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The convergence of the persistent Covid pandemic with the racial injustice and calls to action in the US (and abroad) has led to a moment in which emotions and stakes are running hotter and higher than ever.

The lines between “personal” and “work,” “politics” and “humanity” have blurred so completely that leaders and organizations are finding themselves having to manage a response that may feel miles from their comfort zone.

There is a demand for speed. Waiting, watching, and hoping are unacceptable strategies. The time for a response is yesterday.

But we are seeing leaders respond – with strength, with boldness, with a plan for action and change – and in many cases, people are responding badly.

And herein lies the problem.

Leaders are typically wired for action. They want to deliver solutions. But this problem, this moment is raw. People are devastated. They are isolated, heart-broken, and fueled by rage. The system must be ventilated before a path forward can be paved.

The system must be ventilated before a path forward can be paved.

Leaders. There is an imperative that you act. Absolutely. However, you must listen first.

It is time to consciously uncouple listening and acting.

Leaders, please. Begin by listening. If you’re afraid of seeming passive, afraid of the vitriol you might receive, then understand – it’s all in the set up and facilitation of these listening sessions.

Here’s my point of view on how to approach this. And if you need support, get support.

  1. Commit. Acknowledge upfront to your employees (via email, town halls – whatever media suits) what you’re seeing (anger, frustration, fear). Acknowledge you do NOT have all the answers. Let them know you commit to action – but first, you want to give voice to their experience of the moment. In other words, commit that action is coming. But you plan to begin just by listening.
  2. Set boundaries. In moments of pain, rage, and fear, there is risk in what might be said. Articulate that this is indeed a safe space. Employees should speak to release. But they also must be mindful of human dignity. This is not a place for accusation, for calls for violence – whatever guardrails you need to set, set them.
  3. Establish small groups. Having an open dialog in a room (virtual or otherwise) of hundreds or even dozens of people opens risk to either exponential anger, or quieter voices being shut down. Conversations of passion are best had in smaller groups. 5-12.
  4. LISTEN. Leaders. This is your moment. Yours is not to comment or judge. It’s not to react or defend. And it’s not to commit to specific actions. Remember – action is coming. But this moment is only about listening. And then expressing gratitude to anyone brave enough to speak up.
  5. Synthesize and communicate. Sit with what you’ve heard. Reflect. Find themes. Don’t edit. Just perceive. And play back to your organization what you’ve taken away. This is your opportunity to acknowledge all that’s been said (thus ventilating what’s been boiling over), and to take a stand on where your leadership will play. You might, for example, acknowledge righteous (and rightful) feelings about police brutality – and offer your personal support of the cause. But you might also acknowledge that your organization will focus action on what lives within your realm of control (i.e., hiring practices, compensation equity, employee networks, etc.)
  6. Now move to action. Once you’ve listened, you’ve identified where you’ll play, this is the moment to call for action. Invite the impassioned at all levels to participate in the defining and implementing. Seek expertise and support where needed. Ensure the actions you define and fund are linked directly to the needs articulated by your teams.
  7. BE ACCOUNTABLE. Do not let this fall away. Do not let this be your flavor of the month. Define and implement actions. Resource your plan. Communicate progress. Own misses and failures. Keep your finger on the pulse. Always, always be checking in.

Leaders. I hope you’ve been listening.