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It’s time for courageous conversations in the workplace

Nov. 20, 2020
Rockwell Automation’s Olivia Leak believes difficult conversations on divisive topics can build mutual trust when approached with authenticity from both sides.
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More than ever inclusivity is needed in workplaces. This includes having difficult conversations when divisive and often polarizing current events or topics have made it even more challenging. “We know that to be successful we need to work effectively in a culturally diverse environment and that starts by encouraging listening, learning and respect,” said Michele Matthai, director of culture of inclusion and diversity at Rockwell Automation, during the opening of the panel discussion she led on “Inclusive Workplaces in a Divisive World.”

She was joined by Rockwell Automation colleagues Gary Ballesteros, chief compliance officer; John Lohmann, regional OEM sales director, central region; and Olivia Leak, account manager; to discuss what they have learned in navigating difficult conversations, breaking down barriers and building a more inclusive environment for everyone.
The panelists first addressed what had changed for them on this topic during 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, social unrest and an election year.

“I find myself right at the intersection of three of our most polarizing biases. I’m young, I’m black and I’m also a woman,” Leak said. At the beginning, the social injustice movement was sometimes difficult for her to navigate. While she received an outpouring from coworkers and friends reaching out to ask how they could better support her as a black woman, “I went through ebbs and flows of emotion,” she said, and it took time for her to process the movement and what she needed. “What we saw this summer wasn’t unique to 2020; it really was an ongoing problem, something that we’ve seen consistently,” Leak said. She wanted to respond to colleagues but didn’t know what to ask of them. After some reflection, she was able by the end of the summer to better articulate her thoughts to the teams that supported her. She identified key obstacles that she had experienced because of her diverse background and asked for more support in specific areas. “That really helped me navigate this new environment that’s now influenced my culture,” Leak said.

Ballesteros always considered himself a good person, who treated everyone equally, regardless of sex or race, but this year made him realize he needed to do more. “It’s not good enough individually to be a good person. I feel like what this summer opened my eyes to is that for those of us who have some privilege in society and who are viewed as leaders, we have to go out and lead. This has to be something that is actively embraced,” Ballesteros said.

Are there topics or discussions that aren’t suited for the workplace? The panelists resoundingly said no. “We spend an awful lot of time at work. We put a lot of time and energy and effort into it, and it doesn’t feel right to me that we would divorce major societal impacts from our work lives. Life is just not that nicely siloed,” Ballesteros says. “I sincerely believe and I’ve seen many instances of it, where diversity of thought leads to better decision-making.”

Lohmann used to think you should never talk about politics at work, and that has changed for him recently. “For me it feels like the volume has just turned up in every way. Part of my concern with the volume up so much is, I think, a lot of people can no longer see some of the progress we are making,” Lohmann said. He believes those tough conversations and difficult topics need to come to the forefront, and he recommends approaching them by considering the human side of issues, not just the politics, and be wary of media that’s pushing more division. “It does feel like divisiveness is only getting stronger and happening to us more,” he said. While no topic should be off limits, “I do think perhaps pace matters,” Lohmann said. If the team is new to difficult conversations, don’t start with the most difficult topics. Build some trust on the team first.

Leak said that before discussing difficult topics at work, she takes time to consider the relationship at hand. The degree to which she’s willing to engage in a divisive topic is “based on the value that I place on the relationship and how I think it will benefit a future project or future opportunity or a future way to connect with that person,” Leak said. By jumping into conversations without pre-checking herself and evaluating those factors, she has felt pulled into one-sided conversations. “Those conversations for me are extremely exhausting and they break the trust between myself and the other individual, and they don’t do anything for the working relationship,” Leak said. “If I know there’s some opportunity to find some common ground, if I know that it will benefit decision-making or collaboration or the good activities and actions that we want to cultivate within our organization, I’m absolutely willing.”

While it is important to lean into these difficult conversations, it can be intimidating. The panelists talked about basic principles and behaviors to help make those conversations easier. “A key thing is listening first,” Leak said. “You can tell when someone is just there to be heard.” Expressing gratitude, humility and grace and acknowledging the courage that it takes to come to a difficult conversation or divisive topic can go a long way. “My advice is always start with the intent and make sure your intent is for the right reasons,” Leak said. “There will be moments when there’s some misalignment, but again, finding those spaces to be curious, finding those spaces to demonstrate humility and grace and compassion toward the other person, I think that creates a bridge.”

Lohmann said “assuming positive intent” is beneficial to all involved in these types of discussions. “I really like this idea that inclusion is a journey and every single person is going to have a different journey,” Lohmann said. When he started these conversations more than 10 years ago, the idea that he needed to be perfect at it ultimately stopped him from pursuing those discussions with the type of honesty and fervor they needed.

Ballesteros’ best advice for how to have courageous conversations: “You have them, period. That’s it. That’s the first big step. You have to work up the courage to actually have them.”

“Finding those spaces to be curious, finding those spaces to demonstrate humility and grace and compassion toward the other person, I think that creates a bridge.” Rockwell Automation’s Olivia Leak believes difficult conversations on divisive topics can build mutual trust when approached with authenticity from both sides.