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Empty Suits and the Sound of Silence

Woke Leaders Make the Best Listeners

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How should employers handle the aftermath of a weekend that shook the living daylights out of many of us? Is it an employer’s responsibility to ensure their employees feel supported and safe? What does silence say to your employee population?


At Workspan, we’ve previously spoken about the importance of building an emotional support system for employees and creating a haven for them to feel safe (“Handle with Care”). Our Publications team also has tackled the thorny issue of immigration and the role and responsibility of employers when it comes to protecting “Dreamer employees” and providing legal support.

In these days of heightened security and palpable fear, it’s hard to know when to speak and what to say about public tragedies, such as the mass shooting sprees that occurred this past weekend in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. There’s little that goes on outside the workplace that doesn’t have an impact — positive or negative — on the well-being and productivity of individuals at your company.

What is more disturbing than the sudden loss of innocent lives? How do we cope as a society and respond as organizational leaders? Do we ignore the news as if nothing has happened?

We know the sheer mention of a polarizing, prickly subject such as gun law reform can produce more friction than we’d like, but does that excuse us from putting on blinders and burying our heads in Excel spreadsheets behind closed doors?

If we dodge the bombshell headlines that shake our country’s foundation to its core, do we do so at the risk of creating a closed and soulless culture? What does it say about your organization’s leaders if they dismiss this daily shop of horrors that passes as breaking news as the “new normal?”

What is a human resources professional to do in such dire circumstances, when the distractions and hardships of life seem overwhelming? Are we building rich, trusting relationships with our co-workers and employee population if we sidestep difficult conversations? Should employers encourage managers to talk with their teams about the unfolding of unconscionable, widely reported events — or is the mere raising of the subject too personal and risky?

All of these questions — by no means rhetorical — intend to challenge the conventional wisdom of yesterday’s workplace. Our corporate instinct, long ingrained in us, gravitates toward flight. We often choose silence for fear of confrontation. We are afraid because a heated discussion could cause an uproar in the halls, a battle scene in the café, a rift in the boardroom.

Instead of allowing the narrative of these times to dictate a non-response (or an impersonal, impartial company statement), perhaps we should consider resisting the impulse to retreat.

Hard times indeed call for drastic measures. They also call for team meetings called by leaders and managers to encourage open discourse.

The best, most efficient teams don’t become celebrated prototypes overnight. They learn from each other’s strengths and weaknesses through the stories they share and the information they volunteer.

People who understand and respect each other are more likely to be candid and transparent. They have each other’s back. They’re more likely to have projects succeed because they’re not looking to throw their peers under the bus. They prefer to elevate teammates by praising their accomplishments. They go to bat for them when their performance is questioned. They pick up the pieces when they’ve missed a deadline. They give them a pass when they’ve fallen short of expectations.

HR should look to develop role models and leaders who have a conscience, a spine and an empathy bone. We no longer have the time or expense accounts to afford empty suits. Today’s businesses need woke people who lead by example and break barriers and silos with emotional intelligence. We need people who strive to recognize the good in others and particularly their struggling when the world is too much with us.

Life’s tribulations sometimes get in the way of focusing on the task at hand and producing good work. No matter how hard we resist the forces of gravity, we don’t always find the strength to bring our game faces to the office. The swirl of the universe simply won’t allow it.

Come hell or high decibels, the vital news of the day interferes with our everyday work lives via an internet, satellite or cable signal. How should we address it? Do we deny the black hovering clouds and let them blow over like a microburst? Or do we face the storm and ride out the darkness together like simpatico soulmates?

The one thing we should never do is let silence tear us apart. True leaders know when to speak and, more importantly, they know when to listen.

About the Author

Dan Cafaro is Editor-in-Chief of Workspan.

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