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Courageous Conversations About Difference


Initial Impressions of Others

Our initial impression of others often times impacts the way we interact with them and how we build relationships at work, at school and in our neighborhood. These impressions are often “triggered” by interactions that we have had with others who look like, act like, or talk like someone we have encountered in our past. Marshall Goldsmith talks a lot about these triggers in his best selling book entitled “Triggers.”

Linkage to Bias in the Workplace

These impressions can lead to bias in the workplace. Subtle and unconscious bias can lead to discriminatory behavior often referred to as micro-aggression. Such responses can impact productivity, innovation and organizational goals. They can also lead to increased attrition and lower morale, especially among underrepresented women and minorities.

As part of my consulting practice, I have been working with organizations on initiatives and strategies for having respectful conversations about race in the work place, how they impact personal and interpersonal relationships, and how they can often become imbedded in organizational processes, systems and practices. Leaders may not fully understand how their own behavior sets the tone and environment for theses biases to emerge and flourish.

Examining our Own Perceptions

Dr. Michael Baran, a former professor at Harvard University and President of Interactive Diversity Solutions has produced a very useful and important tool for initiating discussions about race in both work and educational settings. The web-based tool is helpful in assessing our initial thoughts about a range of diverse people. Once we select the option which we think most closely matches their appearance, the true identity of the individual is revealed with some additional background provided by Dr. Baran, a cultural anthropologist.

Critical Workplace Questions

  • How should conversations about race be handled in the workplace:

  • How do we learn about our differences in a respectful way to diminish the fear of difference?

  • How can we foster productive conversations that build rapport rather than raise barriers in the work environment?

  • How do we provide meaningful and courageous feedback on performance when there is an underlying fear that it maybe perceived as biased?

Generally, in order for respectful conversations to occur both participants need to feel safe. Each must assume positive intent, respect each other person’s lens and perspective and be able to respectfully disagree. The goal is to have an open and honest conversation.

Structure the Conversation on the Same Level

Sometimes conversations about race are occurring at different levels. One may think that they are talking just about an incident involving an individual while the other may see the latest incident as part of a larger systemic pattern of bias and discrimination.

When having conversations about race in the workplace make sure you are both talking about the issue at the same level. Also remember that you can not make anybody do anything, that no one changes unless they want to (not because you told them to), that you are responsible for yourself, and that having these conversations will help reduce your personal stress and anxiety even if they do not reduce them for the other person.

Understand the Concept of Unconscious Bias

Dr. Baran’s tool helps us understand the concept of bias when we try to “guess” someone’s race. We are all susceptible to cultural stereotype – about race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, politics, age, personality type, class and physical abilities and attributes. By understanding our own biases and stereotypes, we can learn to control and mitigate their influence on our behavior and attitudes in the workplace.

Workplace Barriers

There are number of barriers that often get in the way of having respectful conversations. I am sure you can think of a number of them from “just wanting to avoid conflict, finding the right place and time for the conversation, a sense that you do not know the person that well, the power relationship the person has over you in the workplace (boss, co-worker, etc.), and the list goes on and on.”

Managing the Conversation

  • Find the right time

  • Start with the common ground

  • State the problem

  • Use descriptive rather than evaluative statements

  • Refrain from using “you don’t like me statements

  • Stay on task, stick to the issue you came in to discuss

  • Keep it civil

  • Stay calm, breath, slow down

  • Share your feelings about the incident

  • Stick to “this is how I saw it” even when the other person is saying “I didn’t see it that way.”

Ask Yourself:

  • Is this really about me?

  • What outcome am I looking for?

  • Can the problem be solved or at least managed?

  • Do I have damage control measures in mind?

  • Advantages and disadvantages

  • What are the risks?

Creating a climate within your organization that allows all employees an opportunity to express their concerns and issues is important. The tone has to be set by leaders and inappropriate behavior challenged.

Respectful Conversations and Organizational Outcomes

As workforces and workplaces become more diverse, it is important to allow for important conversations about difference to talk place. Today we are seeing a need for more dialogue about race, sexual orientation, transgender issues, religion, and a number of other areas. Build environments where discussions can occur can enhance trust, foster higher levels of engagement, retention and productivity.

Feel free to contact me for more information about “Don’t Guess My Race” and about “developing an initiative for encouraging respectful conversations about Race (and other differences).