Giving & Receiving Grace in Response to Workplace Harm

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 She explained that “colored person” is an outdated and offensive term, and that she felt hurt by its use.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.

How Outside Opinions Help Us Gain Clear & Conscious Leadership Vision

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.

What Inclusion Means to Me

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.

How Our Authentic Stories Can Bring About Greater Good

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.

3 Tips for Leading With Empathy & Compassion

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.