Being an effective leader includes managing differences -- Part I

Recently, I talked about ensuring that your new leaders were both technically proficient as well as effective.

And in response to that, I was asked, what about cultural differences and background in the team or with the new leader and what about levels of experience and skills and the difficulty to reconcile them?

First, thank you so much for the question.

Second, let’s talk about it!

I feel that there are really two distinct topics here, and, therefore, I’ll divide them in two parts.

So for Part I, let’s answer what can new leaders do to help address cultural differences and backgrounds between themselves and/or the team?

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Like many leaders, I am not a DE&I expert. Although I do my best to educate myself in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion, it is not my specialty. And the risk, of course, as we know it, is in the unknown unknowns. As in what do I not know that I don't know?

Personally, to get help with that, I have turned to hiring experts in DE&I. And the team was absolutely fabulous. They came in, they did an audit of the recruiting process. They did an audit of the environment. They provided a roadmap to improvements, and they also offered learning opportunities in the form of training where they come in and educate us on various things that we should know. That is definitely something that I highly recommend because, let's face it, they specialize in that and they can help identify those unknown unknowns.

But if for whatever reason that's not possible or you would like additional information just like I did, you can create a personal development plan. And that's something that I feel was beneficial to me to add to all the information that I already was being provided with by the experts. This allowed me to continue learning on my own and educating myself in addition to what I was being given.

You can start with the info you do have. For example, if someone on your team has shared with everyone that they are neurodiverse, maybe they shared a very specific something, for example, if they are on the autism spectrum, then you can go learn more about that specific thing.

I want to caution you that we always need to keep in mind that individuals remain unique. For example, research may say that if a person is on the autism spectrum they will have these behaviors. But that person is still unique. I say this because I have someone very, very near and dear to me who is on the autism spectrum. And one of the “common” characteristics is that “the person has difficulty with social skills”. Well, not this person. In fact, this person has better social skills than I do. Just amazing. And I learned a lot from that person.

So that's why I say individuals remain unique. And yes, there may be certain characteristics that apply potentially to most, always keep in mind that each person is an individual. And what's important is yes to learn generally, but also to make an effort to find out what applies to this particular individual that's on your team. If the team member is open to it, you could even have a conversation with them about how it shows up for them and what applies to them and what doesn't, and how to best support them.

Now, here's the big legal disclaimer! There are complexities related to that and there are legal implications. There are things that, as an employer, we are not allowed to ask legally speaking. And usually that's to protect the individual as well as protect the organization from lawsuits. And so if you're going to venture in that realm, get proper support. Really, don't skimp on this. Especially if there’s a risk that you're going to start asking questions that may fall into something that we're not allowed to ask

There are individuals that specialize in accommodations and this type of HR-related matter. There are consultants that you could speak with. And again, I speak from experience because I've had to do that. I've had to go and find that additional support to figure out what I could talk about.

In my case, the team member was very open about it. And then I was told: “Well, you can't actually do X, and legally you're not allowed to do Y, but here’s how you can approach it.” And even though I wanted to and had an open mind and the other person wanted to and had an open mind it's just that unfortunately, it's not always like that. And there are organizations that may feel, “Oh, this is too much trouble and let's just get rid of them.” And then, they end up getting fired or whatever, and it can be really, really nasty.

So we don't want that. We want to avoid that. I'm talking here about individuals who genuinely want to learn and figure out how we can better support our team members as their entire authentic selves. And so if you don't have access to this type of support just to protect the individuals involved and yourself and the organization, I'd say just focus on learning more by yourself and trying to add your own perspective of your experience with the person in trying to figure out what might apply. But don't add labels assuming someone is unable to do something because of what you read. Focus on what they can do and what they can do well and how to best support them. And of course, if they voiced that they require accommodations, that again, has a whole lot of legal stuff surrounding that. So always please make sure that you consult with the appropriate experts.

Create a safe space for individuals to share their story

I remember having a team member who frequently would go back to visit their parents overseas. And when they came back, they always had treats, which was my favorite part! They brought back treats to share and pictures and interesting stories about the places they visited. And this was an amazing opportunity to gain new cultural knowledge. And I just genuinely wanted to know more. Generally in the lunchroom, I'd ask to see the pictures and I asked many questions just because I was so curious. They were really happy and proud to show how they grew up, customs and stuff like that.

Now, again, similarly to what I said earlier, it's important to keep in mind that there is a power differential depending on how it's done. The team member may feel obligated to answer you. So really be aware of that. Again, to be on the safe side, I would recommend letting team members start the conversation and be mindful of that fine line between curiosity and getting into other people's business.

On that same note, be aware of that infamous question: “Where are you from?” I was at a conference and unfortunately witnessed a very uncomfortable exchange between two leaders who were networking, both very smart people but they had that conversation. And one of them asked the other: “Where are you from?” And the person kept answering that they grew up in a very specific city in North America. And the other person kept insisting and asking: “Yeah, yeah, but where are you FROM?” Emphasizing the “from”.

That exchange really enlightened me on a previous reaction that I had received when I asked what seemed on the surface, like the same question at a different conference. But the thing was, at that conference, pretty much everybody had flown in. So when I asked someone: “Where are you from?” In my mind, I was asking, “Where did you fly in from?” And I saw that person’s reaction when I used the words “Where are you from?” And the reaction was an unpleasant, unhappy scrunched up face. So they told me and I responded: “Okay, cool. Well I flew in from XYZ. So how do you like living there and how's the weather?” Of course, because we always talk about the weather. As the conversation continued, I saw relief on the other person’s face. And we just kept talking about miscellaneous stuff. Having a “normal” networking conversation. And it’s only when I witnessed that other exchange, the uncomfortable exchange between the other two, that I gained insight into that moment. It made me realize the concern that the person had because of the words that I used.

It made me realize that this probably happens a lot to this poor person, and they're probably really tired of hearing that. So now I try to word it differently. I try to remember to say something like: “I flew in from XYZ, what about yourself?” And that's made a little bit of a difference. I don't always remember to do that but at least I try.

So try to keep in mind that some of these things may seem like nothing. But what if you hear it all the time and you're constantly being asked those things in the manner that it was done and that I witnessed. I can imagine that certain words would make you cringe because there's an expectation attached to it because it happens so many times. And so I think it's important to be mindful of that.

Pay attention to the environment

Pay attention to the work environment that you created or that is occurring. Listen to the way team members talk. Pay attention as to whether team members may be making fun of a certain group. Or may have a tendency of lumping everyone in a category. Be aware of that type of language.

Also be aware that some conflict may originate from something else. It may look like the conflict is about one thing, but it's really about another thing. I remember having this really amazing team member who was told by their supervisor to stop using a certain hair product because their colleague complained about it. Because it was “a scent-free environment”. Now this person's hair type required that particular product. And it only came in a very, very faint scent. I remember smelling it and I thought it smelled amazing and was again very light. And, in my opinion, the individual was looking for something to complain about. But what happened is the person complained to the manager, the manager immediately went to see the person and told them to stop using the product. Well, the person felt terrible. They were like: “What am I supposed to do?” That was handled in an incredibly insensitive manner. And this contributed to team conflict because the two team members could not get along after this. It seemed like they were fighting about everything, but really it stemmed from an incredibly insensitive incident that was handled really poorly.

I'm not saying it's easy to handle these situations. When it comes to navigating these types of extremely complex situations, it's important to help individuals see other perspectives because they tend to only focus on their own perspective. And if it's not dealt with appropriately, it's going to make things worse. Like it did in that case where each individual was not exposed to the other’s perspective. They were just told: “Stop doing that.” Instead of asking to have a conversation about it.

As leaders, it's up to us to try to dig deeper and pull out those perspectives so that we can both help ourselves understand and help team members understand each other better in the hope of creating a psychologically safer professional environment.

Leaning into the human experience

Bottom line is that we’re people leading people.

And this is complicated, and it's really important to do our best, try our best, learn as much as possible, and get the support that we need in the form of those who specialize in those types of matters.

I can already hear some say: “I don’t want to be walking on eggshells all day”. That’s not what I’m suggesting. If the leader does their best to create an environment where people feel valued, respected, treated like “adults”, then when someone falters, there is a higher likelihood of that person being able to speak up in a professional and calm manner.

In my experience, they feel more empowered to approach the “culprit” and explain their point of view in a productive way. They don’t feel the need to “shout” to be heard.

I’ve witnessed two individuals share with each other their differing perspective on a situation. They listened without trying to convince each other. And they both walked away having learned something.

And I believe that if the leader can create and maintain the type of environment where these conversations can happen, where the shared human experience is the main focus, then differences can become less perceived as challenges and more as opportunities for growth.


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