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Employees Are Sick of Being Asked to Make Moral Compromises

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“Just say whatever you need to say to get them to stay. We can’t lose any more techs or we’ll have to announce huge delays on the launch. I’m holding you accountable for making sure that doesn’t happen.”

Brian,* an executive Ron coached, told him about this ultimatum he’d received from his boss. He explained that the project had been under-resourced, people were exhausted from working under impossible deadlines, and he felt ashamed of the corners he feared had been cut to meet them. Now, being asked to manipulate and lie to his people crossed the line for Brian. Despite feeling guilty for abandoning his team, he resigned.

Ironically, Brian’s boss was shocked by his resignation. Reminding him of his high salary, perks, and multiple promotions, he asked Brian, “What else do you want?”

What Brian experienced was what medical doctors and social scientists refer to as “moral injury,” and what he wanted was justice.

Moral injury, also known as the wounding of the soul, was first studied in veterans who’d witnessed atrocities of war. More recently, this research has been extended to health care, education, social work, and other high-pressure and often under-resourced occupations. The past two years have made it increasingly clear that moral injury can occur in many contexts and populations, including the workplace. Moral injury is experienced as a trauma response to witnessing or participating in workplace behaviors that contradict one’s moral beliefs in high-stakes situations and that have the potential of harming others physically, psychologically, socially, or economically.

People may be leaving companies (in some cases “rage quitting”) because of more than just feeling burned out or wanting more flexible work arrangements. Many may be leaving because their conscience has been wounded and their innate sense of justice violated.

The pandemic and resulting upheaval of the workplace have shone a bright spotlight on organizational experiences we’ve too long written off as mere annoyances or ineffective management. But as it turns out, their consequences can be more damaging than we understood. The mass exodus from our workplaces is, in part, a proclamation that people can’t — and won’t — tolerate mistreatment, injustice, and incompetence from their leaders anymore, particularly at the expense of their dignity and values.

Organizational conditions that give rise to moral injury violate our sense of justice, which according to some social science theories is hardwired into our brains. This means that perceptions of justice (or injustice) in the workplace have profound effects on employees. Ron’s research on organizational justice bears this out. When people feel subjected to unfair or undignified conditions, they’re four times more likely to act with self-interest and dishonesty.

While moral injury is not the same as PTSD, both can be understood as psychological trauma with biological markers and consequences. PTSD is associated with a threat to our mortality and damages our sense of safety; moral injury wounds our morality and our sense of trust. There is growing evidence that social and emotional experiences have physiological consequences. Social pain is processed in the same brain regions as physical pain, according to MRI studies, and in most languages people use the same words to describe social pain as they do physical pain.

Moral injury has been shown to lead to lasting psychological, physical, spiritual, behavioral, and social harm. Psychological reactions include feelings of grief, anger, anxiety, guilt, shame, or disgust. Some individuals may experience a spiritual or existential crisis or even become physically ill. And, as was the case with Brian, disillusionment resulting from moral injury at work may prompt resignation and resentment.

To be clear, we’re not advocating for leaders to walk on eggshells, vigilantly scrutinizing everything they say in order to coddle people. And yes, sometimes facing difficult circumstances requires that empathy and grace go both ways when bosses aren’t at their best. But as this new world of work unfolds before us and the pact between employee and employer gets rewritten, leaders have to learn and evolve to keep pace. Here are a few things you can do to ensure your actions aren’t unintentionally injuring the moral center of those you lead.

Don’t hide hypocrisy under a cloak of fairness.

As is the case with many social experiences, fairness ultimately resides in the eye of the beholder. Set aside time to have a conversation with your team about what they perceive to be fair and unfair. And most importantly, make sure you’re living by the same rules you ask others to.

For example, let’s say that to demonstrate commitment to your company’s diversity and inclusion efforts, you announce that you aim to have a diverse slate of candidates for an open position and that your team will participate in inclusion training together. Because you’ve made this public, you feel you’ve been fair to everyone. But when the person on your team who’d hoped to be promoted into the position complains to you privately, you tell them, “Don’t worry, they won’t be able to find a suitable candidate and then I’ll be able to give you the job. Then at least I can say I tried.” Without realizing it, you’ve made them feel ashamed, not proud, of the way they’ll get promoted. Then, when the day of the training arrives, you “suddenly” have an urgent meeting and can’t attend, but later play the victim to your team: “They ask us to commit to this training and then pull us out at the last minute.”

Make sure you’re setting the example of fairness and keeping the commitments you’re asking others to make. This will prevent your team from feeling a sense of compromise, outrage, and resentment, and exposing the hypocrisy you worked so hard to conceal.

Know the values by which others are assessing your actions.

Moral injuries are often the result of a misalignment between values and actions — others’ values and your actions. While you can’t accommodate everyone’s preferences on all your decisions, you can avoid having the inevitable disappointments you’ll sometimes need to cause turn into moral injury.

For example, one executive Ron coached, Elaine,* was in a similar predicament to Brian and needed to move up the schedule on a project by more than a week to meet a customer’s deadline. She knew this was going to conflict with two team members’ previous personal commitments — a wedding and a planned vacation — and she knew that two of her quality assurance people would fear compromising the very quality standards they were charged to protect. The executive acknowledged these conflicts when she announced the change and openly affirmed the values of those it was impacting: values of putting family first and doing quality work, which she herself had publicly espoused. Then, she engaged the team in a problem-solving conversation on how to meet the deadline without sacrificing quality or personal commitments. The avoidance of putting others in the moral bind of compromising core values averted a potential moral injury.

Be sure priorities are appropriately resourced.

One of the most common ways leaders inadvertently inflict moral injuries is by asking people to commit to something for which they ultimately feel set up to fail. Far more than a common “organizational nuisance,” setting priorities without giving people the necessary skills, budget, and time to complete them causes people to feel like inherent failures. As was true with Brian’s team, if people fear letting you down, they’ll exhaust themselves into sleep-deprived wrecks trying to heroically deliver the impossible.

Of course, unforeseen circumstances will occasionally require a team to rise to a challenge. But when such heroics become a way of life, so does moral injury. The umbrage, guilt, and self-contempt people feel when they can’t do their best work leaves them demoralized — especially when that work is declared a top priority and is therefore especially visible. Be sure that those you ask to deliver critical results tell you that the budget and time you’ve given them and the skills they have are sufficient for success. If they tell you they aren’t, believe them and rectify things.

Watch out for benevolent gaslighting.

With the best of intentions, leaders regularly cause moral injury by tolerating things they shouldn’t. From bad behavior to poor performance, leaders ignore, turn a blind eye to, or patently justify things that ultimately offend those they lead.

One of the most notorious examples of this is when leaders use the expression, “assume beneficial intent.” At face value, the sentiment behind this oft-used expression is noble — give people the benefit of the doubt when things don’t go as planned. But we’ve seen more than a few eyes roll when this incantation gets invoked as a way of heading legitimate complaints off at the pass. Leaders should certainly never invite recreational complaining. But when people bring forward valid concerns about a member of the team, rest assured others are having to bear the burden.

When someone routinely acts inconsiderately or self-servingly, your failure to address it leads others to conclude that you see that behavior as acceptable. This silences and demeans those trying to live up to higher standards. It also embeds duplicity into your team, giving everyone permission to say one thing but do another. This can result in shame, guilt, and self-doubt for those trying not to succumb to lower standards — the very people you want to keep. What you may believe is showing grace to someone struggling ends up gaslighting those burdened with the fallout. When unacceptable performance or behavior shows up, be the first one to address it before your team brings it up.

Don’t add moral insult to moral injury.

Leaders are scrambling to stem the tide of unprecedented mass resignations. People’s tolerance of organizational nonsense has reached its limits, and a deeper desire for meaning and belonging has swelled. Well-meaning leaders have grasped at the wrong straws to help employees feel better. For example, in the face of significant levels of burnout in 2021, many organizations purchased subscriptions to wellness apps, gave employees spa gift cards, or offered resilience training. However, these popular solutions cannot address deeper issues stemming from systemic factors like a lack of inclusion or long-tolerated bullying.

In one organization Ludmila consulted for, employees called these token gestures “spalencing” (spa + silencing), suggesting their leaders were out of touch with how bad things actually were. People need to know they and their work matter and that you genuinely care about their needs. That means you first have to understand their needs, and then develop solutions together to meet them. When you blanket simplistic solutions over painful conditions, people feel dismissed, insulted, and like their needs are invalidated. You’d be better off doing nothing than doing something that makes the injury worse.

Make amends when you cause moral harm.

Should you discover that your actions or words led others to feel as though they compromised their values, apologize and make amends. Listen remorsefully and empathetically to how they felt about the situation, knowing that guilt, shame, anxiety, and anger are just some emotions that might accompany what you hear. Don’t defend or try to “explain” yourself. Ask people what you could do to restore lost trust and what advice they have for what you could do differently if faced with similar circumstances.

Many people in the workplace are hurting. They yearn for a sense of humanity and community to be part of their work experience. And they need leaders who will help protect, honor, and strengthen their personal values and moral center, not put them into positions where they feel forced to compromise or abandon them.

Five years from now, when those you lead today speak about their most important values, will their morally centered convictions have grown because of you, or despite you?

* Real names have been changed.

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When Trust Takes Away from Effective Collaboration

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Leaders should be aware of a counterintuitive risk of trust: A strong emphasis on trust can lead to inertia, as employees might prioritize appearing trustworthy over behavior necessary for good, collaborative decision making. For example, in order to maintain a perception of being competent and trustworthy, an individual might withhold information or share inaccurate information when things aren’t going well. The author has spent over a decade making research on collaboration useable for organizations ranging from scaleups becoming unicorns to incumbents embracing transformation. He explains how overemphasizing trust can hinder collaborative decision making and cause inertia — and how leaders can strike the right balance between trust and progress.

Research shows that it takes a long time to build interpersonal trust in organizations. When people from different groups come together to cross-collaborate on important strategic challenges, there will be low trust between the individuals who haven’t worked together before. The same is true when a startup brings in new executives to help scale the business, or when an incumbent organization brings in new individuals with new competences into their decision-making processes and management team.

Heuristics like “collaboration is all about trust” would suggest that the examples above are doomed for failure, and the low success rate of inclusion and cross-collaboration we see in organizations might, at first sight, appear to be the proof. Fortunately, contrary to common belief, trust is not a prerequisite for teamwork and collaboration. Research on teaming and collective intelligence suggests that if we focus on getting a few things right, new constellations of people can collaborate effectively before they’ve had time to build trust.

Successful transformation depends on the organization’s ability to bring people with diverse competencies together to make high-quality decisions. In such situations, shifting attention away from creating trust toward information sharing, perspective taking, and effective turn taking can help organizations make progress on and speed up change and transformation.

Building trust vs. proving trustworthiness

Leaders should be aware of a counterintuitive risk of trust: A strong emphasis on trust can lead to inertia, as employees might prioritize appearing trustworthy over behavior necessary for good, collaborative decision making. For example, in order to maintain a perception of being competent and trustworthy, an individual might withhold information or share inaccurate information when things aren’t going well.

I’ve spent over a decade making research on collaboration useable for organizations ranging from scaleups becoming unicorns to incumbents embracing transformation. Below I will explain how overemphasizing trust can hinder collaborative decision making and cause inertia — and how leaders can strike the right balance between trust and progress.

How trust and distrust interfere with decision making

Two things stand out as critical to collaborative decision making on complex challenges.

First, in a fast-changing environment, you need access to accurate and updated data in order to make good decisions. The data for simple decisions is relatively easy to come by. For example, most organizations I’ve helped can access real-time customer data that they can analyze and base quick, smart decisions on. But most complex strategic challenges — for example, cross collaboration to meet a changing customer demand — require humans to bring in most of the important information.

When industries transform, organizations need new competencies. Most often, those competencies come attached to a person, who may differ from established employees in terms of background, values, demographic characteristics, etc. Thus, being able to include new individuals and their information into teams and decision-making processes is the second requirement for collaborative decision making.

Trust is a vague term and has a vast number of definitions. To understand trust in regard to collective decision making, keep these two definitions in mind:

  1. In the organizational context, trust is most often defined as an interpersonal relationship that forms when a person shows consistent proof of competence, benevolence, and integrity. This kind of trust takes a long time to build and is easily broken.
  2. More broadly, trust describes the intuitive and immediate feeling we get when we interact with another person, especially new individuals. This feeling is based on past experience: If the new person looks, sounds, and acts like people we’ve had a positive experience of, we intuitively feel trust. If the new person is different, we feel distrust. The greater the difference, the more distrust. This kind of trust is closely linked to unconscious bias and has nothing to do with the new person’s competence or the quality of the information they bring to the table.

Problems arise when our intuitive feeling of distrust makes us more doubtful of the information brought by new individuals who haven’t had time to prove their trustworthiness. This puts us at risk of undervaluing important information that’s communicated by someone new and overvaluing other information. Since new individuals often possess crucial information, this can be detrimental to transformation and strategic progress.

Another problem is when feelings of distrust cause established individuals to challenge a new person in ways that they don’t challenge other established collaborators. This can trigger feelings of exclusion and defensive and provocative behavior between the parties, which in turn harms the productive exchange of information that collaborative decision making depends on. Excluding behavior often comes from individuals who believe they’re safeguarding and protecting their organization. Unfortunately, they fail to realize that their behavior is keeping the organization from accessing the information needed for strategic progress, transformation, and long-term survival.

Organizations that overemphasize trust risk triggering this kind of unproductive behavior. Of course, it’s important to know that people in the organization are trustworthy, but management meetings and strategic collaboration efforts are not the right time to perform such evaluations.

How our focus on trust drives inertia and poor decision making

Individuals naturally want to establish themselves as competent and trustworthy in the eyes of their peers and leaders. But it’s much harder for people to work together on high-impact, complex transformation challenges if they’re more concerned with appearing trustworthy than with effective exchange of information and ideas. Here’s what that can look like in practice:

  1. New individuals hold back information, challenging questions, and out-of-the-box ideas in order to establish themselves as competent, benevolent, and trustworthy.
  2. Individuals representing the old norm who are not experts in the area of transformation hold back questions and hide ignorance and knowledge gaps because they’re afraid to appear less competent and trustworthy.
  3. When things don’t go according to plan, individuals hide information or share an inaccurate picture of the situation to avoid looking incompetent or like a failure.
  4. In cross-collaborative settings, individuals withhold information, questions, and ideas because there’s a history of distrust between different departments.
  5. Individuals refrain from openly changing their mind, as they’re afraid of appearing inconsistent and unpredictable.

The more an organization emphasizes the importance of trust, the more the behaviors above amplify.

How to keep trust from getting in the way

To maximize productive behavior and strategic progress when gathering diverse groups to solve important, complex challenges, leaders are wise to communicate that:

  • Trust is important to many aspects of organizational success, but interpersonal trust is not a prerequisite for collaboration. This is important, as the inaccurate notion that “collaboration is all about trust” is deeply rooted.
  • Feelings of trust and distrust are natural when collaborating with new individuals. However, they’re intuitive biases and should be set aside. Consider the advice of Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman: “Delay forming an intuition too quickly. Instead, focus on the separate points, and when you have the full profile, then you can develop an intuition.”
  • It’s vital to get the most accurate data on the table, even when that data is unpleasant to share. Everyone involved is responsible for creating an atmosphere where others can act with both candor and vulnerability when sharing their perspective.
  • Our individual willingness to explore and take each other’s perspectives is key to progress and effective decision making on complex challenges.

When leaders focus on getting the conversations right, groups often improve decisions and progress quite quickly. The experience of shared progress often strengthens trust between collaborators. It might sound counterintuitive, but shifting attention away from trust might be one effective way to quickly build trust in new constellations.

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How to Prepare for Leadership in Healthcare

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Healthcare is a massive sector and it requires great, passionate leaders at all levels. Healthcare leaders can manage a small team, a department, or even the entire hospital. They work in all areas of healthcare, from hospitals and clinics to research companies and pharmaceutical businesses.

It doesn’t matter where you work, either. Your job as a leader in healthcare will always impact the quality of care that patients receive and also the job satisfaction of your staff. With burnout on the rise and an increase in challenges, there has never been a more pressing need for talented, passionate healthcare leaders.

There is always room to improve and many ways to prepare for a role in leadership. By focusing on healthcare in particular and by also working to develop a great set of soft skills, you can make significant improvements to healthcare as a whole.

Why You Need a Healthcare Management Degree

For decades, many leaders have used management and administration degrees to prepare them for executive-level roles. The difference is that in the past, the go-to option was to take on an MBA with a focus on healthcare management. Though this is still a good option, there are now more focused degrees available that allow you to improve your skills and management style with healthcare as the focus.

MBAs will help prepare you by providing a foundation of business fundamentals. The focus, however, is broad rather than in-depth, so while you can earn a certification in healthcare management, the entire focus will not be on healthcare overall. Mostly your coursework will be based around general business concepts with only a few instances where healthcare will be the focus.

MBAs do, of course, still have their place. Healthcare professionals who have spent their entire career working within the industry and feel they need more general business skills than specialized business skills can benefit.

More often than not, however, professionals looking to get started as a leader in healthcare will find more benefits from Executive MHA programs online.

An Executive Master of Health Administration focuses on healthcare and business and works to advance your skillset with sector-specific courses that are essential for healthcare leadership. It is ideal for existing healthcare professionals and those closely adjacent, like consultants or analysts, to take up healthcare leadership roles in their workplace or field.

These types of specialized administration degrees are streamlined and specific for healthcare, making them ideal for those looking to advance their healthcare career directly. They are, however, new. There are only a handful of these degrees available in the world, but even still, it is important to check for quality markers. Triple accreditation from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), Association for Master of Business Administration (AMBA), and EFMD Quality Improvement System (EQUIS) is a key sign of quality to watch out for.

It typically takes the same amount of time to complete an online MHA as it does an online MBA, meaning around two years or six semesters. You can typically stretch it out longer if necessary but always talk with the admissions advisor beforehand.

Two Asian doctors having a discussion

Additional Factors to Help Prepare You For Leadership

Having the know-how in healthcare management, finance, and analysis is a great start, but as any leader knows, you also need plenty of soft skills to be an effective leader. Managing people isn’t like ticking boxes or staying organized. Sometimes it needs a custom touch, and you always need to adapt your approach depending on who you are with and what the other person needs.

Know Your Leadership Style

A great place to start is to understand and work out your leadership style. Although you can customize and develop what feels like your own leadership style, it is important to remain consistent. If you flip flop between different methods of leading and managing your teams, you’ll only breed resentment and a hostile workplace.

You cannot go from being diplomatic and accommodating one day to draconian the next. Setting up standards is how everyone works more efficiently because they know what to expect and the quality of work that is required of them.

You want to get the most out of every member of your team, and setting the right expectations is a great place to start.

Though you will want to workshop and develop your own leadership style, a great place to get started is by understanding the types of leadership styles, as outlined in Lewin’s Leadership Styles framework that has been in use since the 1930s.

Autocratic Leaders

It is important to note that all leaders need to workshop and work with those working underneath them when it comes to decision-making. Autocratic leaders take the input and advice from those working alongside or under them and then make their own decisions based on that information. Though there will be a certain amount of autocratic leadership within healthcare, you never want to alienate the other leaders and managers within your organization.

Democratic Leaders

Democratic leadership puts team members in the running when it comes to decision-making. It can improve motivation and job satisfaction but is not always effective in healthcare when tough decisions need to be made, especially when it comes to being fair to all departments. A good way to look at leadership in healthcare is with a mix of democratic and autocratic decision-making. Knowing when to use both styles is how you will be an effective leader. You cannot and should not make every decision, but at the same time, there are certain standards, laws, and difficult situations that will require an autocratic stance.

Laissez-Faire Leaders

Laissez-Faire leaders support their team members rather than lead them. This can work in a few situations in healthcare, but due to the high levels of regulation and standardization, you’ll find you simply don’t have the opportunity to provide support and trust in your team to always make the best decisions for them. Between laws and budgeting, there is little room for this style of leadership.

On top of leadership styles, you also have different approaches. There are six emotional leadership styles. These styles include visionary, coaching, affiliative, democratic, pace setting, and commanding. There is even transformational leadership.

At the end of the day, knowing the different types of leadership and, most importantly, what option will suit the scope of your role is a must. You may even use different leadership styles when dealing with different departments. How you approach shareholders will be different from department heads or team leaders.

Healthcare management training

How to Develop the Essential Soft Skills

Soft skills can be practiced and guided, but they are not the same as other skills that can be learned. You need to develop and find your own approach that works for you and feels most natural. Soft skills, after all, are interpersonal. How you actually speak and communicate to your teams, your shareholders, and even the patients and their families depend on the situation.

The essential soft skills you will want to have, and if not work on, include:

1. Communication and Interpersonal Skills

Being able to effectively communicate comes easily to some and can feel like a nightmare to others. As a leader, you should be able to confidently speak to a room of people and at the very least be able to command attention when speaking to those who are directly underneath you. While there are coaching courses and other workshops you can take to improve your public speaking abilities, that is not the only type of communication you need to consider.

You also need to know how to listen and adapt. Interpersonal skills are a type of communication skill that you will want to continually improve upon. How you speak to one person won’t work for another. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you think someone should be able to buckle down and get the work done because it is your job to get the most effective work out of your team. If that requires a more gentle touch and encouragement for some of your employees and a harder hand for others, be ready to adapt.

2.The Ability to Motivate and Stay Motivated

One sub-skill to communication is both motivating and being motivated. You want your team to go above and beyond, and in healthcare, that is a big ask. There is a massive shortage which means healthcare professionals everywhere are already going above and beyond for their patients. The good news is that motivating your team doesn’t mean pushing them to work harder but working smarter. It also means recognizing and rewarding their additional efforts if you can.

With burnout in healthcare at an all-time high, knowing how to motivate those underneath you is a skill that cannot be emphasized enough. Being able to motivate others is just the start as well. You also need to know how to stay motivated, especially if you are attempting to complete a degree while working in an existing managerial role.

3.Creative and Analytical Problem Solving

Knowing how to analyze data and understand it better is a great place to start, but it isn’t enough. Creative and analytical problem solving is something of an art form. The data you collect and the information you extract from it are the materials, but you are still the artist that needs to do something with the information presented to you. A great way to develop this soft skill is to actually learn and study. See how others have handled similar problems, and don’t be afraid to ask for advice from those in similar roles to you.

4.Conflict Resolution

Part of managing a team means managing the conflicts that will inevitably arise. You have to keep in mind that healthcare organizations around the world are stretched to their limits. They have to deal with people who are emotionally and physically often at their worst and most scared. They also need to deal with long hours and a lot of stress, thanks in part to the risk caused by the coronavirus.

This adds to a lot of stress and high tension. It would be a miracle if there weren’t any internal conflict that comes from such a situation, so you need to know how to handle it when it happens. This is something you will need to learn hard and fast when you start your first leadership or managerial role in any field, but there are online tools and advice available to help you prepare some mitigation strategies.

5.Organization

It would be best if you stay organized. There is a lot of work that comes in with managing a team or teams, especially in the healthcare setting. If you aren’t organized, you can easily fall behind on many different tasks. While that task might not have been altogether that important one day, left alone, it could build up into a problem.

Using the right organizational tools and investing in automating certain admin systems is a great way to reduce the level of hands-on organization you need to handle. However, it would help if you still were in the habit of staying organized and on top of your daily tasks.

6.Adaptability

Healthcare is a massive industry, and the challenges that are faced by healthcare organizations vary day to day. One day you may be dealing with a massive shortage because there was a COVID-19 outbreak and several members of your staff caught it and now need to quarantine at home. A serious car pileup could have occurred the next day, and now your ER is overrun.

Corporate healthcare planning

There are so many challenges that face healthcare leaders, which is why one of the most important skills you will need to succeed as a healthcare leader is the ability to adapt and roll with the punches. You don’t need to do it on your own, but you do need to know how to leverage your team and the resources available to meet every challenge that comes your way.

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When Your Efforts to Be Inclusive Misfire

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Sometimes in your efforts to be inclusive and call out injustice, you accidentally cause harm to others. Perhaps you use words that some find offensive, or you neglect to name all of the groups that are suffering the injustice, or you make some other misstep you don’t recognize until someone brings it to your intention. This is to be expected, and what matters is how you respond. The author, an HR leader and DEI expert, offers guidance for how to respond you’ve been called out for making a mistake that hurts others. She suggests that you own it (rather than getting defensive), you create a space for dialogue, learning, and humility, you model courageous conversations, and call in a friend for feedback. Most importantly, don’t let your fear of making another mistake hold you back.

As an HR leader and a DEI expert, I know that words matter — especially in high-stakes moments. I also know how hard it is to always get them right. You won’t always, but how you respond when you harm others is crucial.

George Floyd was murdered two weeks after I started my new job at VICE Media as chief people officer. As I set out to write an introduction email to a global workforce of more than 2,000 people, many of whom were struggling with the compounding effects of a global pandemic, I labored over each and every word.

This email needed to convey so much in just a few paragraphs. It had to share a little about me, set the tone for my leadership philosophy, create a connection in a virtual world, demonstrate my empathy, and most of all, shake up the assumption that this would be a run-of-the-mill company email filled with platitudes. As an HR executive, my mission has always been to help build workplaces that are truly inclusive and ensure that companies display allyship not just with statements, but with the actions behind them.

After writing and rewriting the email (and getting sign off from my CEO and internal communications team), I hit send and sat anxiously awaiting the replies. Would it be well received? Would my message be clear? Would these new colleagues assume I had empathy and good intentions without my voice attached to the words?

Thankfully, the answers were yes, and since then, I’ve written many notes about difficult moments faced across the world. I strive to send company-wide communications after disheartening global incidents because hate that goes unchecked can explode into full-fledged violence or worse, good people looking away. But even DEI experts make mistakes, and there have been times when my efforts to model inclusive allyship haven’t always delivered my intended impact, and I inadvertently hurt and alienated others.

Last year, I sent a company-wide email denouncing anti-Semitism and lslamophobia, which drew attention from a group of Arab and Palestinian employees in our Middle East offices. A few days after receiving my note, they sent me a beautifully written, thoughtful response to offer an additional perspective on the content of my email. Specifically, they expressed disappointment about an article I linked to as a resource. They referred to a few points made in the article that may have unintentionally confused readers about anti-Semitism and Islamophobia during a particular time of crisis in Palestine. In my efforts to be inclusive, I had made some employees feel excluded.

There are two distinct ways to react when this happens. You can get defensive and explain the situation away. (“I didn’t write the email without consulting others!” “You’re missing the larger point and getting stuck in the details!”) Or you can take full ownership of what happened, connect with those offended, and use it as a learning experience to try to do better. I bet you know which is the right answer.

I sent an email back admitting my mistake, which is that I had not thoroughly vetted my chosen resource with a broader subset of employees, including important regional voices, especially theirs. I apologized, took responsibility, and committed to do better next time.

We scheduled a meeting to connect and learn from this experience, and they helped me reflect on what I knew and didn’t know about the complex and nuanced cultural matters in the Middle East. I was struck by their willingness to discuss these issues in a collaborative manner. In the end, it brought us closer and it remains one of the biggest lessons for me personally from last year.

I got called out, but they called me in.

For too many, awkward and uncomfortable experiences like this lead to denial, defensiveness, or, worse, staying silent. Studies have shown that fear of punishment and rejection are a key reason why people remain silent. Afraid of saying the wrong thing, employees, including managers, don’t speak up about racist incidents, gendered microaggressions, or abusive language in the workplace. But that is a huge reason why DEI efforts have remained stalled.

It’s essential to welcome difficult conversations and give people the grace and space to stumble over their words. Saying something and showing care is always better than saying nothing.

And when you do find the courage to speak up and then find yourself making a misstep, like I did, here’s my advice for taking action and turning it into a positive learning experience.

Own it.

Depending on the situation, whether it’s failing to use gender-inclusive language or being criticized for only speaking up when someone white is being impacted, don’t try to immediately fix it or explain it away. Live in the tension. Listen and respond to what you hear, and take responsibility for what you said or did — or didn’t do. Acknowledge your responsibility, apologize, and commit to doing better. Saying sorry doesn’t always eliminate the hurt so you might not be forgiven right away. What matters more is that you show a willingness to open the dialogue and learn from your mistakes.

Create a space for dialogue, learning, and humility.

Demonstrate genuine curiosity in better understanding the nature of your misstep. Ask questions about your word choices, and use this as an opportunity to better understand another culture or point of view. As a manager, you can create a regular dialogue on a variety of DEI topics so you build a climate where there is acceptance and respect for expressing emotions and grace to help one another when they misspeak. Don’t shy away from controversial issues. You might host AMAs or lightning talks giving employees the room to share their own experiences and solutions.

Model courageous conversations.

The more practiced and comfortable you become talking about racism, privilege, and oppression, the more others will take notice and follow suit. You can’t help someone feel safe about proposing new ideas (or improve team building or anything else) if your organizational culture isn’t designed to make sure people know it’s safe and beneficial to share who they truly are and what they’re grappling with. I write a weekly note to my team where I share personal and professional reflections, and regularly share missteps I’ve made. This is an opportunity for me to model that it’s OK to make mistakes.

Call in a friend.

When I struggle to find the resolve to have courageous conversations or build common ground, I reach out to my community of friends and colleagues — some DEI experts and others from a wide variety of fields — for wisdom and guidance. If you’re uncertain about saying or doing the “right” thing, vet your emails or actions with a broad range of voices. You can also try modeling non-leading “what” and “how” questions when speaking with your own teams to get their perspective: “What was your intention when you said that?” “How might the other person interpret your actions?” “Tell me more.”

Persist when you make a mistake.

It’s natural to be overwhelmed by a fear of messing up, saying the wrong thing, or not being able to do enough. The key is to fail fast and recover quickly. When you make missteps — and you will — how you react is more important than what you did. When you persist with kind, authentic, and genuine care, you’ll better be able to move forward together with a shared understanding.

Most importantly, don’t let your fears of making a mistake hold you back. It’s true that sometimes by simply acknowledging one troubling event you can bring into focus the ones you didn’t acknowledge. It’s tempting to stay silent to not offend anyone, but you shouldn’t. Of course, I’m constantly considering what to address and not, and how to bring in as many voices as possible. On some occasions, I send messages after employees reach out expressing concerns. I always consider what is most aligned with our company’s mission, values, and behavioral principles.

The path to creating and sustaining an inclusive culture will never be free of obstacles or mistakes. So own them and persist.

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