How do you respond to exclusionary or offensive behavior? Do you lash out, stay silent, or walk away?
Once while discussing her company’s mission to create more inclusive work cultures, someone commented, “I hope you don’t get offended, but I love having women at my company; you should see how hot my assistant is.” Even though it is literally her job to disrupt bias and create inclusion, in that moment she froze. She said she laughed awkwardly and left the room as soon as she could — and was immediately ashamed of her response. This example demonstrates how difficult it can be to respond appropriately to exclusionary behavior, even for someone so passionate about doing so.
Silence or laughter are often seen as acceptance. So, after facing this dilemma firsthand, Shavon made the decision to fight her natural flight/freeze response and disrupt this behavior whenever she witnessed it. To have a more appropriate response in the future, she developed a four-step strategy that would allow her to defuse bias without making others feel attacked or defensive.
True dialogue requires two willing participants. The first thing that must be done is to request permission to give feedback. It is important to not just lash out. When feeling attacked, the automatic fight/flight/freeze reaction is triggered and the higher functioning parts of the brain shut down. However, during periods of calm, reasoning and inclusive behavior are able to be activated in the prefrontal cortex. Therefore, it’s vital for both parties to calmly engage in a rational conversation, otherwise no progress can be made. To this end, respectfully request the opportunity to give feedback privately is the first necessary step.
2. State the Exclusionary Behavior
After receiving permission to give feedback, identify what specifically made you feel uncomfortable or what showed bias against you or someone else. By exercising self-awareness, you are able to bring up specific examples when discussing the feedback, so the message is as clear as possible.
3. Benefit of the Doubt
This is perhaps the hardest part of the four-step process. When a person hears or sees something that they disagree with, their initial reaction is to cast judgement and unconsciously shape a negative opinion. In any scenario, giving people the benefit of the doubt is critical to disrupting bias behavior. Shavon said this was a vital discovery for her. It doesn’t matter how empowered women felt if men felt excluded in the process. Again, if either side feels attacked, it shuts down dialogue.
4. Listen Curiously
The final step in this strategy is to give them an opportunity to respond by listening openly, without judgment, in hopes of understanding each other better. Being open about what makes you feel excluded invites someone to share their perspective and why they may have said what they did, even if it was not their intent to promote a certain message.
Following these steps allows for a respectful dialogue that can leave both parties more connected and empowered. This is the foundation of inclusive leadership. It is what helps Shavon to now say, “I do find that offensive, and if you have time after this event, I would like to speak with you in private about it.”
This four-step method is a key part of Ion Learning’s Inclusion 360, which is designed to instill inclusive leadership traits. Client organizations who have utilized this method including Elevate, Evolution Hospitality, and Ancestry.com. To learn more about Ion’s educational suite, check out ionlearning.com.
Jacquelyn Adams, an IEEE Senior member, is a nationally-recognized leader in employee learning and development. Jacquelyn is the CEO and Founder of Ristole, a consulting business that transforms corporations through engaging employee training. Find more of her Lessons on Leadership columns here or connect with her on LinkedIn here.