When it comes to creating inclusive workplaces, good intentions and public commitments fall short if individuals and teams aren’t equipped with the specific tactics needed to make a difference.
When someone says something racist or sexist in a meeting, people might feel awkward and not know how to react immediately, and then feel that it’s too late afterward. When there’s an incident of racial injustice in the news, organizational leaders might struggle with how to respond.
In short, many of us—including myself—would benefit from a detailed playbook for anti-racist, inclusive workplace practices.
Did That Just Happen?! by Dr. Stephanie Pinder-Amaker and Dr. Lauren Wadsworth, clinical psychologists who work together at Harvard-Medical-School-affiliated McLean Hospital, aims to be that playbook, and it delivers powerfully. Sections of the new book—chapter eight, especially—should be read by every leader who wants to create more diverse and inclusive teams.
“Diversifying our workforces requires a two-part commitment: not only is it necessary to hire more employees with rising identities, but we must also transform the institutions themselves to make them inclusive and sustainable,” write Pinder-Amaker and Wadsworth, who bring the lived experience of being an African-American woman and a queer woman, near the start of the book (p. 5). The bulk of the rest of it provides specific scenarios, tactics, and scripts for creating truly inclusive organizations.
They point out that the current state of many organizations is pretty bad: “In times of crisis, leadership turns to the most marginalized folks within an organization, invites their participation and wisdom, and then silences them. This dangerous and stifling cycle happens over and over and must be disrupted because leadership that is defensive, silencing, and marginalizing is experienced as ineffective, disheartening, and demoralizing.” (p. 88) The process to fix this is messy: “It’s not going to be pretty, especially at first, but you will get better over time.” (p. 94) They note: “You’ll probably get more negative feedback the longer you do this work, as more and more people will trust you enough to give you this feedback.” (p. 54)
In chapter eight, Pinder-Amaker and Wadsworth define “Oppressive Listening” and “Empowering Listening.” When someone describes incidents of bias and discrimination, people in Oppressive Listening mode don’t express empathy or validate the experience, but rather enter into problem solving mode and shift the focus to themselves and their feelings.
“It’s no coincidence that the Oppressive Listening behavioral style is so common among organizational leaders,” they write. “Leaders in our society have been groomed to be unemotional, outcome-driven, efficient problem solvers who find the path of least resistance—and these skills are often powerful in creating robust and effective teams.” (p. 84)
Empowering Listening, in contrast, involves:
- Broaching the topic. When there are instances of identity-related injustice in the news, create opportunities for colleagues to discuss them, and understand that they might not want to.
- Separating expertise from leadership. Whereas leaders expect to be authorities on everything of significance, here they need to practice cultural humility and critical self-reflection.
- Listening and then listening some more. Not seizing back control of the conversation to defensively dismiss what people from marginalized groups might be saying, or rushing to problem solve.
- Suppressing surprise. Telling someone you can’t believe they experienced discrimination shows a lack of appreciation for structural racism. An example alternative response the authors recommend: “As a white, nonindigenous person, I had not thought about that before and I can totally see how that could happen. That is not okay. I (the person you trusted enough to confide in) and we (the organization) will do better.” (p. 89)
- Avoiding comparisons and analogies. It’s natural to want to try to relate, but doing so shifts the focus. So it’s better to say you don’t know what it feels like, but can imagine it’s frustrating and lonely.
- Not trying to fix things immediately. “Fixing” things includes finding other explanations for discriminatory behavior, saying “at least it’s better now,” or jumping quickly to possible solutions. “Of course, there is a time and a place for action,” Pinder-Amaker and Wadsworth write, “but it isn’t necessarily your call to make or your place to take the lead.” (p. 95) Instead, they advise listening, validating (naming the racism or other discrimination), and then following the lead of the person in pain.
The authors suggest leaders engage in regular listening tours to discuss structural bias and discrimination, and discuss specific ways employees are encountering it in their workplace. Following a listening tour, the leaders can document and follow up on ideas and recommendations that surfaced.
Pinder-Amaker and Wadsworth helpfully provide specific phrases to use in moments of receiving critical feedback. “Thank you for giving me that feedback. I really appreciate you taking the extra time and effort. Thank you for trusting that I can receive it. I will reflect on what you have shared,” they write. (p. 55)
They also discuss scenarios that they describe as “the freeze,” when someone says or does something offensive or discriminatory in a group of people, who struggle to react because they are taken off guard or deterred by power dynamics. “The freeze is dangerous because although the room may be filled with allies and advocates, the observed silence and inaction can be painful for the target and convey that this type of behavior is ok,” write Pinder-Amaker and Wadsworth. (p. 61) At the very least, they recommend a followup email or conversation telling the target of the discrimination that you know it was not OK, you are here to listen if they want to vent, and you will take steps to be a more effective advocate in the future.
To be sure:
- The advice is largely geared toward managers from dominant groups, such as white leaders of organizations. There are tactics throughout for those who are experiencing discrimination, but that's less of a focus—as the authors clearly say that those who are discriminated against are too often asked to bear the extra burden of fixing the problems that are afflicting them.
- The book focuses largely on interpersonal scenarios and scripted language that's appropriate to use, and less on specific structural or process fixes for things like race and gender wage gaps or discrimination in hiring. Those issues are covered in other books.
- “If someone confronts you with your privilege from a place of anger or even hatred, if someone does not want to take the time or does not have the emotional energy to further explain to you where your privilege lies, know that this is still a kindness. Try to remember that the alternative to not being made aware of your privilege (no matter how it may sting) is your continued participation in the oppression of others. Someone is giving you an opportunity to do better, no matter how unpleasant the delivery. Thank them!”—author Ijeoma Oluo (p. 51)
- “It is valid to feel angry and gaslit when oppressed and marginalized. It is valid to feel sad and hopeless about unfair and unjust systems that have been in place for centuries. The key is to tolerate the emotional discomfort while learning the specific actions we can all take to eliminate interpersonal, institutional, and societal oppression.” (p. 53)
- “George Floyd’s murder seemed to anoint white people who never really had to see or think about race with a kind of 2020 vision. And what did organizations do next? Leaders all over the globe turned to the people of color in their industries and asked, ‘What should we do differently?’” (p. 61)
- “Create channels for people with rising identities to advance through your company. Acknowledge that working while Black within a largely white institution is laborious and comes with a heavy and cumulative dose of burnout occurring on a daily, weekly, and yearly basis. Meet this higher burden with financial and promotional acknowledgment.” (p. 72)
- “Every single US industry is about to roil under the revelations about the ubiquity of racism. The measure of decency will not be how they defend against the charges but whether they are willing to listen and act in meaningful ways. Put down the shield, open the windows.”—Imani Perry, professor at Princeton (p. 86)
The bottom line is that Did That Just Happen?! excels in providing constructive, tactical ways of creating workplace cultures that are more inclusive. Pinder-Amaker and Wadsworth script what people can say in difficult or awkward situations, aiming to substitute action in the place of unknowing or discomfort. It’s a book that I will surely return to, and encourage others to read.
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