The Time to Build Personal Connections is Now
June 2020. The world was quaking in reaction to the video of an unarmed Black man being asphyxiated by a police officer in Minneapolis.
After George Floyd’s murder, I talked to a Black employee at a client organization who expected a statement from their leadership. They waited for days and days. They got more and more upset with each day of silence, reading it as apathy.
The leaders finally sent out a message to the organization. They also instructed managers to reach out to their teams. As a result, this employee received a forwarded email from their supervisor with the opening line: “Leadership told me to reach out. How are you?”
This was a particularly egregious scenario, but it illustrates why these well-intentioned communications often don’t achieve their positive goals. Trying to build a connection in the midst of a tragedy is uncomfortable, vulnerable, and personal. There is very little emotional room for error.
If the first time you have a truly personal conversation with a colleague of color is after a tragedy, then it will feel opportunistic, obligatory, or forced.
The time to check in and to build personal connections is now, before the next tragedy. Ask questions and speak authentically about what is important to the members of your team. You might be awkward, make mistakes, and fumble—but you can be doing it at a time when everyone is less tense.
When bad things happen to people of color in America, many of us feel it in a way that is different from the way many white people feel when something bad happens to a white person.
Speaking for myself: I think there is a greater sense of community and connection among Black people across the nation; a shared experience even if we don’t know each other. I know people who have been profiled or mistreated by the police. I can imagine something happening to me or my children. It feels personal. I heard a Black woman on NPR describing how she felt: “I feel like we’re under attack and I’m afraid to leave home.” The cumulative effect of police killings, health disparities, erosion of rights, Confederate flags, white supremacist marches through Boston… is a heavy burden to bear.
When you work to build real connections across racial differences (or any other identity differences), you can deepen your empathy and understanding. Even if you don’t react to an event at a personal level, understand that someone on your team might. As a manager, you should be able to support everyone on your team.
So don’t wait until the next tragedy to connect with your employees. Do the work to increase your personal awareness and build relationships. Then when the news cycle calls for a reaction, you can speak authentically.
Shift from being reactive to being intentional with regard to racism (and all the other isms and phobias). Rather than responding and then dropping out of the conversation, you can be part of it.
I hope the next time you write a statement about racial violence is a long way off. But don’t wait. Reach out to your colleagues now.