As a CEO, president, business owner, or entrepreneur, you’re going to have to learn how to deal with things outside your comfort zone. While artificial intelligence may be fast replacing parts of your workforce, you’ll still have to deal with a few humans throughout your day. And working with humans can be tricky.
Why? Because they come wrapped up in packages complete with personalities, sensitivities, cultural beliefs, identities, attitudes and opinions. Diversity is the spice of life, and most leaders are quick to cite having a diverse team as one of their strongest assets. But as we see so blatantly each time we turn on the news, not everyone is comfortable with being different.
We weren’t all born natural communicators or knowing instantly how to diffuse potentially controversial situations. Many American CEOs still live in fear of offending someone for saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.” But as a business leader, you have to learn to step up to the plate and lead.
That doesn’t mean opening your mouth and speaking out without filters. But you do have to get ready to address certain topics you may have been ill-prepared for in business school.
Issues such as racial bias, misogyny, ageism, immigration, LGBT rights and maybe even transgender bathrooms. If it seems a bit overwhelming, remember you’re not the only one who feels this way. Everyone starts somewhere. Check out these tips for dealing with controversial issues in the workplace.
1. Open Communication
There are some issues that you may wish to steer clear of. But choosing to keep quiet when something controversial is happening is akin to supporting it, believes Tom Andrews, President of SYPartners Leadership Consulting.
“You know well enough that CEOs are pilloried if they say something unintentionally stupid or anodyne. And they are criticized for being bystanders if they say nothing.
The phrase “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” comes to mind. But there are ways to lead through this uncertainty. At SYP, we are intensely conscious of how and how much we communicate as we grow.”
He’s not the only one to believe in the benefits of fluid dialogue. International giant PwC also encourages open communications, rather than a policy of leaving your problems at the door. PwC US Chairman, Tim Ryan, responded to the racially-charged tragedies in Dallas and Baton Rouge last year with a policy of open doors.
As a white man, he found it difficult to offer his condolence or advice in the face of such controversy. In fact, he didn’t know what to say, so he invited his team members to talk about it. Instead of the tense silence that could be cut with a knife, ill-feeling dissipated as employees realized that their leader actually cared about how them and how wider issues affected them.
Andrews reinforces: “When you’re dealing with social issues, being an effective leader means addressing the human experience of exclusion, bias, violence, shame, fear, hate. That experience is not an abstract one or a logical one. It is a deeply felt human one. So you must address it, to earn the right to give an opinion worth hearing.”
2. Use The Right Language
Choosing the right language to address your employees with is essential, as certain vocabulary has the tendency to create bias or negative connotation. Therefore, it’s very important to understand the words you use and the repercussions they have. It’s not about learning the younger generation’s street slang or patronizing your audience in any way. But it is about carefully selecting your words.
For example, when we hear the word “chairman,” we naturally don’t think of the position being held by a woman. There is nothing offensive about the word on its own, but it does predispose us to think of a male in the chair. Hearing the word “black,” on the other hand, should not preclude us from thinking of someone beyond their color. But it does predispose us to focus on their color.
While it may not seem like it, Trump’s speeches throughout his electoral campaign were carefully studied in terms of the language that he used. His emotionally charged rhetoric went down well with a public in a time of crisis and hit a nerve with his supporters.
So, as a business leader, before you speak on a social topic, be sure to master the language and understand what it conveys. As well as the people you’re addressing. You want your words to signal your true intentions and not be interpreted in other ways.
3. Remember Your Core Values
Last of all, remember not to insult your employees by speaking out in favor of something you are known to be against. When you need to discuss controversial issues in workplace, remember your core values. The people that you hired may also need a refresh on what your company stands for.
If you have a zero-tolerance policy for discrimination, now is the time to speak out against it with passion. If your core values are mutual respect and understanding, you should easily be able to diffuse a situation in which your values are not being followed. But don’t find yourself in a position where your sincerity could be challenged.
For example, when Bernard Tyson speaks about being treated differently because of the color of his skin, he does so from the personal perspective of an African American. As with the case of PwC and the racial killings, Tim Ryan did not stand up and make elaborate speeches about race relations. He understood that his audience would not be able to empathize with his words. He decided to listen instead and encourage discussion.
Above all, remember that taking a public position on an important issue can serve as an excellent way of boosting employee morale. But it can also work against you. Be sure to take a measured approach, listen to the language that is being used and speak out about causes that you truly care about. If you are firm and reasonable in your stance, you will win the respect of your team and your peers, even if they disagree with you.