13 Apr 2022

Bringing Crucial Conversations and Collaboration into the Workplace

By Kim Ellet, Certified Professional Coach

Those who know me know I am passionate about collaboration, bringing people together, and helping shift perspectives to see things in a new and bigger way. Much is being lamented about the Great Resignation with how-to’s for employee retention and engagement. What is not being widely considered are the essentials for a healthy workplace and company culture: how-to for bridging the divide that is currently rampant in society as a whole.

Many organizational Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) efforts are seen as simply going through the motions and checking a box rather than making a significant difference. Many leaders are tuning it out or feeling frustrated that not much is really changing. The level of disconnect and fear is increasing and the gaps in knowledge and understanding of each other do not seem to be shrinking rapidly enough.

To tackle these issues, it’s important to start with the basics for bringing people together and generating trust:

1. Let go of defensiveness and preconceived ideas. This is big work that each of us must do individually. We can do that work on ourselves with a coach or as part of a group, but the focus needs to be on opening our own minds rather than trying to “fix” someone else. As I have written before, leadership begins with self. Until awareness is raised, limiting beliefs keep us thinking and playing small. Protecting individual fears or limited ideas is one of the cornerstones of division within an organization or community.

Derek Black, the son of a grand wizard in the KKK, is an excellent example of someone who was raised with a very narrow ideology. His story of expanding his perspective and later denouncing the White Nationalist philosophy along with the hate and fear in which he grew up gives us hope for change. His story can be read here. Most of us don’t have the extreme limiting beliefs like Derek Black to overcome, but there are plenty of opportunities to let go of defensiveness and fears that get in the way of learning new things and learning what we didn’t learn growing up.

2. Create a safe space for listening. To learn something new there must be an opening to truly hear someone else’s experiences and perspectives that may be different from your own. Listen to “get it”, to empathize, not to rebut or defend your own perspective. It’s human nature to want to be right – to want to share your own thoughts and opinions, but to learn something new, stop talking!

Take time to let the words sink in, reflect and imagine what it was like for the person to have the experience they are being courageous and generous enough to share. Listen to understand, not to try to solve anything. Much of the defensiveness comes from those who feel some sort of blame or make the content about themselves rather than simply listening to understand someone else. A safe space is created for authentic sharing when someone feels heard and seen rather than interrupted or debated.

3. Get to know each other. Trust comes from building relationships (and the first two steps as well!). It takes time to get to know someone beyond just their job title. In the case of Derek Black, he became friends with other students while he was in college. It was about a two-year journey that was initially chronicled in the book, Rising Out of Hatred, by Eli Saslow. As his respect for some of his peers grew, he was able to consider their viewpoints and how his thoughts and actions affected them personally.

In our organizations, getting to know someone with who we may not typically relate to can make a big difference for both parties.

Find out what their early life was like, how did they celebrate holidays, favorite foods, and music. Do they cheer for a particular sports team, or do they love to read? What are they most proud of and what hopes and dreams do they have for themselves? Showing a genuine interest in someone goes a long way toward building relationships and learning from each other.

An Atlanta corporation that has taken this idea to heart matches up employees for a unique mentoring relationship. The participants come from different departments and different age groups, ethnicities, and genders. The relationship is constructed to allow both parties to learn from each other rather than a senior/ junior assignment. Older workers can learn about technology advances, for example. Those newer to the company can learn about systems and processes from those more seasoned. Those with diverse ethnicities can learn culturally from each other as well. Truly a win-win and an opportunity for connection and collaboration.

4. Crucial and authentic conversations. Once you’ve established trust (the basis of a relationship), crucial conversations can be taken to a deeper level. There is a tendency to gravitate to what is familiar, to what feels comfortable. The challenge is to seek out and get to know those we don’t usually spend time with. I recently participated in a crucial conversations group program for authentic connection. There were several elements that made this event a huge success:

-The group was already bonded with trusted relationships and mutual respect. A safe space was created and confidentiality was assured.
-The speakers shared personal experiences and helped the audience see their perspectives.
-The participants listened with empathy and compassion.
-The moderator brought up real topics and potentially sensitive subjects to discuss.

One of the most interesting points of seeing each other’s perspectives came up when the skilled, Black moderator asked three prominent Black leaders to share what they think of when they hear the phrase “make America great again” and the timeframe that is being referenced when America was great before now. Many White audience members were truly surprised to hear that their Black colleagues thought about the pain and issues from years before when they heard that phrase. They thought about Jim Crow laws, segregation, civil rights violence, and not having a voice or representation in corporations or banking.

Several White participants expressed surprise and said that for them, the phrase conjured up a time when America held a stronger place in the global economy. Others thought of education when the US ranked higher in student achievement. That one discussion point alone created an opening to learn more about each other.

The participants were sorry to see the program end. There was excitement and interest in learning more about each other.

That energy of excitement and interest in learning more about each other can come from having these uncomfortable conversations. For any growth to occur, there will be discomfort. We must get comfortable with the uncomfortable. Investing in your own leadership development and in your team will affect customer service, productivity, and employee engagement. Remember, people don’t leave a job, they leave a manager or an environment where they aren’t valued or feel they belong. Building a strong community with interest and enthusiasm for each other allows for true collaboration to occur. This creates real inclusion in our organizations: creating together what’s next.

My dream and my work is for improved cohesion, collaboration, and connection within companies, organizations, and communities.

Reach out to me for more information on bringing your team together for effective communication and facilitated safe conversations. KEllet@thegrowthcoach.com

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