It’s been easy to forget in the past four years that leadership is not about ego or politicking. It’s also not about the assertion of power or the wiping away of discomfort, critique or frustration. Great leaders take up the mantle of the trust imbued in them by the people they employ, to inspire, create safety, and to build a better future.
Just weeks after insurrectionists, upholding white supremacist values, invaded the most sacred of our political institutions, a Black woman, Kamala Harris, became Vice President. Joe Biden, a public servant who has shown strength and vulnerability, has taken office. And while there is still work to do, it’s up to organizational leaders to not let this opportunity to recalibrate, reflect, and refocus responsibilities pass us by.
Sister Helen Prejean, an anti-death penalty activist once wrote, “Keep watching what [you] do to see what [you] actually believe.” As we begin a new news cycle today and watch a new President take office, I implore anyone who leads to consider these actionable steps:
1. Prioritize psychological and physical safety through active listening.
Do not assume your teams will react the same way to political events. Also do not assume all your employees feel safe. Implement a question in your listening program that directly asks employees how they would like to see the company participate in political conversations and social justice movements. This could be done via pulse survey, Slack/Teams poll, or focus grouping.
2. Don’t stay silent: The fear of saying something wrong is not an acceptable excuse to avoid hard conversations.
Approach sensitive topics from a facilitator’s perspective. Show employees you are giving them the floor to express how they feel and ask questions about how you can help. Developing a facilitator’s guide for tough conversations in advance will help managers feel more prepared to implement spaces for employees to convene. Consider piloting one or two conversations and then gather employee feedback to see if it is something that should become a part of your larger employee engagement plan.
3. Put employee-first commitments in writing.
Consider adding an employee policy that acknowledges the need for employees to take time as needed for moments of crisis in our country. Calling this out separately will proactively acknowledge leadership supports the need to step away and won’t penalize their people for doing so. Additionally, take time to reevaluate company values and codes of ethics. If the pillars and standards your company upholds doesn’t uphold the well-being of your most marginalized employees, now is the time to update your message.
Today, as millions of eyes watch the inauguration, those same folks will look to their workplace leaders for reassurance and accountability going forward. Be brave, listen to your people, and take action in the interest of their well-being.