This article was based on episode 123 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Amazon Music and Stitcher. Get the guide to talking about diversity, equity and inclusion with your team when you become a member at themodernmanager.com/join. Purchase full episode guides at themodernmanager.com/shop.
Managers have the opportunity to create a more inclusive, open, and equitable culture than the one that exists outside of their office walls. Aaron Samuels, co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of Blavity Inc, posits that most managers are driven to go into management by this chance to create a better world than the one they see.
That is definitely true for myself, and it’s true of Aaron. As a manager, Aaron shapes the team values that influence how people interact with each other. Along with the other co-founders and leaders, he has built a culture that reflects who they are and what’s important to them. In the process, Blavity has grown into a thriving digital platform for Black Millennials that reaches over 30 million people per month. Blavity’s success is in part due to Aaron and his team recognizing and creating a space for all of the different conversations and communities that are happening within the black community, allowing for a multitude of identities and opinions to be expressed.
Aaron shares his lessons learned about how to create a culture that reflects your people, how to recognize and address racial and other biases, and how to become a manager who works toward equity even when it’s messy.
CREATE A CULTURE OF DIALOGUE
Our job as managers is to create a strong team culture where people thrive. In America, structural racism exists in ways many of us are only recently becoming aware of. This means that even if we aren’t racist, we may be perpetuating inequity simply by allowing the status quo to continue.
I personally have been working to become aware of my own biases which do not align with my desired or espoused values. It is quite an awakening to realize that your conscious mind has been unknowingly influenced by your unconscious biases,and that those biases have been shaped by years of swimming in a subtly racist culture.
That’s why it’s inevitable that people will make assumptions about others because of their race, religion, or other identities. These assumptions often negatively impact how people feel about their teammates and therefore unintentionally influence how they behave towards them. The question is, in Aarons words, “how do we reduce the shelf life of an assumption?”
Fundamentally, these assumptions need to be surfaced, explored, and discarded. But how do we create a culture in which these assumptions are challenged and don’t live very long? To do this, Aaron suggests we need to create a culture of dialogue.
A culture of dialogue is essentially a safe space for people to raise concerns so that they can be acknowledged and addressed without the person who called it suffering any sort of social consequence as a result. Whether it is a colleague who said something problematic or a policy that has a biased implication, if we don’t point out the issues, nothing will change.
5 STEPS TOWARDS AN ANTI-RACIST, EQUITABLE CULTURE
1. Educate Yourself
The first step is always awareness and education. The United States’ educational system avoids the unpleasant truths of our past. For example, few people have learned how anti-black racism built the global economic advantage that the United States has today. By understanding the foundations of slavery, discrimination, discriminatory policies, and oppressions in this country, you can have a more informed viewpoint of current dynamics. In addition, staying up-to-date with how oppression and inequity currently challenges those of varying identities is crucial. However, Aaron warns that education alone won’t solve it all. We could read every book on racism and still create an organization that has racist outcomes. In order to create real cultures of dialogue that foster equity, further steps need to be taken.
2. Check Yourself More Often
Aaron recommends managers and leaders more frequently question themselves on the split-second, almost subconscious assumptions that we make. This could be about a colleague, a new policy or approach, or even a decision. Aaron estimates that if we are asking ourselves to consider race, identity, and equity 10% of the time, we should try to ask ourselves 60% of the time. This would mean asking questions like:
Am I being racist or prejudiced with how I was thinking about that colleague?
Might that policy favor one group or harm another?
Could that decision unintentionally produce inequity?
Am I holding a specific cultural set of norms that could be biasing my viewpoint?
3. Publicly Acknowledge When You’ve Missed
Managers can exemplify cultures of dialogue by addressing their own mistakes and prejudices. When managers speak honestly in public about their own learning journey and the misses they’ve had along the way, they demonstrate to their team that it’s not only safe for others to do that, but that it’s an expectation. When people call you out for making a mistake either publicly or privately, adopt a practice of acknowledgement. Admit to what you said or did, and instead of defending it, listen and learn why it was hurtful, disrespectful or otherwise wrong.
4. Look At Things From Multiple Vantage Points
One way to better see bias or inequity is to listen to perspectives other than your own. In meetings, make sure there's somebody playing Devil’s Advocate whose role is to name the opposite side of an argument. Better yet, schedule five minutes of Devil’s Advocate time during which everyone must think from that perspective.
Aaron also suggests holding a pre-mortem, where you look at the potential negatives of a decision by assuming that your objective fails, analyze the reasons that it failed, and then backtrack from there to make sure it doesn't happen. By putting your team in different mindsets, you practice looking at the world from new vantage points. This helps build the muscle for considering alternative points of view.
5. Take The Feelings Of All Employees Into Account
Few organizations and leaders seriously consider the impact of decisions on their employees. While they focus on customers and financial implications, predominantly white male dominated spaces ignore or downplay the internal human toll. At Blavity, teams consider how proposed changes will affect people at all organizational levels, including junior employees. Considering everyone’s feelings before moving forward on a decision changes the structural dynamics and allows for alternative voices and viewpoints to be expressed and acknowledged, ultimately resulting in a more connected workforce.
EVERY CONVERSATION IS A CHANCE TO EARN TRUST
As leaders, whether we like it or not, we are constantly being judged and evaluated by our team. They observe us on email threads, while we’re talking to colleagues, or they’ll hear about us secondhand through a disgruntled coworker. Rarely are we able to correct any inaccurate judgements or misinterpretations because they happen without our awareness. But if you find yourselves in a moment where you have an opportunity to show a colleague your integrity by acknowledging a mistake in that moment or approaching a situation with curiosity, take that opportunity. Every difficult conversation is an opportunity for you to earn the trust of somebody on your team. And that trust can last for years.
We have the opportunity to affect the lives of our colleagues by creating environments in which they feel good about the work they're doing, the people they're engaging with, and the contributions they're making to society. Our people will only flourish if we have a deep understanding of the identities that they bring to the table. Approaching management through a lens of intersectionality and identity is not only a good thing to do, it’s absolutely essential. We may not be able to change the brokenness of the world overnight, but as managers we can deeply influence and form the type of world we want to see inside our office walls.
KEEP UP WITH AARON
LinkedIn: Aaron Samuels
Get the guide to talking about diversity, equity and inclusion when you become a member of the Modern Manager community at themodernmanager.com/join. Or, purchase an individual episode guide at themodernmanager.com/shop to help you implement the learnings and continue to enhance your rockstar manager skills.
This article was based on episode 123 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Amazon Music and Stitcher.