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What to Say When Someone Cries at Work

Executive Summary

When someone cries at work, showing curiosity and compassion, even if you’re uncomfortable, is core to being an emotionally intelligent leader. What should you say to someone who’s crying at work? Try something like: “Let’s pause for a moment here. I can see you’re crying. Would you like to take a break or keep going? It’s up to you.”  This is neutral language that gives someone the opportunity to choose what they want and need next. Or, say: “I’m going to stop our conversation for a second to check in with you. Can you tell me what’s going on for you right now?” This demonstrates compassion and curiosity for the person, without dramatizing or overplaying concern. Or, try: “You’re crying, so let’s pause. What would be most helpful for you right now? I’ll follow your lead.”  This acknowledges what’s happening, while empowering the person to take control.

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I was recently coaching a leader who asked me, “Is it OK for me to tell someone on my team that they can’t cry at work?” Normally, as a coach, I would respond to her question with a question of my own:

“What makes you ask that?”

“What about crying feels like it shouldn’t happen at work?”

“What might the impact be of telling them that they can’t cry at work?”

But instead of taking a coaching approach, I responded instinctively and firmly, “No.”

We know from Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own that “there’s no crying in baseball,” but no movie that I’ve watched has given us a clear answer on what to do about crying at work. And there is crying at work — whether we like it or not. It may be the result of a feedback conversation that feels hard, a career planning session that’s disappointing, a difficult conversation about unrealistic expectations, or it may even seem like it comes out of nowhere. And for many of us, seeing someone cry can make us feel uncomfortable, guilty, and anxious. Why do we have that reaction? For several reasons:

  1. Because we want to fix it. When we see someone crying, most of us have a natural instinct to want to problem-solve. And we don’t always know what the problem is that needs fixing.
  2. Because we worry that we caused it. We ask ourselves, “Was it something I said?” “Was it something I did?” “Did I make them cry?”
  3. Because we don’t know why they’re crying. The simplest interpretation is that they’re sad. But people also cry when they feel angry, happy, embarrassed, anxious, relieved, scared, frustrated, understood, tired, appreciated, hungry, lonely, etc.
  4. Because we don’t want to cry. Emotions are contagious, and we’re concerned that someone else’s tears might trigger our own — especially if we are particularly empathetic.
  5. Because we’re anxious that crying signals a bigger issue — and then what? We wonder if the crying is about something bigger than the conversation we just had. What if it signals a deeper personal issue — one that’s bigger than we know how to help?
  6. Because we fear that the crying will escalate. As soon as we see that first tear or hear that initial sniffle, we think to ourselves, “What if they start sobbing?” “What if they throw up?” “What if they start hyperventilating?”

Helping someone who is crying at work takes emotional intelligence, especially in the form of self-awareness and self-management. Self-awareness requires that we recognize that someone else’s emotional expression is having an impact on us, and are able to articulate what that impact is (fear, concern, anger, etc.). Self-management requires that we control our emotions in the moment, and adapt to what’s needed right now.

And what’s needed right now, in most cases, is for you to say something helpful, supportive, and brief. What isn’t needed?

  • Interpreting, such as “you seem sad.” Remember that people cry for a variety of reasons, and you can’t know why they’re crying unless they tell you. (It’s also important to keep in mind that people don’t always know why they’re crying themselves.)
  • Telling them what to do, such as “you should take a break.” When someone is crying, they often feel a loss of control. Dictating their next action, even when done from a place of compassion, can further rob someone of their sense of control.
  • Judging them, such as “it’s not worth crying about.” Telling someone not to feel how they’re feeling reduces interpersonal trust, making people feel unsafe in their relationship with you.

So what can you say instead?

  • “Let’s pause for a moment here. I can see you’re crying. Would you like to take a break or keep going? It’s up to you.”  This is neutral language that gives someone the opportunity to choose what they want and need next.
  • “I’m going to stop our conversation for a second to check in with you. Can you tell me what’s going on for you right now?” This demonstrates compassion and curiosity for the person, without dramatizing or overplaying concern.
  • “You’re crying, so let’s pause. What would be most helpful for you right now? I’ll follow your lead.” This acknowledges what’s happening, while empowering the person to take control.

Emotions are data, and the visible (and audible) expression of emotions, like crying, shouldn’t be ignored or minimized. Showing curiosity and compassion, even if you’re uncomfortable, is core to being an emotionally intelligent leader.

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Office Reentry Plans Must Account for Medically Vulnerable Employees

Executive Summary

It is not a question of if, but how many of, your employees will fall into the high-risk group for coronovirus, given the wide range of pre-existing conditions identified by the CDC that make someone more susceptible to adverse outcomes. While it’s important to create a safe workplace for all employees, it is especially important to think about how you will support this specific, high-risk employee population. The author offers several recommendations: 1) Establish a process for fielding questions and concerns. 2)  Support their ability to continue working from home. 3) Make sure they feel included on the team. 4) Provide training for managers.

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After a few months of sheltering in place, states are beginning to open up and employers are starting to consider what a potential “back-to-the-office” plan might look like. Many people are feeling anxious about how safe the office will actually be — especially those who are at higher risk for Covid-19. This anxiety also extends to employees who might not be high-risk themselves but live with someone who is. (For brevity, I’ll refer to these two groups collectively as those who are high-risk.) How your organization supports these employees needs to be a key part of your reopening plan.

It is not a question of if, but how many of, your employees will fall into this high-risk group, given the wide range of pre-existing conditions identified by the CDC that make someone more susceptible to adverse outcomes. While it’s important to create a safe workplace for all employees, it is especially important to think about how you will support this specific, high-risk employee population. Below are several recommendations.

Have a process in place for fielding questions and concerns.

HR leaders I have been talking to in various sectors have been addressing a wide range of employee questions throughout the crisis. This will only accelerate when the organization gets ready to reopen its offices, and there will be many questions and concerns specifically from this subset of employees.

Irene Bassock, an employment attorney and Of Counsel at the law firm Cohen & Buckmann, says, “There has to be some type of planning, knowing that these requests will be coming in fast and furious. It’s important that employees know where to go. That there are people on the front line, whether it be their managers or HR. That questions are getting to people who understand how to respond to those questions, so you don’t get knee-jerk reactions.” Having a clear process in place will help create greater alignment and mitigate conflicting messages.

Support their ability to continue working from home, if possible.

A silver lining of this pandemic is that it might normalize remote work. While working at home is not ideal for everyone, we have all learned over the last few months that it is doable when necessary — and even beneficial. Allowing high-risk employees to work from home will not only help them feel safe but will also reduce the number of people in the office, giving those who are physically present more space to socially distance themselves. Studies have shown that, in student populations, fearing for one’s physical safety negatively impacts performance, and the same relationship can be inferred for working adults.

Make sure they feel included on the team.

There are a number of ways to do this. For example, don’t make them the only one calling into meetings. One organization I worked with, prior to the pandemic had a policy that if one person calls into a meeting, everyone calls into the meeting in order to level the playing field.

Further Reading

Another way to prevent these employees from feeling marginalized, while also mitigating risk of infection to your other employees is to create A and B teams (or possibly more). Here, project teams are comprised of both A and B team members (note: A and B do not indicate any difference in employee performance). A and B team members alternate weeks in the office. This provides multiple benefits: High-risk employees are not singled out as the only people working from home; there is even more space at the office and therefore, more social distancing; and if an employee does become sick, an entire project team is not affected and disruption to the project is minimized.

Provide training for managers.

This training needs to include two elements. The first is to train managers on how to respond to inbound requests, whether it’s how to answer them directly or how to convey the organization’s process for handling them (if someone like HR needs to get involved). The second is to train managers on how to be more attuned to how others are feeling and how to express empathy. Essential coaching skills should also be taught. These include engaged listening skills and inquiry skills to better understand each individual’s situation, as well as how to probe beyond superficial answers to understand how a colleague is really doing.

While the pandemic has greatly increased the complexity of our world, it’s clear that the ongoing safety and welfare of your employees needs to be at the top of your priority list. This is especially important for those who are at higher risk. The strategies above can help you best support this employee population and should be a key part of your reopening plan.

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How CEOs Can Support Employee Mental Health in a Crisis

Executive Summary

Covid-19’s second-order crisis is starting to emerge: the toll it is taking on our mental health. In a global study of more than 2,700 employees across more than 10 industries undertaken by Qualtrics and SAP during March and April 2020, 75% of people say they feel more socially isolated, 67% of people report higher stress, 57% are feeling greater anxiety, and 53% say they feel more emotionally exhausted. What can CEOs and managers do? The author, himself a CEO, suggests a five-step process: 1) Open the door so staff know you are available to talk about the issue, 2) Demonstrate supportive listening, 3) Be consistent in your messaging, 4) Keep a constant pulse on how your staff are handling the stress in the aggregate, and 5) Communicate available resources.

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Business leaders are justifiably focused on the here and now of the Covid-19 pandemic, but there’s a looming second-order mental health crisis that is only beginning to emerge as a result of global quarantines and a massive, sudden shift to working from home. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, 75% of people say they feel more socially isolated, 67% of people report higher stress, 57% are feeling greater anxiety, and 53% say they feel more emotionally exhausted, according to a global study of over 2,700 employees across more than 10 industries undertaken by Qualtrics and SAP during March and April 2020.

As humans we can handle change, but we do not do well with uncertainty. Given the enormous uncertainty everyone is facing —economically, personally, and professionally — these mental health statistics are as predictable as they are alarming. Using the data from the study and our own experience as CEOs, we have identified five steps every leader and manager should take to make an immediate impact:

1. Open the Door

Nearly 40% of people say their company has not even asked them how they’re doing since the pandemic began. That’s shocking. People in this group are 38% more likely to say their mental health has declined since the outbreak of the pandemic. How can we expect to help our people if we don’t even ask how they are doing? So step one is to simply ask, “Are you okay?”

Further Reading

I suspect that a desire to respect privacy is inhibiting these manager-employee conversations. But in our study, nearly three out five of people said they are comfortable with their manager proactively asking them about their mental health. Even more importantly, more than 40% of people said they want their manager to broach the subject. So open the door to a conversation by asking if people are okay, and then let them walk through that door in the way they are most comfortable, accepting that around 40 percent of employees will choose not to engage. That’s okay, too.

Our research shows that the mental health of your reports should not be outsourced to human resources. In fact, when people were asked to rank who they were willing to talk to about mental health concerns, (selecting from a list including their manager, peers, subordinates, HR, and company executives), people listed HR as the group they were least willing to talk to about mental health. Peers and managers were the two groups with whom people were most willing to address mental health.

2. Demonstrate Supportive Listening

For employees who do choose to talk about their mental health, managers need to practice supportive listening. Don’t try to solve everything all at once. Instead just listen, seek to genuinely understand, and ensure that people feel heard. And don’t be afraid to open up yourself. Reciprocation can be a powerful tool to build trust. Share how you personally are handling the new normal. Be vulnerable. According to our data, roughly 40% of people at every seniority level of a company have seen a decrease in mental health. That means that whether you’re the CEO, a mid-level manager, or a frontline employee, you are just as likely to be suffering. The sooner people realize they are not alone in this, the better we’ll be at supporting each other.

I think back to recent conversations I had with two members of our team. One is a single mother who is balancing home school for her two kids (one of whom is in French immersion), her job, and concern for an elderly parent who lives far away. The other is an employee who is single, lives alone, and talked about the crushing isolation he is feeling. My challenges are different, but we all have them. For all of us, this has been one of the weirdest and most emotional times of our lives. We all need to learn to demonstrate supportive listening and be appropriately vulnerable with each other, recognizing that while all of our situations are different, they are all difficult in their own way.

3. Be Consistent

Talking about mental health is not a one and done conversation. One way to help people deal with uncertainty is by providing consistency, especially in how and when you communicate. When it comes to the pandemic, more than 90% of people said they wanted at least weekly communication from their company; 29% said they prefer daily communication. When it comes to discussing mental health specifically, people say that far and away the most effective form of company communication is a phone call directly from one’s manager. Employees who say their manager is not good at communicating are 23% more likely to experience mental health declines. Regular, consistent communication from managers is essential to ensuring people feel supported.

4. Keep a Constant Pulse

It’s not just about helping our managers take care of their teams, we need to take care of our managers as well — and we need to do it while keeping a constant pulse on the company as a whole. To best do that at scale, companies should be sending a regular employee pulse survey to understand how each team, department, and the company as a whole are doing. This is not a moment to be reactive as a leader: You need to get ahead of trends and understand the sentiment of your workforce so you can take action quickly.

Our study found that nearly one in three employees say their team does not maintain informal contact while working from home. People who are lacking informal contact are 19% more likely to report a decline in mental health since the pandemic began. So much of this stems from the fact that with so many people quarantined in their own homes, we have lost the opportunity for watercooler conversations and impromptu run-ins that give us energy and spark new ideas and collaboration. We can’t replicate that exactly, but we have seen many of our teams hosting virtual happy hours to end the week or having a virtual lunch where people can just catch up, share stories, and maintain connection. By regularly running employee pulse surveys you can begin to spot problems early.

5. Communicate Available Resources

Lastly, make sure you are very clear about the mental health resources available to everyone at your company. Almost half of workers said their company has not proactively shared what mental health resources are available to them. To be sure, some people want and need to leverage those resources, but many more people just want to know that the resources are there. As we noted, people don’t do well with uncertainty. That’s why just knowing that resources are available goes a long way to ease anxiety and stress. People who said their company has proactively shared how to access mental health resources are 60% more likely to say that their company cares about their wellbeing.

The mental health crisis stemming from Covid-19 is serious and will be with us for some time to come. Let’s approach it with compassion, honesty, and openness. We will emerge from this as better leaders, better people, and better companies.

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Build Your Team’s Resilience — From Home

Executive Summary

To weather the COVID-19 crisis, teams will need resilience. But with the new work-at-home protocols, can leaders really do anything remotely to increase their people’s ability to deal with adversity ? Yes, say the authors, who draw on their studies of resilience among U.S. Navy recruits to offer strategies. It all comes down to two things: people (and enhancing three protective qualities they need) and perspective (which leaders should help their team members broaden).

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To make it through the current crisis and return to a new normal, you and your team will need to be resilient. The good news is that leaders can help create the conditions that make this possible. We’ve done multiple studies with U.S. Navy recruits that show how this can best be done—and, recently, in studying how leaders are responding to the crisis, we’ve come across valuable stories of how they can achieve this even when team members are working remotely. The key is to focus on two things: people and perspective.

People: Know your team’s resilience factors

Three “protective or facilitative factors” (as psychologists call them) predict whether people will have resilience: high levels of confidence in their abilities, disciplined routines for their work, and social and family support. Ideally, you’ll already have a good sense of how your team members stack up on these—especially the first two. But some factors may be weakened during this crisis. One of the first things you can do is establish a “resilience inventory dashboard,” by checking in individually with your reports and asking directly how comfortable they feel telecommuting, how they plan to schedule their work days, and how you might support them with any life or family commitments. To address such commitments, the managing partner at one law firm recently went to all the lawyers at the firm one-by-one to ask about their situations, and asked particularly if they needed to take care of any elderly or at-risk people. Then he redistributed caseloads and paralegal support to help out those who were in danger of being overwhelmed.

Further Reading

The many new challenges your reports are facing may shake their confidence, but you can boost it by actively conveying your faith in them. One mechanical engineer who was doubting her ability to telework told us how much it helped her confidence to have her manager simply tell her that he respected the decisions she made and the work she produced, and that any mistakes she made would just be tools for improvement.

Doing their jobs from home will probably require new routines and test your people’s ability to focus. Think about how you can help your team adjust. One loan-processing manager called for more-frequent quality checks while his reports were getting used to working remotely, for instance. Though that may seem like micromanaging, an underwriter on the team told us it reassured him and helped his group “slow down and not rush” despite being under extreme pressure. Leaders might also suggest time-blocking and other personal productivity strategies to encourage disciplined work habits.

Leaders can also strengthen their teams by displaying compassion. We’ve seen thoughtful managers do this by giving their reports their time, showing concern, helping them get the office equipment and supplies they need to do their jobs at home, and by making special accommodations for individuals who are at high risk because they have underlying health conditions like diabetes. It’s especially important to demonstrate that you genuinely care about your team as not just employees but people. Before broader organizational work-at-home mandates were implemented during the COVID-19 outbreak, a manager at a large oil and gas company proactively got permission from upper management to have her team telework and discussed the transition plan with each team member. One of her reports, highlighting the manager’s personal concern for each individual, said that her actions helped him feel “like a vital, contributing member of our company.”

If your people rate high on the resilience factors, that’s great, but you can’t assume they’re out of danger. Very resilient people are geared toward action and what they can control, and as result they may “panic-work” and burn out during times of crisis. You will need to take measures to maintain their resilience, too. Try to focus their energy on strategic initiatives.

 People: Foster resilience-oriented conversations

A large body of research shows that the most effective way to increase resilience at work is through customized individual coaching. The results from a field experiment we did with approximately 400 U.S. Navy recruits in 2015 also point to its power. In it we asked recruits to rate their resilience at the beginning of boot camp and then (midway through the boot camp) had half of them take part in a one-on-one peer coaching session—what we called a “guided conversation”—while the other half were left to their own devices. In the guided conversations, recruits were asked to share positive experiences, compare challenges and how they were dealing with them, and imagine their future as navy sailors. The recruits who had these conversations saw a highly significant 20% increase in resilience, while the control group saw a change of less than 1%.

As a manager, you might have guided conversations with each direct report yourself, but these can be time-consuming, and the power differential between you and your reports may make these discussions lopsided. So we recommend encouraging your team members to have guided conversations among themselves on a regular basis. You might go as far as assigning pairs and requiring scheduled video chats. Similar to the recruits in our study, your team members can discuss successful experiences, problems and how they’re tackling them, and what they’ve learned during the crisis that they can still apply when things get back to normal. This last step, we believe, is essential. People need to be reminded that things will stabilize—and envision who they will be after the adversity has passed.

 Perspective: Ask questions

Neuroscience suggests that the fear and anxiety we experience because of COVID-19 will naturally narrow our ability to see our future and envision creative solutions to our problems. But there are questions leaders can ask to counter this effect.

First, you can help your team members face down reality. Accepting things as they are is key to building resilience. As Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was held captive during the Vietnam war, famously noted, the optimists among his fellow prisoners (those who expected to be rescued quickly) didn’t survive: “I think they all died of broken hearts.” So ask your direct reports what plans they have in place for working remotely longer than anticipated. While they might not feel comfortable thinking about such things, they will weather the crisis better if you help them plan constructively.

You can also remind people that they can rely on and collaborate with others. Ask them, Who on your team or within your organization or within your network might be able to help you? There is power in reminding them they’re not alone, and in building a network of support during adversity. (The colleagues lending a hand will benefit as well, because helping others is one of the things that increases people’s resilience, psychologists believe.)

Perspective: Find learning opportunities

In a different longitudinal study, involving about 200 U.S. Navy recruits during training in 2015, we found that when the recruits viewed their unsuccessful experiences as learning opportunities—rather than a string of failures—it also built their resilience. In his book Crucibles of Leadership Robert J. Thomas described an approach he called “reframing the tension”: focusing the learning opportunities lying within the adversity rather than despite the adversity. That’s what college professors are doing today. Denied the ability to teach in the classroom, they’re quickly becoming experts at online instruction and learning. Is it possible that after this crisis universities will be more ready and able to take entire degree programs online while still maintaining high quality?

Another thing you can do is help your direct reports recognize special talents or skills that might be especially useful during the crisis. For example, as your team moves to telecommuting, do you have a particular member who is superb at dealing with distraction? You could have that person provide virtual training to the others. As each member sees how his or her special skills contribute to the good of the team, the group’s confidence and social support will grow.

Resilient teams will learn how to improvise in these new modes of working together. Since that will require constant adjustments, we recommend that you borrow from agile processes and have a daily virtual “standup” meeting. However, we suggest you focus not only on tasks but also on relationships: Use the meeting to increase the team’s sense of connection. For instance, you might share ideas about team hand-offs and how to ensure that they don’t become drop-offs. You can lead discussions on how well things are working, what processes can be improved, and the like. Highlighting what the team is learning during the adversity will collectively strengthen it in all three critical protective factors: confidence, disciplined routines, and support.

Any crisis is also an opportunity to build resilience among your reports. If you successfully implement the tactics we offer here, you just may find that they not only bounce back from these difficult times but emerge much stronger as people and as a team.

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Bringing the Case Method Online

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In this special episode of Cold Call, Brian Kenny speaks with Harvard Business School professor Srikant Datar about how Harvard Business School brought 1,800 MBA students and 200 faculty online in under two weeks amid the Covid-19 pandemic. They discuss the challenges of scaling under pressure to maintain the highest level of participant-centered learning possible, the lessons learned, and how this crisis may change the way we teach and learn forever. For more resources on moving your classroom online, visit https://hbsp.harvard.edu/teaching-online-resources/.
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HBR Presents is a network of podcasts curated by HBR editors, bringing you the best business ideas from the leading minds in management. The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Harvard Business Review or its affiliates.
TRANSCRIPT
BRIAN KENNY: Today we bring you a special edition of Cold Call, dedicated to the untold numbers of faculty and students in MBA programs around the world who, thanks to the coronavirus, suddenly find themselves flushed from their terrestrial classrooms and thrust into the virtual realm. We know that many …

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How to Manage Coronavirus Layoffs with Compassion

Illustration by Maxwell Holyoke-Hirsch

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As the coronavirus pandemic continues to evolve, the damage to the job market looks likely to be deep and long lasting. Managers are not only dealing with the stress and sadness of having to let go of a large number of their workers, many of them are also feeling underlying anxiety about their own positions. Even if laying off employees is the only way to keep the organization running, how do you handle your feelings of guilt and sadness? How should you deliver the news when you can’t meet face-to-face? What should you say to your employees who remain? And what can you do to manage fear about your own future?
What the Experts Say
Laying off employees is difficult in normal times; but amidst the Covid-19 global health crisis, the task is “emotionally and cognitively overwhelming,” according to Joshua Margolis, a professor at Harvard Business School. “This experience for most of us is unfathomable,” he says. “There’s a great deal of uncertainty and people’s …

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Virtual Offsites That Work

Executive Summary
It’s impossible to replicate the experience of an in-person offsite in an online setting.  But with the right preparation, a focus on good meeting practices, careful use of various tools, some rehearsal, and a willingness to experiment as a team, it’s not only feasible but relatively …

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Adjusting to Remote Work During the Coronavirus Crisis

Tsedal Neeley, a professor at Harvard Business School, says that there are simple ways leaders can help their employees stay productive, focused, and psychologically healthy as they work from home during the current global global pandemic. The right technology tools and clear and constant communication are more important than ever. …

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How to Work With Someone Who’s Disengaged

Executive Summary
Given that disengaged employees represent 87% of the workforce, chances are you will work with one at some point in your career. You will be more likely to succeed if you develop the skills to channel their lack of motivation into a productive force. First, don’t get emotional.  …

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The Key to Inclusive Leadership

Executive Summary

Inclusive leadership is emerging as a unique and critical capability helping organisations adapt to diverse customers, markets, ideas and talent. For those working around a leader, such as a manager, direct report or peer, the single most important trait generating a sense of inclusiveness is a leader’s visible awareness of bias. But to fully capitalize on their cognizance of bias, leaders also must express both humility and empathy. This article describes organizational practices that can help leaders become more inclusive and enhance the performance of their teams.

Richard Drury/Getty Images

What makes people feel included in organizations? Or feel that they are treated fairly and respectfully, are valued and belong? Many things of course, including an organization’s mission, policies, and practices, as well as co-worker behaviors.

But mostly it comes down to leaders. We find that what leaders say and do makes up to a 70% difference as to whether an individual reports feeling included. And this really matters because the more people feel included, the more they speak up, go the extra mile, and collaborate — all of which ultimately lifts organizational performance.

Given this formula, inclusive leadership is emerging as a unique and critical capability helping organizations adapt to diverse customers, markets, ideas and talent. Our previous research found that inclusive leaders share a cluster of six signature traits:

  1. Visible commitment: They articulate authentic commitment to diversity, challenge the status quo, hold others accountable, and make diversity and inclusion a personal priority.
  2. Humility: They are modest about capabilities, admit mistakes, and create the space for others to contribute.
  3. Awareness of bias: They show awareness of personal blind spots, as well as flaws in the system, and work hard to ensure a meritocracy.
  4. Curiosity about others: They demonstrate an open mindset and deep curiosity about others, listen without judgment, and seek with empathy to understand those around them.
  5. Cultural intelligence: They are attentive to others’ cultures and adapt as required.
  6. Effective collaboration: They empower others, pay attention to diversity of thinking and psychological safety, and focus on team cohesion.

This sounds like a laundry list, so it’s not surprising that we are regularly asked which is the most important trait. The answer depends on who is asking. If it’s the leader, commitment is the most critical, because without it, the other five attributes can’t be fully developed.

For those working around a leader, such as a manager, direct report or peer, the single most important trait generating a sense of inclusiveness is a leader’s visible awareness of bias. To underscore this insight: Our analysis of the 360-degree Inclusive Leadership Assessments (ILA) of more than 400 leaders made by almost 4,000 raters reveals that while all six traits are important and operate as a cluster, a leader’s awareness of personal and organizational biases is the number one factor that raters care most about.

Comments from raters on the ILA tell us that they particularly notice, for example, when a leader “constantly challenges (their) own bias and encourages others to be aware of their pre-conceived leanings” or when a leader seeks insight into their biases by, for example, “[Asking] others to test whether their thought process is biased in any way.”

But this is not all. Raters are not looking for a simple acknowledgment of bias, tinged with a fatalistic sense that little can be done about it. They care about awareness of bias coupled with two additional behaviors:

  • Humility: Raters want to see that their leaders are determined to address their biases. Fatalism looks like “Hey, I know I have this prejudice, but whatever, I am what I am.” In contrast, leaders who are humble acknowledge their vulnerability to bias and ask for feedback on their blind spots and habits.For example, one direct report told us that their leader “is very open and vulnerable about her weaknesses, which she mentions when we undergo team development workshops. She shares her leadership assessments openly with the team and often asks for feedback and help to improve.” Our research shows that when cognizance of bias is combined with high levels of humility it can increase raters’ feelings of inclusion by up to 25%.
  • Empathy and perspective taking: Raters aren’t looking for their leaders to try to understand their viewpoint and experience as a dry intellectual exercise, but empathically.  That means understanding others deeply and leaving them feeling heard.  For example, one rater commented “[The leader’s] empathy in interacting with others, makes [the leader] approachable, trustworthy and shows [their] eagerness to work with and/or support peers, colleagues and superiors.”  When cognizance of bias is combined with high levels of empathy/perspective-taking, it can increase raters’ feelings of inclusion by up to 33%.

Why are humility and empathy so important in this context? Humility encourages others to share their feedback (e.g., that a leader might have favorites or have a tendency to interrupt people or regularly ignore a class of information). Empathy and perspective taking gives people hope that a leader cares about them and takes their views into account, rather than barreling on with preconceptions or a narrow set of ideas about their perspectives. Moreover, it creates a sense of personal connection between leaders and a diverse set of stakeholders, making it easier to make and implement shared decisions.

Putting the traits to work

How can leaders put these insights into practice? One tactic is to establish a diverse personal advisory board (PAD) — a group of people, often peers, who have regular contact with the leader and whom the leader trusts to talk straight. These trusted advisers can give leaders granular feedback on everyday interpersonal behaviors that support or inhibit inclusion, for example: Does the leader give equal time to all meeting participants, or favor those who are co-located over those who have dialed in? Does the leader always refer to one gender when giving examples or both? Does the leader use a broad spectrum of imagery when addressing a diverse audience, or imagery (such as sport metaphors or all male iconography) that represents only one group of people? Because a PAD is ongoing, leaders can receive feedback on whether the changes they make are hitting the mark.

A second tactic is for leaders to share their learning journey about recognizing and addressing biases. We have seen leaders do this by discussing their 360 assessment results with their manager, speaking at a town hall about their growth or creating a standing item in weekly team meetings (“inclusion moments”), during which they or a team member identifies what they have learned that week about diversity and inclusion. These actions express humility, help leaders to test and build on their insights and role model the importance of humility in addressing biases.

A third tactic is for leaders to immerse themselves in uncomfortable or new situations which expose them to diverse stakeholders, for example by attending an Employee Resource Group meeting, or sitting in different parts of the workplace each week. Exposure, combined with open-ended questions, helps to expand horizons and disrupt pre-conceived ideas.

Inclusive leadership is a critical capability to leverage diverse thinking in a workforce with increasingly diverse markets, customers, and talent. We have previously observed that only one in three leaders holds an accurate view about their inclusive leadership capabilities. A third believe they are more inclusive than they are actually perceived by those around them to be, while a third lack confidence in their inclusive leadership capability and so do less than they could to actively guide others and challenge the status quo.

Becoming more aware is critical to self-development, but awareness in isolation is not sufficient. Without humility and empathy/perspective taking, it’s difficult for leaders to gain deep insights into the nature of their blind spots or remedial strategies and, therefore, to grow. This requires effort, but fortunately the circle of learning is virtuous. Leaders who are humble and empathetic will be open to criticism about their personal biases, and greater self-insight into personal limitations prompts greater humility, empathy and perspective-taking. Not only are these behaviors critical for leaders’ personal development, they also serve to make others feel more included along the way. And that is, of course, the objective.