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Asking for Honesty?

Dear Robin,

I am a leader in our DEAT Team (Department Equity and Action Team) in my organization. What are some key tips regarding getting non-people of color to be open and honest? I often feel that employees are afraid to speak openly and freely without judgement -- even if they are told it is a safe place and feedback is encouraged.

Answer:

For many people, regardless of their demographic identity, being told they are in a “safe place” is very different than feeling they are in a “safe place.” That is, a sense of psychological safety is best built up over time, earned through trust. You can’t effectively tell people they’re in a safe place and have them believe it because you say it. One way to begin to create a sense of safety is for leaders themselves to take risks and be vulnerable. Honesty starts at the top. But that sense of safety must be cultivated and deepened over time. Although it can get ignited at one meeting or one retreat, employees need to see that trust continues to be earned and not betrayed.


It might also be helpful to make clear why they should be open and honest. What is the goal? Is it honesty for its own sake or is there some greater purpose? Without some sense of the goal, it’s understandable why employees may be hesitant to speak “freely.” After all, they aren’t clear how their words might be used (or come back to them later.) In this sense, you’ll want to demonstrate integrity by making it clear how their honest feedback will be used and why it will be particularly useful to end goals. You can then share with them your own “honest” thoughts.


Perhaps it might be helpful to rethink what the end-goal is and then work backwards from there. That is, what’s the purpose of soliciting their thoughts? If it’s to engage in problem-solving, you can frame the question in a way that doesn’t require them to be “open and honest” but rather to help solve the problem. For instance, if your goal is to have DEI content that is more helpful or engaging to white employees, you can ask them, “What type(s) and/or format of DEI content do you think would be most helpful to white employees to help engage them in our DEI efforts?” Note that when the question is asked this way, employees can use their own experience, but in a way that is less risky.


Ultimately, when you invite any employee(s) to be honest in ways that are risky, it’s best when it’s done with a clear goal or set of goals and conditions of trust. There should be a larger purpose in inviting people to be honest—it isn’t simply to get content that answers a question. Understand that it’s an opportunity to deepen trust—but there's also potential for trust to be betrayed.


Disclaimer: This question and response is provided for informational purposes only, and you should not act or refrain from acting on the basis of this content. It is strongly recommended that you immediately seek legal or other professional advice if you believe you are experiencing a problem requiring professional assistance. Robin Rosenberg and Live in Their World, Inc. disclaim all liability for actions you take or fail to take based on Dear Robin content.

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