Screaming in the Streets and Deafening Silence at Work

I have such mixed feelings about being a “DEI practitioner.” The label is too small, too narrow for our work. These three letters are consistently misunderstood, undervalued, and often lack alignment with real strategic impact on organizations. People with real power to make ongoing investments view the work of inclusion as “optional,” lacking a clean and immediate “ROI,” and “in addition to our real work.” I am forever trying to connect the dots that link a leader’s espoused values with actionable practices, underscoring that those practices also build the credibility needed to get through the times of crisis that surely will come. 

We are in crisis again. The world around us is buzzing with fact-throwing, shaming and blaming, fear, and hunkering down, preparing for the worst. And we are expected to just show up at work, focus on the task at hand, unimpacted by it all. 

What we are experiencing right now is more than what is typically relegated to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). DEI practitioners alone are not responsible for, nor able to get us through, this moment. What we are experiencing is part of a larger cultural transformation. 

This time of unsurety and divisiveness belongs to all of us. People in leadership roles have a particular opportunity to set the tone and create the space that will not only reflect their values, but invests in your organization’s ability to weather this and future storms. 

For organizational leaders who are quietly hemming and hawing, waiting for someone else to take the next step–stop it. Nobody wants a milquetoast leader. Open your mouth, share your heart, be human and vulnerable with your organization. You don’t have to get every word just right–you won’t, it’s impossible. Just show you care without delegating it to HR or DEI or a committee. You, Leader, need to act.  

What does it mean for an organizational leader to align their values and actions in times of politicized crisis? 

At a personal level, lead with your inclusive values:

You do not have to declare a stance on this or any geopolitical conflict. Your leadership role is in the service of your organization. Personal beliefs about right and wrong aside, you know that something tumultuous is happening in the world and impacting people in your organization–who you care about.

Showing you care can be:

  • Start with just asking, “How are you?” You can preface with something like, “The past week with the conflict in the Middle East has been incredibly difficult for so many of us. How are you doing?” Then stop. Resist the urge to fill the silence. This is called “creating space.” You don’t have to fix anyone, just allow space for acknowledging our humanity. 
  • If the space is created, you may get a response like, “My grandfather is from Palestine. He came to the U.S. as a refugee when he was young. I have so many torn emotions about what is happening, but it’s terrifying to say anything out loud for fear of being misconstrued.” 
  • “I am Jewish. I have Jewish family and friends, of course, but haven’t thought much about the large range of political ideologies across the Jewish community. I am listening to Jewish friends share opinions with me for the first time and find myself unsure about my own feelings let alone how to engage without offending anyone.”

In these moments of sharing, you only need to listen, genuinely, and with your ears and heart wide open. You may say, “Is there anything I can do to support you right now? For example, if you need some time away from meetings or just sit and have coffee and talk, I’m here to listen.”  

As you listen, rather than thinking about what you need to say in response, keep focus on the other person’s feelings and on the emotions that each of you may be experiencing. They are likely similar–sadness, grief, fear, shame, intimidation–but you don’t need to identify or even call attention to them at that moment. You don’t need to prove that you are feeling hurt at the same level or for the same reasons as anyone else. You can just be in a caring space together. 

At an organizational level, act systematically:

1. Make a statement without feeling a need to choose a side and focus on reinforcing your commitment to each other as humans and colleagues. If your organization has been investing in equity, diversity and inclusion work before now–great.

Your statement should be: 

  1. Expected and
  2. Consistent with messaging about your organization’s values and typical practice of creating space for acknowledging and engaging around important and difficult issues. 

Note: If your organization has not invested to date in DEI-related discussions and building cultural capacity, now is a helluva time to start, but start you must. Not talking about what we need and how we will support each other during difficult times doesn’t make the need go away. Be intentional, anchor to organizational values, and begin.

2. Hold facilitated listening sessions that allow employees to hear from one another and organizational leadership about a mutual commitment to each other, especially during difficult times. Share with participants the intention of the listening sessions in advance as well as guidelines for engagement in the shared space. Let people know that these sessions should be free from political rhetoric and focused more on expressing feelings and reinforcing a shared sense of community. 

3. Equip managers with tools such as a list of organizational resources for mental health support, grief counseling, and well-being. 

4. Provide an FAQ to managers with answers to questions that they are or likely will receive, such as: 

Q: What is our organization’s commitment?

A: Our organization’s commitment is (link to overarching EDI statement). 

Q: What is different about this particular circumstance? 

A: The conflict in the Middle East is layered with historical nuance and has often been misrepresented or misunderstood by many. Many of our colleagues, friends, and family members are either directly or indirectly connected to communities that have been involved in this conflict historically or in present tense. All peoples involved have been marginalized yet media focus is often on extreme factions rather than the toll on humans. The layers, together, make this close to home for many of us and, sometimes, come from strongly held beliefs and lived experiences.

Q: What is my responsibility as a manager?

A: As a manager, you are responsible for demonstrating and communicating care for your colleagues, team, and yourself. You are not expected to take a stance, nor are you expected to expend emotional labor that makes you feel unsafe or where you believe your attempt could cause harm. As a manager, you should be aware of power dynamics that come with your leadership role and know when to refrain from making political comments or attempting to "sway" your colleagues to agree with your point of view, should you have one.

Managers can and should take full advantage of resources available to support mental health, grief counseling, and well-being; this means making use of them personally and actively sharing them with your team.

Other questions that are coming up a lot right now that leaders may want to reflect on and answer internally are: 

Q: What do I do if my team members feel marginalized by other colleagues because of their spoken or assumed stance on the conflict? 

Q: I feel overwhelmed with the news and it’s impacting my productivity and desire to engage. What accommodations are available to me? 

Q: Why is this conflict getting so much attention when other atrocities happen without this kind of engagement? 

Q: Knowing that that is not the first and assuming it will not be the last, how do we start to develop the skills for navigating unexpected and difficult cultural topics?

There will, of course, be more questions and they will likely keep coming. The process you use–engaging with each other and sometimes wrestling through answers to the questions being asked–is just as important as the answers themselves. 

This moment belongs to all of us, and people in leadership roles have a particular opportunity to set the tone and create the space for everyone to know that they are in the company of caring colleagues.

Again, and always, we are sending love to each and every one of you. 

The DeEtta Jones & Associates Team 

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DeEtta Jones & Associates (DJA) guides leaders and organizations on a journey that builds capacity, strengthens innovation, and increases organizational performance by creating a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive environment.

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