I recently served on a panel at a town hall for a global company. The topic was "Combating Racism in the Workplace." I brought attention to the rise of hostility and racist acts against Asian-Americans during the Covid pandemic. Shortly after I spoke, I received a private message from one of the company's workers.
"My manager constantly refers to Covid as the 'Chinese flu,'" the message read. "I am Asian-American and it makes me very uncomfortable. Is it ethical?"
As companies join the national conversation on racism and anti-racism, they renew their focus on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. But it's crucial to remember that inclusion and equity aren't achieved after a one-time webinar.
Leading and communicating inclusively is like developing a new, healthy habit. It takes daily practice and trial and error to build muscle memory. Over time, it becomes natural and automatic.
If leaders want to create change in their organizations, they must address instances of microaggressions, which, like the above example, are actions or words that land with harm on someone of a marginalized group. As Karen Catlin write in Better Allies: Everyday Actions to Create Inclusive, Engaging Workplaces, we must be upstanders, not bystanders. An upstander sees wrongdoing and acts to combat it.
There are moments when "calling someone out" is appropriate, to stop words or actions that are actively hurting someone. But, often, it's effective to instead "call someone in." When we call someone in, we acknowledge we all make mistakes. We help someone discover why their behavior is harmful, and how to change it. And we do it with compassion and patience.
These conversations can be difficult. I developed a 5-step communication approach -- the B.U.I.L.D. model -- to help leaders navigate these challenging conversations.
The first step of calling someone in is to have their best interest in hand while holding them accountable. Approach the conversation with respect and kindness, yet remain firm in communicating the impact of their actions.
This approach helps create psychological safety. People feel respected and not on guard, thus more open to feedback and change. By giving them the benefit of the doubt, they know you have their back. You create the climate for vulnerability, mutual trust and respect. This is the foundation of inclusive communication.
Practice deep listening to understand the facts of the situation, as well as the feelings and values of the individual. This will help you gain insight into the intentions behind their actions. This step requires listening in a way we don't often do in everyday life. I'm always reminded of the Chinese character for "listen," 聽 (ting), which is a composite of the characters of one ear, ten eyes, and one heart. As you listen, also be aware of your own biases and assumptions, as they can affect your understanding of the other person's intensions, feelings, and values.
Get off autopilot and engage with curiosity -- not pre-judgement -- as your guide. Take on the mindset of an investigative journalist by asking non-leading "what" and "how" questions:
"What was your intention when you said ...?"
"How might the other person view this situation?"
"Tell me more."
The goal of calling someone in is to help them evolve. Acknowledge that mistakes happen. Correcting them requires expanding our reference points and understanding different perspectives and experiences.
In the event that someone calls you out, think before you react. First, thank the person for sharing this valuable feedback with you. Second, think about their input. What does it mean? What will you do with it? Third, respond positively. Fourth, act on what you learn.
This is when you put it all together into action. Often, the action includes providing constructive feedback using "straight talk" -- saying what needs to be said to the right person, at the right time and right place, respectfully, accurately, and clearly. Help them understand that inclusion is a continuous, all-hands practice, and this conversation is one step forward.
I hope the manager of the person who messaged me during the town hall was approached by someone acting as an upstander. I hope they were "called in" with benevolence and curiosity, by someone who not only cared for the emotional safety of the Asian Americans in the company, but the inclusion and belonging of everyone who works there.