For inclusive leaders in the workplace, shifting power dynamics can be difficult in a different way. Hestia described that when she started managing people she had worked as peers with before, she stopped being invited to lunches with them. At first, she was offended and thought maybe she had done something or that someone was deliberately excluding her. Later, she realized that as the manager, people she used to consider peers now thought of her as the boss. It became her job to reach out to them to maintain relationships. Their perception of her power shifted, even though hers did not.
As a leader, helping subordinates empower themselves so that they understand they have not only permission but the duty to keep themselves safe at work, can be a key step toward creating a healthy workplace culture. Where an employer can teach an employee, without judgment, how to shift their thinking in order to go from feeling powerless to understanding where they do have power, it can dramatically change workplace culture. If an employee feels disempowered, harassed, or discriminated against and you, as a boss, do not feel comfortable teaching these tools yourself, that is totally fair and sometimes it would not be appropriate for you to teach these tools. That is where a trained coach can come in as a neutral outside party to help make the shifts that are necessary to create a healthy workplace.
This step is not about making sure that no one ever does anything harassing or discriminatory and the boss taking on all of the burden to correct that behavior. It is about empowering each employee to honor his or her own boundaries and ask for a change when there is behavior that crosses those boundaries. This usually happens best by helping employees look at any disempowering thoughts they may have that hold them back from keeping themselves safe or talking about discrimination. Sometimes, simply saying, “You know you have permission to always keep yourself safe, right?” or “I always want to hear about any room for improvement you see in our culture if you’re willing to share,” is enough, but often employees have cultural training and expectations that make this difficult for them to follow through with, even if they want to. Or, they can sometimes feel threatened by these questions if, for example, you are only asking people with a culturally disadvantaged characteristic. They see being confronted with a boundary violation or a discrimination issue. It is often easy to see it as simple from outside of the situation, but for those inside of the situation it can feel like they’re going up against “The Rock” in a wrestling match. When that is the case and simply giving permission is not enough, it’s a signal that an employee may need a full Power Dynamics Master Certification Training, which can really help address underlying issues and make a significant shift.
Overall, the thing to remember is that when we expect people, even ourselves, to act in a discriminatory or harassing way, knowing that cognitive bias exists in all of our brains, and when we can be open to looking at that and shifting in it, we really have a chance to create healthy company culture. When we expect that some employees will have been trained by culture that it is dangerous to talk about the biases they see, we can do better to create an actually safe space for conversations around bias and harassment, without re-traumatizing employees who have experienced bias as a physical threat. It is no one’s obligation to tell their story or talk about bias where they see it, but each of us can make a difference in this way if we are willing.
For someone experiencing harassment, it is always about power. Teaching harassers to stop harassing has never worked because they do not have motivation to stop. Teaching all employees how to understand and shift power dynamics puts them in a powerful position to stop behavior they find offensive in the moment. When we believe we are in a powerless place, we are more likely to have aggressive and inappropriate behavior. Our thoughts determine how much power we have in any circumstance. Our thoughts create our feelings.
This is a selection from The Inclusive Leader's Guide to Healthy Workplace Culture. For a free copy of the book, visit www.HealthyWorkplaceCulture.com. Or you can purchase online via Amazon.