Employees need to be heard. Especially now.
In this heartfelt letter, Gary Burnison, CEO of Korn Ferry, reminds us that everyone on our team has stories and experiences that they are yearning to share. This letter also reminds us that, right now, executives and employees alike are all riding the emotional curve. The emotional curve, otherwise known as the Kübler-Ross change curve or the stages of grief, show up in the workplace more often than one may think.
At Culture-Rific, we have been using the emotional curve for years with managers in our change leadership and organizational development programs. When an organization experiences internal conflict or undergoes a significant shift — like a pandemic or the racial inequality tsunami decimating old corporate cultures — it is common and expected that people would find themselves riding these ups and downs of energy and emotions.
These emotional reactions to change — aka FEELINGS — tend to go underground (see the curve below). If we do not address these feelings and employees do not get the chance to express emotional reactions to change, lack of fairness, and injustice, they are left feeling that they are in a psychologically toxic workplace. On the contrary, if feelings are encouraged and addressed, team members can end up with more energy and resolve than before the change occurred. Creating a safe space for these emotions to unfold allows people to bring their real selves and stories to work every day.
Senior Master Sgt. Shania Porter, with the United States Air Force, shared the personal story of her experience with the racist behavior of a fellow officer while on deployment. She addressed the officer and followed the Air Force policy of filing a complaint. The Air Force leadership to whom she reported the incident chose not to speak to the offending officer. Instead, they told her she “was bringing negative attention to the squadron.”
“How can you fully support and assist in creating change if you shy away from the topic, turn a blind eye to situations, and/or are unaccepting of the fact that racism still exists?” Porter asks.
In the same breath, she proffers a solution. She asks Air Force leadership to “facilitate an open forum to learn how your Airmen really feel.” Her word choice here — forum — is intentional.
fo·rum /ˈfôrəm. Noun. A place, meeting, or medium where ideas and views on a particular issue can be exchanged (Oxford Learner’s Dictionary.com, n.d.).
Wow. Isn’t THAT what we are looking for these days?
We can’t know what that particular leader or team of leaders was thinking when they dismissed Senior Master Sgt. Shania Porter’s claim. What we do know is that it is human nature to avoid uncomfortable conversations, especially when having the conversation means challenging the status quo.
Culture-Rific wants you and your team to have the best days of your life at work. As we mentioned in our previous article, studies have shown that psychological safety is the number one factor in creating a positive work environment. No matter your industry, we are all in the business of people. If your company does not already have a climate of psychological security, the time is NOW to get the group together in a forum to discuss personal feelings and frustrations. Leaders who can lean into their emotional intelligence and strengths of self-awareness, self-management, and responding to emotions of others appropriately and with skill will be successful in helping the team become willing to speak honestly without fear of ridicule, retribution, or exclusion.
How does a successful forum happen? We say — have a vision and a plan, listen and ask powerful questions, and be vigilant in caring about moving your team forward.
Leaders fear forums as people tend to complain, vent, and get out of control. Well, before scheduling the forum, THINK. You are about to get your team in a room to talk about their feelings. If managers ask people about their feelings and don’t have a plan, the results could be horrific.
Remember, forums are not a transmit for information; their purpose is to align. In that sense, a forum needs to be carefully designed.
Give yourself plenty of time for design.
If you wait until the last minute, it will show. Keep in mind that if you are hosting a virtual forum, you will need even more time to plan, especially the ways to engage the team and encourage participation. There are technical aspects like screen sharing, setting up breakout rooms, etc., that you will need to run through.
Get clear on your desired outcomes before you make your agenda.
What do you want to achieve by hosting this forum? List your desired outcomes; the agenda will help you get to them.
Make your agenda.
Every agenda item needs time for conversation, participation, problem-solving, decision-making, and getting people to contribute their ideas, feelings, and experiences. List those items and time allotted with each agenda point.
Do people need to prepare some things in advance of the forum? If so, make sure they have the proper notice, and the expectations are clear.
Test your agenda.
Forums are not designed in a vacuum. Ask for help. Run your agenda by your mentor, boss, or trusted colleague. Make sure you do this with enough time to make adjustments.
Be pointed about the feedback you want. Are my objectives clear and concise? Do my agenda items lead to the realization of my objectives? Is there an appropriate amount of time per agenda item? And, most importantly: Is everything on the agenda necessary?
Use their feedback, or have a good reason for why you didn’t if you choose not to include solicited ideas.
Prepare meeting materials.
Will you be printing an agenda for everyone? Do you plan to use a whiteboard or screen? Think about your meeting materials, the time it will take to prepare them, and their method of delivery. Again, virtual forums take more work, not less.
Build a process.
Look ahead. If you are calling a forum, it will likely require a follow-up meeting or check-ins with individuals. Get the meetings you know will happen on the books when you schedule your forum; this will build momentum for the next necessary steps. If you wait until after the forum, your energy levels are lower, calendars get full, etc. Take care of this now.
Bottom line, upfront — LISTEN. Show that you care. Facilitators do not run a forum; they create the space for listening.
Facilitating the forum is when you lean into your emotional intelligence and flex your leadership skills. Slow down. Build a process such that so you can be present enough to reflect to your team what they are saying. Work what you can into your timeline, be a human and not a robot, and be prepared to handle unexpected curveballs.
Get in the right mindset.
What is your mindset going into the forum? My mindset in my leadership role is: Step up boldly to have these conversations that are NOW expected of me from the top leadership, my peers, and my direct reports. It’s time to tap into my values and get clear of the kind of culture we want on this team.
Have a neutral party quarterback.
The person leading the forum needs to have the capacity for listening to and acknowledging in kind the emotions expressed by the team.
Have someone assigned to run the agenda, keep track of the time, and take notes. This may not be appropriate in all meetings, but in a forum designed to discuss feelings, it is a must. Run through the agenda with them in advance as well.
Access your other leadership styles.
Do you know what your primary leadership style is? Is it going to be the most effective in this particular forum?
Daniel Goleman’s article “Leadership that Gets Results” in the Harvard Business Review outlines the different leadership styles and suggests which are most appropriate when.
When leading a forum, you may want to lean into an authoritative or democratic leadership approach. Even if your primary style is pace-setting or coercive, thanks to what we know about emotional intelligence, it is possible to tap into other methods when needed. Take a look at what your primary leadership style is and prepare to flex into others for this particular forum. You will likely need to move between two or three.
Co-create the forum norms.
Establish ground rules for demonstrating respect, confidentiality, listening, and sharing. Come prepared with a list of suggestions, but have the group discuss and agree upon these norms.
Some of our go-to forum norms are:
- Everyone participates for the same amount of time.
- This is a space for everyone to speak their truth.
- Watch your tone.
- Before you speak, let your words pass through the Buddhist tradition of the right speech: Is it truthful? Is it useful? Is it unifying? Is it kind?
By getting group buy-in on the rules of engagement from the start, there will be confidence in knowing that this will be a democratic process where it is safe to contribute.
Listen. Have curiosity. People at every level of your organization have something to say. Make sure all voices at the table are heard.
To ensure that all people present get the chance to participate, we sometimes use a tool called a “talking stick.” It is literally a stick that you pass around, and whoever has the stick is the person talking. If you don’t have the stick, you’re not talking. This tool also makes it clear who has and hasn’t shared. If there is a voice that hasn’t been heard yet, pass the stick to them.
Have critical conversations.
It is your primary purpose to ensure critical conversations take place. And not just the ones for which you planned. If done right, more will come up. This is good. New information might need to be addressed in the moment or require a separate conversation. Make sure to document all points brought up by the team and communicate when and how you plan to address each critical conversation. Be clear and realistic.
Pay attention to when unconscious bias shows up in the room.
Be gracious when pointing out when bias has occurred, and in getting other perspectives to share. We say — “OK, I heard you. What other world views are in the room?”
Show that it is not about you.
Walk the walk in terms of your self-awareness. Are you the best person to lead this conversation? Will the forum be more successful if you had a co-facilitator? Do you need to bring someone in from the outside?
Again, the goal here is to create a climate of psychological safety for your team. If they do not feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and feelings with you, get some backup or step aside.
Ask for feedback using a plus/delta.
What worked well in this forum? What did you learn? What should we do differently next time? This exercise would typically happen live, as the final agenda item of a forum. Depending on the topic and group, it might make sense to have attendees write their feedback privately and send it to the meeting leader or another facilitator.
End with genuine gratitude for the team’s ideas and inputs.
Give verbal appreciation. Your team just participated in a vulnerable, emotional process. They need to feel empathy from leadership if they are to continue to feel safe to show up in this way.
We are here to create change that lasts. When done well, strong follow-up is the key to shaping a new mindset.
Make sure people have clarity about what is expected of them.
What are the action items? Who is responsible? Who is owning the accountability? Carve out time at the end of the agenda to review this. Make sure everyone walks away knowing what’s next — both for the group and for themselves.
After the forum, conduct a personal plus/delta.
Ask yourself: What is the next critical conversation? What did people raise that needs more attention? Did we scratch a surface? Where do we go deeper? Translate those questions into clear objectives for the next meeting.
Put the time for this reflection in your calendar in advance; the closer to the meeting post-mortem, the better the quality of the information will be. You might want to involve other leadership, your boss, or mentor as well.
Make a big deal out of changed behaviors.
Do you think putting on the forum is hard? Participating in one is not easy for your team, either. Praise them and do so often. We say — add praising your team to your to-do list.
Nothing is too small to be celebrated. Did someone finish a task assigned at the meeting? Congratulate them. When it makes sense and if it will lift the person’s spirits, do it publicly. Be consistent. That person or group likely felt that there was a pervasive lack of fairness in your company. Make sure there is equanimity in your exaltation.
Accountability, accountability, accountability.
You can’t hit a grand-slam home run if you bunt the ball. Following through on the agreements made at the forum shows continuity, leads to purpose, and exhibits faith that real change may take place. When not done or done at half-measure, it will leave emotions hanging, and your employees will lose trust. BE DILIGENT IN FOLLOWING UP. Add this to your to-do list, too.
Your company’s leadership in integrating the impacts of significant change can result in an uplifted team that has a greater sense of purpose than they had before. Unearthing how people are feeling about inequities requires trust, care, and psychological safety, and is created by leadership. It takes time, skill, and practice to do this. The tool we use to create the space for feeling sharing is a forum; the forum framework we use is to plan, facilitate, and follow up.
As we rebuild relationships, people understand each other more. We learn each other’s stories and what’s important to us. There is more vulnerability. We create more caring and empathy. We hope for, believe in, and have seen these results when forums are done well.
It may be a painful process to go through, but it is one that leads to healing and, ultimately, a healthy, happy work culture.
We are with you and for you in partnership. Peace — Claire and Regina.