How comfortable are you with challenging your executive leaders on tough issues? It's a little scary, right? And if your leadership tends to be a little older, more conservative, generally similar to a lot of organizations in the US, it can be extra uncomfortable.
I've been examining this fear lately--especially in the context of advancing racial equity at work--and a gentleman I met at a recent training clarified it for me: "You're not afraid of getting fired," he said. Very true--no one in my organization is going to fire me for advocating equity. "You're afraid they'll stop listening to you. You're afraid of losing your power."
For me--and I'd bet for a bunch of HR types--the scariest thing is not the idea we might get fired, because that's pretty unlikely. Our greatest fear is that we will lose our seat at the table because we've challenged and even offended the powers that be. That we may still quite literally be sitting at the table, but will have lost our voice, and the power behind it. Nowhere is this fear more palpable than surrounding issues of race and equity in the workplace.
Here's the thing, though: we can't allow that fear to stop us from doing our jobs--whether it's advocating for inclusiveness, advising the boss that he shouldn't fire someone, or telling the CFO that he has to spend money on an expensive ADA accommodation. So the question becomes how: How do we have those conversations in a way that preserves leadership's decision-making power and willingness to listen to our expertise, while advancing our cause? I don't have much patience for white fragility in my everyday life, but we all have to have a LOT of patience for it in the workplace.
The answer to the how, of course, is "it depends."
If you're very lucky, you have leadership like the folks in my org--they may not always know the right approach, but they are open to some serious reflection on issues of equity and inclusion, even if they do challenge me right back. In this situation, I think the answer is to suck it up and be more brave, less subtle, and more challenging, especially as my tenure grows and they trust me more. I'm trying.
If you are fortunate to have the exciting professional challenge of less open leadership, the answer is to build trust incrementally, while pushing smaller changes. Leadership that knows you support them will be much more receptive to a little challenge once in a while.
Openness to change is like a muscle your bosses need to build. You get to be their personal trainer. It's got to be all low weight and high reps for a while, until they're ready to do some heavy lifting.