With thousands of US citizens taking their voices to the streets to demand change, 90% of companies have taken some action toward more racial equity externally (Institute for Corporate Productivity). Companies have donated to racial justice organizations, partnered with local communities, collaborated with 3rd parties and made commitments to ensure equal access funding to address systemic racial inequities.
Strong voices for change are also needed within organizations. A recent study suggests that only 29% of employees think that management listens to concerns about discrimination (race, sex/gender, age, etc.) without blame or defensiveness (Leadership IQ Survey). The question remains, what actions are these same organizations taking internally to ensure minority representation, equal hiring and promotion opportunities?
As a first step, leaders need to solicit and listen to their employees’ concerns. Unfortunately, while employees want to be heard and understood, Innolect’s recent research suggests that employees are uncomfortable speaking up to voice concerns about race. They either don’t feel safe, believe it won’t make a difference or think that saying something could do more harm than good. Too often when employees do try to speak up, leaders come across as impatient, justifying the status quo or saying they want change without demonstrating accountable actions.
To get employees to express their voices and truth, leaders need courage to listen with empathy for diverse experiences and perspectives. While showing empathy does not mean that a leader agrees with a position, it does mean that leader attempts to understand another’s point of view. Since most leaders have NOT been trained in how to listen or to listen with empathy, we often hear, “I don’t know what to say or how to say it.”
The good news is that empathy is a learned skill and can be taught. As validated in healthcare, when physicians are taught how to be more empathic, overall patient satisfaction and treatment compliance increases. Similarly, when leaders in other industries display empathy, employee engagement and retention go up while grievances go down.
Even so, change itself is uncomfortable, and dealing with inequities in our country is especially critical right now. Even if as a leader you feel discomfort, encourage your employees to speak up and express your support by listening. While you may be concerned about what to say or do, be courageous and speak up for people of color. Acknowledge what you’re feeling and create space for others to talk and feel supported. It will be a step in the right direction to address systemic racism.
For more information on our Listening Leader and Social Justice workshops, webinars and keynote presentations, contact:
Kittie W. Watson, Ph.D.
President and Founder
Download our Build and Improve Empathy checklist.