we feel overwhelmed, we fail to see people as they are, which can cause problems. I myself have gotten bogged down in my own issues, buckled under the pressure, and suffered from tunnel vision that prevents me from openly receiving outside opinions.
When we get caught up in our own filters, lenses, past experiences, and blindspots, we tend to believe that we are the only ones capable of solving our problems. But just as I was incapable of (literally) seeing the solution to my vision problem, caring leaders should recognize that the input of others is an effective way to consider new ideas and solutions. We all need external support to see clearly and innovate our way through challenges. Taking advantage of this kind of help isn’t a sign of weakness; in fact, the opposite is true. Accepting assistance is a sign of humility and self-awareness, and an astute use of the network you’ve built for yourself.
Ask yourself, who in your circles do you turn to when you’re having trouble seeing clearly? These champions could be a professional coach, a close friend, peers or coworkers, a trusted confidant, therapists, or even a family member. Bringing in outside perspectives can also include reading literature and consuming content you wouldn’t typically expose yourself to. They say what we read today walks and talks tomorrow, so now is the perfect time to start developing that foundation of fresh ideas for future obstacles. The more help we accept in developing our leadership vision, the more support we benefit from, and the more we can pay it forward to others.
As a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant, my clients often ask me, “what does inclusion mean?” But the more apt question would be, “what does inclusion mean to you?” We each carry within ourselves entirely unique backgrounds and identities, and those subjective experiences invariably determine what we consider truly inclusive environments. As a result, inclusion will look, sound, and feel completely different to different people.
So what does inclusion mean to me, Heather Younger?
Let’s start with the basics.
To me, inclusion does not mean the exclusion of others. It means embracing every member of your team with open arms despite whatever differences distinguish them. But it also means not quite erasing those differences for the sake of superficial unity. In honoring those distinctions, we transform would-be outsiders into welcomed insiders.
To me, inclusion means full and unconditional acceptance. I often say that acceptance sets us all free, and I believe this is so because acceptance is the primal core of our needs. When we’re born into our parents’ arms, we want them to accept us—flaws and all. We have a deep-set desire to be seen and loved for who we are, and one way to do this at work is to accept our people however they come to us, including their past baggage. Inclusion is the comfort in meeting others in their fullness, and accepting whatever messiness or complexity that entails.
To me, inclusion means empowering those we lead, not belittling them by way of passing judgment, micromanaging, or banishing all talk of personal matters from the office. It means you work with them to collaboratively push through tough projects, you demonstrate trust by intentionally delegating big projects, and you respectfully ask about their personal life to signal you care about their entire experience as a human. When employees notice this level of compassion, they feel they can show up for their workday as their authentic selves.
To me, inclusion means having tough conversations. This includes welcoming dissenting or controversial opinions to the discussion, because everyone should feel safe enough to voice their perspective in an inclusive environment, even if it goes against the grain. It’s really easy for us to invite those we like, those who look like or act like us, or those we agree with to the table. Nonetheless, our invitations, whether implicit or explicit, must advance and include the whole of our team, especially those from minority viewpoints or identities. In this sense, inclusion is an acknowledgement that every team member is a human being worthy of respect, dignity, and the benefit of the doubt. It is both the invitation to speak and the validation that you heard them that makes all the difference in helping everyone feel supported.
Perhaps the crux of my definition of inclusion is an emphasis on family in the broadest sense of the word. As I deliver keynotes on stage on this very topic, my sole purpose is to bring everyone into community with me, and create a safe atmosphere of mutual acceptance. My goal is to create a family, even temporarily. If my audience feels truly accepted, just for a moment, I know I’ve done my job and created a culture of inclusion, and that’s what inclusion means to me.
After a lifetime of trying to minimize my difference—the difference between me and my white mother, the difference between me and my coworkers, the difference between me and other thought leaders—I am now being pulled out of the shadows and into the spotlight to share my story. These past few years, I’ve felt compelled to share my journey of overcoming adversity, being an outsider in the workplace, and existing as an outcast in a biracial household. My Jewish grandmother was dissatisfied with whom my mother had chosen to start a family with (i.e., someone Black and Christian), which complicated our relationship since I was a symbolic embodiment of that sin, so to speak. As an adult, I now see the professional skills this experience of exclusion instilled in me, and I feel how this story resonates with the audiences I share it with.
It’s a strange and uncomfortable process, simply because I’ve been conditioned to find safety in hiding my story. But when the call to action is so loud and so resolute, it’s important to follow that call for the greater good. As I’ve discovered my leadership style over the course of my career, I’ve learned that a caring leader is someone who is comfortable being vulnerable with those they lead, thus fulfilling a higher—albeit more difficult—purpose.
About eight years ago, before my current role as an employee advocate, I became good friends with an Orthodox Jewish coworker whom I had hired as a sales representative. He wore a yarmulke, attended an Orthodox synagogue, adhered to kosher eating guidelines—and he did all of this openly and with pride. He knew a little bit about my Jewish background, but not the entire picture. At that point, I was still in the process of becoming comfortable bringing my full self to work, complicated family history and all. However, he was generally aware of my Jewish heritage, and it allowed us to forge a strong connection.
A few years down the road, he invited me to his son’s upcoming bar mitzvah. Now here’s the truth: at that point in my life, I had never attended or even been invited to a bar mitzvah, despite my half-Jewish upbringing. After all, I was never welcome at those kinds of events as the “black sheep” of the family. Admittedly, I was a bit surprised, a bit nervous, and of course very honored by his invitation. He had no idea how special that small gesture was to me, yet his act of grace and courtesy made a big impact on my relationship with my Jewish identity.
I attended the ceremony, perhaps with a little trepidation. In the past, I’ve written about how my Jewish grandmother would keep me hidden from her community because she was ashamed to have a biracial granddaughter, and since then, I’ve been anxious to reenter Jewish spaces. To my suprise, everyone at this Orthodox synagogue was extremely welcoming, accepting, and warm. I felt as if I was in a judgment-free zone, where no one even cared that I looked different than the rest of the crowd. At the end of the day, I finally felt accepted and included in a community I had always been a part of, but in which I had never felt truly welcomed.
Recently, I shared this particular story with a corporate client who was trying to grasp the meaning of inclusion. The key takeaways helped elucidate what inclusion means to me: don’t lead with fear if someone on your team is different from you. Instead, lead with curiosity and courage, and stand in solidarity with them as you honor (not erase) that very difference. Be proud of your alignment with other communities, and welcome others into that process who you believe might benefit from that proximity to diversity. This is exactly what my Orthodox Jewish friend did for me, and I now pay that grace forward by telling our story.
My life and career is full of these kinds of stories, and I’m now witnessing the power they hold if wielded responsibly. As I become more comfortable opening up as a caring leader, I can attest to the profound potency that vulnerability carries as a teaching tool. I encourage you to take stock of your own stories, and consider what lessons you can pass along if you just take center stage for a moment.
The other day, I was picking up an order from a deli for my mother, who had ordered ahead of time. I didn’t realize the order was set for a later pick up time, so I arrived, and it wasn’t ready. When I told them that I had traveled 45 minutes and was wondering if there was any way for them to expedite the order, the cashier shrugged off my request, and told me there was nothing they could do, and that I would just have to wait around. My mother decided to call them over the phone, and to my surprise, they gladly agreed to speed up the order and have it ready in 15 minutes.
Frustrated, I wondered why they chose not to show me empathy and understanding when I was standing right in front of them. Why did they not care for me and my needs until a secondary request came into play?
My interaction with the deli staff made me think of all the times employees come to their manager with an issue, and are brushed off without a second thought. In the most dysfunctional organizations, employees don’t consider their manager a caring leader. Rather, they consider them a boss, someone who has the authority to make their professional life a walk in the park or a living hell.
We each have the choice to decide how we show up for others. Do we problem solve with our team members as they stand in front of us, or do we leave them to their own devices? Do we make excuses for why we didn’t treat them better when we’re called out for our behavior? Do we exercise empathy and compassion when we’re called on to lead? Do we leave our employees feeling supported and respected, or unheard and unimportant?
These are the questions I ask my clients all the time. They’re the questions you should be asking yourself on a regular basis to ascertain where you’re failing your employees. So how do we consciously do better as leaders? Below are three tried-and-true tips for leading with empathy:
Slow down. We all know how busy managers can be, but when an employee comes to you with a problem and you treat them as another box to check off on your to-do list, it makes them feel like you don’t have time for them. Try to slow down your interactions, and see the person in front of you as a human being worthy of dignity and care, and not just a cog in your machine. A little undivided attention goes a long way.
Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. This is what empathy is at its core. It’s about seeing a situation from someone else’s perspective, and connecting to the emotions from their viewpoint. Step out of your shoes and ask questions to get a better sense of their experience. “Why do you feel that way? What do you see that I might not be aware of? In your opinion, how can I best support you?” Questions like these will aid you in creating a solution that works for both of you.
Exercise self-awareness. Oftentimes, we offend people when we least intend to, so be conscious of every word you say, the tone with which you say it, and what your body language might be communicating that your words aren’t. When we fall short in caring for our employees, use self-reflection to determine what you did wrong, how you can improve moving forward, and how you can rebuild that bridge.
The relationship between employee and leader should be a mutually beneficial one, where both parties are respected, supported, and inspired by one another. You shouldn’t leave your team members high and dry in moments of frustration, like the deli staff did to me. You should center your leadership approach around empathy and compassion, and prioritize connection-building as the foundation of a healthy team dynamic.
To be listened to is, generally speaking, a nearly unique experience for most people. It is enormously stimulating. It is small wonder that people who have been demanding all their lives to be heard so often fall speechless when confronted with one who gravely agrees to lend an ear. Man clamors for the freedom to express himself and for knowing that he counts. But once offered these conditions, he becomes frightened.— Robert C. Murphy
Believe it or not, your organization needs an employee listening strategy.
What do I mean by this?
Many organizations administer an annual employee engagement survey and then stop there. By doing just that, they miss the opportunity to truly listen to what their employees like or dislike about the organization, their manager, their role and more.
This also undermines the most valuable reason for listening: Action!
Here are some things to consider when crafting an employee listening strategy:
Why are you listening?
For organizations that administer employee engagement surveys annually, they often do not know why they are doing it. Is it just to say that your employees have a voice? Is it to tell employees that you “listen” to them frequently?
Why are you listening?
Is your employees’ happiness and satisfaction the end, or is there an underlying reason your organization wants to ask your employees questions annually?
Knowing the “why” behind any employee listening program is crucial, because then everything else can fall in line.
How will you listen?
There are a myriad of ways to gather the voice of your employees. The most popular of which is the annual survey. While annual surveys are great for organizational benchmarking and gauging your employees’ overall relationship with your organization, there are many ways to get unfiltered and trustworthy feedback from your employees:
Pulse surveys are real-time surveys that are short and provide immediate feedback to managers and the organization. They are excellent tools to drive more employee engagement and create a culture of transparency. If you want to learn more about the benefits, Click Here to listen in on my recorded webinar with TinyPulse earlier this year.
Whether we are talking about team meetings, or one-on-one meetings, managers have a unique opportunity to clear away the barriers to true employee listening. These meetings should remain the safe place for parties to ask questions and provide feedback. When managers listen to their team members, it promotes trust and honesty.
The perfect combination for a successful relationship.
For tips on how to have more meaningful conversations with your team members, Click Here.
RELATED RESOURCE: How to Gather Unfiltered and Trustworthy Employee Feedback Tip Sheet
All employee meetings
I do not believe that “All-hands” employee meetings are the more credible way to gather a big picture of employee sentiment. Nonetheless, it is a great way to share information and get an initial pulse of opinion. I like to call this the “allergic reaction” that the information sharing may or may not create. Once you are able to gauge that initial response, you can plan for more pointed feedback methods to follow.
As someone who has Empathy and Relator as my two top strengths, I really enjoy and am quite successful gathering unfiltered feedback via focus groups. I usually recommend a good cross-section of employees. I do not include supervisors in these groups unless I am meeting with that group in particular, because I find that employees cannot loosen up and open up with management present.
This is one of the most effective ways to gather raw feedback, particularly if they trust the interviewer and know that their feedback will remain anonymous. This is where the rubber meets the road with employee listening, because I have found that employees rarely hold back.
Employee Happiness Audits
In many cases, human resources or some other internal resource may be the ones gathering this feedback. Unfortunately, more often than not, employees don’t trust those internal stakeholders for a variety of reasons. In this case, it may make total sense to bring in an outside consultant to use some of the methods above to gather unfiltered feedback. This may seem counter-intuitive to some, but often the outside consultant is perceived as non-affiliated or non-interested, and thus, automatically garners more trust. You will know what will work for your organization when the time arrives.
Click to Download a list of questions that I ask in my Employee Happiness Audits
What will you do after you have listened?
So, what will you do with the feedback once you gather it?
What is your plan of action?
Yes. One key reason you are asking the questions you are asking should be so that you can respond to your employees’ specific needs and suggestions.
The absolute worse thing you could do is to gather feedback and then just sit on it and do or say nothing at all about it again. This will be the fastest way to breakdown trust between the organization and the people who keep it moving forward.
You may also never “hear” from them again.
Here are a few things to consider in this regard:
Who decides what gets fixed?
Have you established some type of governing body that can review the feedback or employee suggestions and decide what gets fixed or acted upon? Please do not just keep all of the feedback housed with the senior leadership team and expect that they will have time to make needed improvements.
Should they be a part of the deciding team? Yes, but there are other key influencers that should be a part of the process as well.
Who is accountable to act?
So, once you have decided who will be a part of the reviewing body, you will also need to know who is responsible to act on the feedback?
Would it be beneficial to have the leaders directly responsible for the area or teams providing the specific feedback to be the ones to lead the improvement efforts? Alternatively, should you appoint non-interested persons to lead the improvement efforts? These questions and more are things to consider when considering who is accountable to follow-thru on the feedback
How do you track improvements?
This can be easy or this can be hard. Much of the difference rests on the internal tools that are available to “close the loop” and track efforts that are taken to act on the feedback.
No matter what tools are available, someone has to facilitate the creation of action plans and measure the success of improvement efforts above organization. If you leave this part of the listening strategy to chance, you might as well never ask the question. It is in the acting upon the listening that trust is built and culture is curated.
Thank you for reading this longer post. I really wanted to give you a well-rounded idea of some key ways to craft a comprehensive employee listening strategy. This is not all there is to know, but it should get you started. Please do Like it, Comment it, or Share it with anyone who might benefit.