It’s been amazingly gratifying to work with outstanding people at a great company for over 28 years. Throughout my career at Consumers Energy, wonderful people have enriched my life in incredible ways. During the virtual retirement gatherings, two exceptionally valuable occurrences were consistent:

  1. Co-workers representing 360° of perspective gave me the generous gift of feedback regarding how they experienced interacting with me.
  2. People asked for my parting advice on a broad range of career topics suggesting the use of a blog or podcast.

Since yesterday was my first official day of retirement and there was ample time to respond to the advice requests I planned to post the first of my responses. This article was intended begin the series and would address self-leadership. That will still happen, but not today. Given current realities, I’m compelled to focus on demonstrating our humanity at work—specifically related to race.

Engaging in these discussions can be heavy, controversial, and risky. If not handled well, these discussions can create strain in workplace relationships, can dampen collaboration, and have the potential to reduce team effectiveness. However, it is a mistake to assume that keeping silent on this topic is a safer position to take.  Silence unintentionally says, “however this may be affecting you, it is not worthy of my attention.” As leaders, we are responsible for creating an environment that invites critical conversations at the time of need. In doing so, we actively pursue what is best for our teams and our organization, even as we may feel ill-equipped to lean into those spaces.

A benefit to intentionally understanding those in crisis is that it builds social capital in personal relationships and in the workplace. These practices yield lasting dividends. I compare showing empathy during this crisis to the way that many typically respond to the trauma of a death in the family.  When I’ve experienced such losses, many co-workers rallied around me and were extraordinarily thoughtful through giving flowers, cards, and offering to help in any way that they could. They demonstrated patience as I worked through grieving and as I regained a more normal state of mind. I felt so blessed and will always remember that.

Today, the collective trauma of the African American experience can go completely unacknowledged or worse, gets invalidated. Some recent examples have hit close to home in my family:

  • We continue to see news reports of controversial, preventable deaths of people like me.
  • My daughter attended a peaceful demonstration (before curfews) and was tear-gassed along with others who had lawfully assembled.
  • Our boys lost their grandmother to COVID-19. Additionally, another 6 people known to the family have died. The CDC reports that the death rate is disproportionately high for Americans who happen to be Black.

In times like these, I recognize that other families of color feel perpetually unsafe related to the legal system and the pandemic. Since this feeling cannot be compartmentalized, we bring this as part of our whole selves to the workplace. When these feelings are ignored or dismissed by others, there are usually a series of assumptions that underly the dismissal.

One assumption is that if we encounter problems, it must be because we are doing something wrong. While that may be some people’s reality, to assert any assumption as a universal truth is hurtful for those who experience life differently. When our friends experience “valid” forms of trauma, do we offer this type of commentary?

  • She must have done something to bring that upon herself.
  • Do you think you’re overreacting a bit?
  • I just don’t think that you have any reason to feel that way.

These comments imply that certain traumatic experiences are not valid, even though the emotional toll is quite real. This causes those that feel dismissed (personally or via social media) to silently disengage from certain workplace relationships. Disengagement, even when silent, can diminish collaboration and productivity.

As leaders, let’s push against silence and dismissiveness. Instead of questioning our coworkers’ traumatic experiences, let’s create a supportive work environment. We can freely acknowledge that this is a complex discussion that will need more dialogue and practical navigation.

However, right now let’s choose to do what we personally can do to make it feel a little better for our coworkers and others.  Let’s express empathy individually for the many who are suffering. I’m grateful to the many people who have done that for me.

Extra special thanks to KenyadaDanah, and Rose for helping me give expression to my first day.