Have you ever disagreed with a colleague? It's not about arguing how to approach a work project, it's about a disagreement stemming from different views on life or political positions. Did you have a clarifying conversation about why you had different opinions, or did you just decide not to engage?
In the past, I tended to choose the latter, telling myself that the office was not the place to have conversations with my team members about their beliefs or values. That was until I met members of my team whose views of the world were in direct conflict with the values we espouse as a company.
Managers become leaders because people trust and believe in them. They keep their word, respect boundaries, treat everyone fairly, and hold others accountable when they cross boundaries. Over the past two years, I've had to hold myself and my team members accountable for our commitment to "happy people, a happy and diverse culture." I had to have conversations with those of them who had different opinions to try to understand our differences and determine if our company was the best place for them.
Holding people accountable, especially family members, friends, and even our "teammates," is easier said than done. We are often tempted to avoid uncomfortable conversations, but it is the discomfort we feel that should be the signal to talk and find a solution.
A strong manager knows that not everything is always right
It can be difficult to approach controversial conversations without being sure of the outcome or all the right things to say. It's important to remember that part of the process is making mistakes, saying the wrong thing, apologizing, and learning how to do better. In a polarized world where people with one political viewpoint or another consume information only from sources that confirm their opinions, responsible leaders can open new spaces for more authentic conversation.
One of our company's goals is a healthy and diverse culture because we recognize that creating a fair workplace will not happen by itself. Supported by a diverse workforce of different genders, ethnicities, and even cognitive abilities, leaders can make decisions more effectively, run businesses that make more money, and help employees feel more represented and heard. Creating an environment that engages and supports diverse teams involves fostering and facilitating difficult conversations around highly charged social issues.
Managers who promote diversity have a responsibility to create an inclusive and safe space to protect and advance these values within a team. The point is not to only hire or work with those who think the same way as you. Boundaries are needed to ensure that every member of your team can feel heard, safe, and included. Having these tough conversations allows you to disagree and find out which side of that line someone might fall on. With this culture comes a multitude of opinions - both those we as leaders agree with and those we disagree with.
Challenge can be a good thing
My daughter, who is now 14, learned at an early age to test the boundaries that her mother and I set for her. Learning boundaries is an important part of child development, but it was just as important for him to question and discuss certain rules with us, even if he didn't end up getting his way.
Likewise, an ethical leader must establish boundaries so that his team can feel safe and grow, but also allow people to question those boundaries healthily. When employees question company policies, leaders can highlight areas that may be unnecessary, outdated, or in need of correction.
If someone isn't up to speed with the company's diversity policies, give them a chance to open their minds with a conversation first. Let them "poke holes", but intervene with facts when their criticisms miss the mark. If they refuse to examine their fixed mindsets and their presence makes others feel insecure or undervalued, a leader must recognize when someone will never represent the company.
Standing up for your values is hard, but there are times when leaders must draw that line, no matter who is "bending" the rules, even if it's themselves.
Tough conversations are about learning, not winning
A true manager knows that tough conversations are about learning, not winning, especially when someone disagrees. Being open to hearing other people's experiences is an opportunity to better understand their opinion and how they might affect their work or the entire team. This openness goes both ways—employees with more experience in social issues may feel that the company's approach to diversity could be better, while other employees may be in direct conflict with it. Leaders demonstrate a willingness to listen to different points of view, not to let someone else win, but to determine whether that person's dissent can be considered consistent with their organization.
In recent years, social media has made difficult conversations easier than ever. This is how we continue to get better and begin to right the wrongs of society. For me, having tough conversations with my team pushes me to learn and understand issues that I might not otherwise have thought about.
The power to accelerate social change is in our hands every time we decide to have tough conversations. We spend most of our waking hours at work, and global disruptions, waves of change, and political pressures don't just happen after 5:00. You have the opportunity to do more than achieve business success, and it starts with open, honest, and yes, sometimes difficult discussions with one another.