Can we talk?

Arguably one of the most difficult issues we face as a nation is race. Our painful, ugly history continues to manifest as pain and ugliness in the present. And our challenges extend beyond racial equity and inclusion to gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, age, socio-economic status, ability. We struggle to talk about these challenges, and we struggle even more to work through them effectively.  

Most of us can easily agree that increasing kindness, empathy, respect, inclusion, belonging, compassion, and trust is the right thing to do and leads to better experiences and outcomes for all. Learning to live with more love and less fear, to highly regard the humanity of others, is the heart of the matter. But how do we do that day to day on a team?

Recently the State of Washington’s Chief Learning Officer Cheryl Sullivan-Colglazier mentioned to me a hard conversation her team of instructors had about unconscious bias, diversity and inclusion. She was blown away by their willingness and skill to have such a risky and potentially difficult discussion. But they did and their conversation was respectful, productive and strengthening of the team.

I asked to talk with them about their experience to learn what made that conversation possible. I met with Elizabeth Fontanilla, Marcus Harvey, Audrey Pitchford, Joanne Lee, Melissa Harris, and Cheryl. Raul Leal-Trujillo, Michael Kohlhorst, and Ellis Starrett, and managers Laura Blacklock and Patrick Seigler weren’t present that day but are part of the team and the story. Here's what I learned.

Motivated to Improve for Customers

The Workplace Learning and Performance Team is charged with piloting, refining, and delivering a series of ground-breaking new leadership training courses for Washington State leaders -- Leading Others, Leading Teams, and soon, Leading Organizations. One training pilot included an unconscious bias video that they felt “bombed” both in content and delivery. The team came together afterward to analyze what happened and how to improve.

The video implied that unconscious bias was based on race but some pointed out that unconscious bias is not just about skin color. It can be about other factors as well. As they began to offer different opinions and perspectives, team members were aware of being in turbulent waters and several wondered where the conversation was going to go.

Cheryl is personally committed to advancing equity, diversity, and inclusion. She felt it was good for the group to push themselves, and she knew she could trust them. Besides, if they couldn’t have these conversations with each other, then how could they take learners into difficult discussions in the classroom?  They needed personal experience with being safe enough but not too comfortable so they could create such experiences for others.

Marcus said, “I watched Cheryl’s body language as this conversation started. She took a risk and extended trust to us to go there.”

That day the team explored the topic, respectfully listened, learned from each other, and arrived at a new approach to the curriculum that is more well-rounded and effective. And they worked through this in a way that strengthened their relationships and respect for each other. They shared several factors that made this conversation about diversity and bias possible.

Build safety and belonging from the beginning.

The WLP Team intentionally builds safety and belonging for each employee from the beginning. When Joanne, Marcus, Elizabeth, and Melissa joined the team; their experiences exemplified the care given to bringing new employees in to the team.

Joanne, Marcus, and Elizabeth all started on the same day and all experienced safety and acceptance. On their first day, Pat, their manager, welcomed them, giving them his focused time and attention to help with their transition onto the team. Audrey and Raul were waiting to meet them and make them feel welcome. There was no sense of uncertainty about integrating new team members. They were included right off the bat. When Melissa joined later, the team made sure she felt safe, comfortable, and included too.

Elizabeth noted that on the first day after touring the building, the team went to the café rather than a sterile conference room. There they sat in comfy chairs, and got to know each other over coffee. She recalls wondering nervously, “Shouldn’t we be working?” But then she realized they actually cared about her as a person and valued taking the time to get to know her.

Elizabeth shared with them how stressed she was about where to park. So Patrick piled them all in his car and showed them how to access the parking garage, where to park, and where to walk. Doing this together with other “newbies” demonstrated empathy and care.

Today team members feel their ability to have candid, difficult conversations began with the safety and belonging they experienced in their first hours as team members. 

Trust and respect each other.

WLP Team members have confidence and faith in each other. Everyone hired onto the team is selected for very specific skills and contributions so they know they can extend trust easily and early.

Team members take the course, “The Speed of Trust,” but early on new team members hadn’t yet. Cheryl helped bridge this gap by building relationships across the team. Though it was naturally hard at first for some to share because they did not know the others yet, Cheryl led a conversation on being inclusive that really helped.

And Audrey modeled looking out for them in practical ways by taking notes at meetings and getting information to team members who couldn’t attend, making sure they felt included. Audrey pointed out, “All are aware of the importance of creating safety for our learners in class. If not, they won’t participate. We can’t provide content without attending to emotional experiences and to needs for safety.” They do this for each other too.

“Being in the classroom together,” Elizabeth said, “we need to have comfort with each other.”

Share a purpose.

The team’s purpose is to change the culture of leadership for Washington State. Sharing the same goal creates a higher level of commitment and brings the team together. Their focus on learning helps them be open. Learning is not only their work; it's what they live.

“We have a thirst for learning. We are open-minded to hearing others’ thoughts and ideas; we want to learn and grow,” Melissa said.

“Learning is the nature of what we do. We are encouraged to think in terms of more than black and white, right and wrong. We think about being a learner, and we are encouraged to dive into things. We explore ideas; we push and challenge each other to see new perspectives.”

The team said, “If we teach it, we should be doing it!”

Value people.

Cheryl pointed out that team members are selected for their people-centered values evidenced by maturity and a willingness to listen to understand, among other qualities and skills. They believe that each person brings something that helps them grow as a team.

Marcus pointed out that being human-centered means being customer-focused and team-focused. They seek to understand each person in the classroom and to appreciate where they are coming from. They bring that human focus to each other too.

Cheryl told them, “You all help this happen when you show up!”

Lead with care.

Finally, what became clear to me was the impact of Cheryl, Patrick, and Laura's caring leadership. This was woven throughout everything the team described. These leaders really care about them and based on that care, make thoughtful decisions about each aspect of the team. 

When I advocate for more love and less fear at work, for making work more human, leaders often ask me, "How do I DO that? What should I DO?" Ultimately every leader has to answer those questions for themselves based on their unique team, culture, challenges, etc. While nothing can be lifted and shifted because every circumstance is unique, we can be inspired by what loving leadership can look like through the example of other leaders.

I am inspired by and learn from Cheryl, Patrick, and Laura's example: First they embrace a deep value for people. And then, from that values base, each day in small and in large ways, they thoughtfully pay attention to and make decisions aligned with valuing people. Decision points in this situation included choosing team members for values as well as skills, deciding how to welcome new employees on their first day, determining how to respond to expressed needs, choosing to cultivate team relationships and build team skills, opting to work through problems not avoid them, and deciding to invest in improving the work, fostering conversations, and extending trust. 

Each of those leadership decision points could have gone a very different direction, conveying fear and indifference to team members instead of love and care. In that case, it would have been much harder to discuss diversity, inclusion, and unconscious bias, and much less likely to make improvements for customers.

By building trust, care, and respect from the beginning, with a shared focus on learning and on people, and with leadership that thoughtfully cares for the team, the DES Workplace Learning and Performance Team can have difficult but important conversations to improve value to the customer and make their work together incredibly gratifying.