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3 ways to communicate like a leader in a changing workplace

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3 ways to communicate like a leader in a changing workplace

By L. Michelle Smith, M.S. ACC · August 16, 2021
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The year was 2015, and I was working at a large company. It was about the time that marriage equality became the law of the land. My workspace was not private—it was one of those open spaces where about 30 people had desks, and there was no hiding behind doors or walls. Because we were in the business of public perception, we kept large screens tuned in to the latest news. You can imagine what happened when the ruling came down.

It was a touchy spot to be in. Over time, we had a fairly good idea about where certain teammates stood on certain issues. As the lead of the diversity and inclusion (D&I) communications efforts, my plans hinged on the outcome, including how the company would respond and communicate about it. Though D&I was a core value at the company, naturally, the various employees still had their own views about it.

I was reminded of this scenario recently as I spoke to an agency in the Southeast about how to communicate like a leader during times where much of the interactions we are having are virtual, and social and political issues arise at work—especially in a multigenerational and multicultural setting. Back in 2015, there was no keeping the talk out of my work environment. It was my work. But while social and political issues may not be the work for everyone, it will enter the workspace in the hearts and minds of each employee.

Navigating a complex work dynamic

So there it was: marriage equality was the law of the land. At once, I triggered the execution of the communications plan, which began with a tweet from the main handle with our never-before-seen and historical rainbow logo. It was a huge deal for a company that was just beginning to tell its story on the topic. On the other side of the room, however, a conversation ensued that made everyone in the room tense.

One of my colleagues approached another, a member of the LGBTQ+ community, and launched into an array of questions. To be fair, none of the questions were offensive, and my friend seemed to handle the discussion with grace and poise, but the sheer fact that someone zeroed in on him with rapid-fire discussion in the workplace was enough to make us all want to run for the hills.

Fast forward to the year 2021. We live in a very interesting time, where the typical client or internal meeting may not necessarily happen in a conference room and where social and political issues swirl around us. If you're a part of a multigenerational and multicultural workforce, you will likely find more challenges in an already complex work dynamic.

In this video-centric work environment, some people have found comfort in the ability to turn their cameras off to seek psychological safety or sometimes simply take a break from socially-charged workplace pop quizzes or other conversations that arise from headlines. But let's face it: turning off your camera all the time or even checking out on meetings by embracing the mute button through the entire session more often than not isn't a possibility for someone who's attempting to position themselves as a leader. 

So, how do you lead through your communications despite this culturally-nuanced, politically-charged, and technology-heavy environment? 

Handling social or political conversations at work that you may or may not be open to 

Bringing up political or social issues in the workplace seems to be hardest for the Baby Boomer generation—those that I've spoken to about this report being taught that social and political issues aren't topics for discussion even in social circles, let alone at work. My largely Boomer mentors shared the same with me. Although a Gen-Xer myself, I've seen the reality that this is incompatible with the other generations who have entered the workplace.

Millennials, who are now "adulting" with the rest of us, and their more junior colleagues Gen-Zers, are more apt to be values-driven in their selection of a career and a workplace. Also, since many of them make it a point to make friends at work, you can expect that these groups are more open and proactive about having these conversations at work. No doubt this only adds fuel to the fire that is the well-documented conflict between Boomers and Millennials.

However, as companies begin to engage in more programs that encourage "courageous conversations" on a range of social and political topics, it may be next to impossible to avoid conversations like these in the workplace. The thinking is that if the company supplies a safe space, they have modeled the way to approach these discussions productively and that these one-off conversations may occur less often. 

So what do you do when you're approached with a barrage of questions or a conversation on a topic you'd rather avoid from a colleague? 

Engage empathy and a listening ear. Before completely dismissing your colleague, listen. Find ways that you might be able to relate to them on larger themes and concepts. Do this internally first before speaking. And if you're still not inclined to engage, simply say so. Something like: "You know, that's a very important issue, and I hear you. I don't think I'm the best person to discuss it with, though, because topics like this at work make me uncomfortable. I hope you understand." This provides you a way to exit the conversation graciously without tipping your hand on your stance on the topic, and at the very least, you listened. At most, you may have learned something about someone else by doing so.

Positioning yourself as a leader even if you aren't running the meeting 

It's easier than ever to disengage in meetings, especially the virtual ones. Even TikTok has many a tutorial on how to appear to be on the line and engaged without actually being so. But have you ever considered how this can cut into your credibility as a leader? If the only meetings you're actively involved with are the ones that you lead, people will notice. 

I understand: we are under so much pressure with home and work converging under one roof, and news that weighs us down and affects our psyches. Sometimes you want to be camera-off, muted, and hiding under your bed. I get it.

Working with clients who are primarily high-performing executives with executive leadership aspirations, we navigate these issues on a daily basis. When the results of the Brionna Taylor hearings were announced, I hosted an emergency group coaching for anyone who wanted to attend and work through the sudden impact of the news. It was hard on many Black women: even from their home offices, they said they felt like they didn't have a place to emote or even process what they'd heard. 

Sometimes, you need an outlet from work. Is it realistic to be smiling all the time, especially in the midst of a pandemic? It isn't, but you must show up and lead. How do you do this?

Make a plan to speak up in meetings and a schedule for how you engage. For those of you who tend to hang back in meetings, it's important to plan ahead for engagement. While it may be hard to plan what to say because others may say the same thing, it's not unreasonable to plan to engage with an insightful question on a topic that you know will arise. Make the question open-ended, something that will encourage conversation and position you as smart, thoughtful, and engaged. This requires you to listen to the entire meeting. 

As for being camera-off because putting on "the face" all the time may feel like a bit much, many of my clients, most of them working mothers, have learned that proactively setting boundaries not only manages expectations, but also provides them with a much-needed respite when needed. Plan for camera-off days instead of sporadically turning off your webcam. If everyone understands that on Fridays, this is how you engage, it won't catch others off guard.

Reclaiming your voice when someone talks over you in a meeting

You're soft-spoken, but you know that your ideas are solid. Each time you open your mouth in a meeting, however, your words seem to always be stepped on by someone with a more commanding presence. Or perhaps it's even worse than your words being stepped on. Maybe someone takes credit for your idea in broad daylight, with everyone watching in a meeting when you just shared the concept with the group. It's been called mansplaining or whitesplaining, but it's by no means limited to gender and race. No matter the dynamic, it can feel condescending, and in some cases, it can be career-limiting. 

In my book, No Thanks: 7 Ways to Say I'll Just Include Myself, The Remix, I include an entire chapter on what to do when a "workjacking" happens. The gist: Have a meeting before the meeting.

  1. If you know who the culprit is, approach them ahead of time and share with them that you plan to talk about an idea in the meeting and that it's important that you're able to communicate it well. Tell them that you notice their tendency to chime in and that you appreciate their enthusiasm, but that you'd like it if, when they reiterate your idea, they cite you as the source. 

  2. You could also build consensus with allies ahead of the call. Let them know that you have noticed the tendency for others to take credit. Ask them to chime in and redirect to you as the source when they notice this happening, and make it clear that you're also willing to support them in such cases.

  3. Graciously take the bully head-on in the meeting. When you hear the colleague begin to rehash your idea as their own, let them finish. Then kindly say, "You know, Jim, I appreciate how enthusiastic you are about my idea. Thank you for articulating it so well. If you're interested in working with me on the project, let's talk. Anyone else have insights?" 

This is a trying time for all of us as we attempt to navigate a workplace we've never experienced before. It's important to be mindful of how you want to be positioned as a leader, advocating for yourself while exercising a huge amount of empathy with your colleagues. How will you seize the opportunity to lead in ordinary circumstances during these extraordinary times?

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L. Michelle Smith, M.S. ACC picture

L. Michelle Smith, M.S. ACC

L. Michelle Smith is the CEO/founder of no silos communications llc, a media and consulting company that blends leadership development and strategic communications to develop high-performing, women executive leaders. She also advises the Fortune 500 companies those women aspire to lead.

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