How to Avoid or Address Subtle Acts of Exclusion, and Create the Kind of Work Environment Where Your Team Can Shine
“I feel like I am walking on eggshells.”
This is something I commonly hear from clients who are afraid of saying the wrong thing in a work setting. Even the most seasoned leaders want to avoid missteps, and as a result they tend to avoid conversations that feel “risky.” Of course, this is at odds with what works in many high-functioning organizations—on the one hand, open, respectful dialogue about sometimes “hard” topics, and on the other, the psychological safety that allows for people to feel comfortable opening up, and being vulnerable.
I was thinking a lot about the “eggshells” at our recent CliffsNotes Book Club meeting. Last month’s book was Subtle Acts of Exclusion, by Tiffany Jana and Michael Baran. The title of the book is the new phrase for what we previously called “micro-agressions.” The newer phrase avoids “micro” which can mean insignificant, and “aggression” which can imply the intent to harm. With acts of exclusion, it’s not about the intent, it’s about the impact.
In the book, the authors push us to think about the risks of speaking up versus not speaking up. (And that’s where you crunch the eggshells.) In my work with leaders at all levels over the past three decades, I have met many big-hearted, capable people who avoid such conversations. Many things can get in the way of the kinds of conversations that may seem awkward, but that lead us to deeper, more meaningful connections. Here are three common barriers, and ways to address them.
Tips for Leaders – Avoiding or Addressing Subtle Acts of Exclusion
1. “I want to be authentic at work, and I feel I am being silenced or cannot talk about certain topics.”
Reality check: It’s not about limiting your authenticity—it’s just that you can’t be a jerk, at work or anywhere for that matter. Acts of exclusion are seemingly small comments that can make others feel left out, or less than. For example, going around the room and asking “how many children do you have?” versus “does anyone else have young kids?” is a simple reframe that can set the tone for group dynamics in that conversation and beyond. It’s okay to mention your own children. It’s not okay to assume all others have children.
Decades ago when we talked about “political correctness” people took away the understanding that they must circumvent certain personal topics or discussions in a professional setting. And this can make people feel as if they cannot be themselves. I would argue that in most places of work you are encouraged to share about yourself, provided you do not impose your values on others and provided you avoid making assumptions about others. For example, it’s wonderful to wish a new mom “Happy Mother’s Day,” but perhaps avoid wishing all women the same. Just pause and think first.
2. “Sometimes I just don’t know what to say.”
When something comes up that could offend you or others, something that you know you “should” respond to, but you are speechless, what do you do? I find that it helps to have a reaction prepared—to avoid a speechless moment. A question such as, “What makes you think that?” can draw the person out, without condoning what they have said, and give you time to regain composure and react.
At Book Club, we talked about how terrible it feels to be caught off guard, and how it can be especially hard to advocate for someone in response to an act of exclusion you might be witness to, but that might not directly impact you. As a group, we brainstormed possible phrases to have ready, for when you need them. For example, here are a couple to keep in your back pocket.
These phrases buy you time, point toward the issue, and open up a discussion on what transpired. They hit the “pause” button on the conversation. They also allow others time to chime in.
3. “I don’t want to make it worse, and I know I have blind spots.”
As a leader, people are watching what you do and say—and what conversations you avoid. You are the keeper of the culture and you are modeling what leadership means in your organization. That said, this is an honor not a burden.
I always say, it’s not about perfection, it’s about course-correction. Having the courage to open up a discussion that may feel awkward or messy is part of professionalism in today’s world. And not doing it could have a long-term negative impact on the relationships and team dynamic. My advice? Acknowledge the challenge, demonstrate that you’re in learning mode, and ask for feedback. Say something like, “This is out of my comfort zone, but the conversation is important. Can we talk about this for a minute?”
For more tips, and notes from the book club discussion/highlights from the book, head over to the portal.