For years, we would constantly hear the phrase "Check your personal life at the door when you come to work." This usually meant that whatever was going on with us--divorce, death, sickness, family problems--it should not affect our job performance in any way, and certainly should not be spoken about.

Thank goodness someone finally pointed out that we are human beings and not robots.

In 1990, two psychology professors, John D. Mayer (UNH) and Peter Salovey (Yale) coined the phrase "Emotional Intelligence" (EQ) to describe a person's ability to accurately perceive the emotions of themselves and others and to appropriately manage them. It took a whole decade for the two scholars to convince the general public that EQ was an extremely valuable business leadership skill and today, many of the world's top leaders openly flex their EQ muscles--Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett, and Jamie Dimon to name a few.

As a leader, when a team member is experiencing a universal difficulty, such as a death in the family, it's a little easier to sympathize and support. But what happens when individuals are going through something much more specific and hard to discuss?

Like coping with the recent racially-charged tragedies, for example.

Earlier this month, PwC's US Chairman, Tim Ryan, knew that he had to address this issue with his staff. Ryan, who happens to be a Caucasian man, is known for creating the most diverse team in the firm's history, which he believes is the key to success. "It's incredibly important (to have a diverse team)," he says. "Our client base and our people touch all cultural and social issues across the US and globally. We're in virtually every community, which means we need to understand the world from many different perspectives."

After the violent shootings in Minneapolis, Baton Rouge, and Dallas earlier this month, Ryan walked into work and the silence was deafening; it felt entirely wrong to go about 'business as usual.'

"It's hard and uncomfortable when we aren't sure if we can talk about what's on our minds or ask someone else how they're feeling after a week like the one we had after the violent events in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, or Dallas," he says. "When things happen outside the firm, we don't leave our thoughts, reactions, and emotions behind when we come to work."

Ryan understood that many of his team members were profoundly impacted by the events. "It was heartbreaking," he said. "As a leader, you want to react, but I don't understand the issue from every perspective. So I went to our people and I asked them. I said, 'please give us advice - we care - I know it's an issue. But please give us advice.'"

He received hundreds of positive emails back, which included the personal stories of some of his team. One story that resonated with him involved one of his African American male executives, who refers to his business suit as his "cape." This executive explained that whenever he's wearing his suit, he's safe (perceived as one of the good guys). But when he goes home and puts on casual clothes, such as a sweatshirt and a ball cap, he loses that super power and is saddled with the perception of instant villain.

This man's fear is completely reasonable. Shortly after I spoke with Ryan about this, a news story broke in Florida in which an African American therapist named Charles Kinsey was working with one of his autistic patients outside, when someone called the police. Kinsey slowly laid down on the ground with his hands up in the air, repeatedly explained the situation, and begged the police not to shoot (all while trying to keep his confused and scared patient calm). He did everything right - more than he should have had to; he was shot and left bleeding while they handcuffed him.

Experiences like Kinsey's only solidify the all-too-common fears of many black Americans. PwC was ranked both the most prestigious financial firm in the world, as well as the top firm to work for; the people on Ryan's team are the best and brightest. But this doesn't change the fact that some of his team members still have to worry about the dangerous effects of racial biases on their everyday lives. Tim and the rest of his staff are seeking to understand this perspective, so they can be the most support.

Tim took what he heard and discussed it with PwC's Minority Initiatives and Talent Management Leader, Elena Richards on video. This conversation was then then continued publically via SnapChat and Twitter last week with the hashtag #colorbrave, encouraging people to tell their personal stories and ask questions openly and respectfully.

Ryan and his team hope this will inspire other leaders to use their collective power to evoke positive change. "When we talk about it, we understand more about each other - we can help each other succeed and ultimately that's good for our people and our clients," Ryan explains. "The biggest piece of advice I have is - listen. Don't jump to the answer or what you think the answer is. The more you listen, the more you learn."

You can find my full interview with Tim here on The Unicorn in the Room.

Published on: Jul 29, 2016
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