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Episode 176: How to Talk with Your Team About Traumatic Current Events, with Ella F. Washington, PhD

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Episode Description

Ella F. Washington, PhD, a professor of practice at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and the founder of diversity strategy firm Ellavate Solutions, is the lead author on the recently released Harvard Business Review article “How to Talk with Your Team About the Violence at the U.S. Capitol.” The article gave guidance to employers having discussions following the January 6th violent attack on our Capitol. We catch up with Professor Washington nearly six weeks later to discuss the points in her article in more detail, how she and her co-authors were able to write it “in the moment” of the national crisis, and hear her thoughts retrospectively. Today's relaunchers are tomorrow's leaders and managers. Dr. Washington's recommendations for fostering communication at work following the events of January 6th, are equally relevant for managers engaging with team members in the aftermath of traumatic, emotional and challenging situations more broadly. Find out more in this wide-ranging and informative conversation.

Follow Dr. Washington at: 

Twitter: @EllaFWashington

Read Transcript

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:00:00] Welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss strategies, advice, and success stories about returning to work after a career break. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO, and co-founder of iRelaunch and your host for today. Today we welcome Dr. Ella Washington. Dr. Washington is a Professor of Practice at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business and the founder of Ellavate Solutions, which provides diversity and inclusion strategy and training for organizations. She co-hosts a weekly podcast called Cultural Competence.

Dr. Washington is the lead author on the recently released Harvard Business Review article, How to Talk with Your Team about Violence at the US Capitol, which gave guidance to employers that were having discussions in their companies following the January 6th violent attack on our Capitol. Today we speak with Dr. Washington in more detail about the points in her article, how she and her coauthors were able to write it in the moment of the national crisis and hear her thoughts retrospectively after the inauguration of President Joe Biden and over a month after the crisis.

Dr. Washington, welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch and thank you for writing this important article.

Ella F. Washington: [00:01:28] Hello everyone. Thank you so much, Carol, for having me. It's my pleasure to be here today.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:01:32] Well, it's our privilege to be interviewing you about this. You wrote this HBR article I feel like within 24 hours of the violent incident at the Capitol, and I just wanted to ask you logistically almost, how were you able to produce that piece? And you had co-authors, how were you able to get that article out so quickly? After the incident?

Ella F. Washington: [00:02:05] Well, I'm in Washington, DC. for those of our listeners that are probably all over the country and all over the world, and I live about a mile from the Capitol.

And so the events of that day were deeply troubling for me. And top of mind for everyone, but for those of us in DC, it hit a little bit closer to home, literally, as we were not sure what nightfall would bring. In that moment, while many people couldn't turn off the news, I couldn't turn off the news and keep looking out the window.

So I had lots of anxiety, and the thing that kept reverberating in my mind as I was trying to go to bed at night was, what are people going to experience tomorrow when they go to work? You know, the events started happening in the middle of the workday, I myself was in a meeting and I started getting all of these texts, "Are you okay?" Again, I'm in Washington, DC, and I'm looking at my friends and family at these texts and I'm like, "Guys what's going on, I'm at work?" And then finding out that the events that happened.

And so I'm thinking, how are people going to feel tomorrow at work? And for the clients that I've been helping in the aftermath of the racial reckoning last summer, after the murder of George Floyd, I was really wondering about the work that we've been doing, I hope they take this opportunity to lean into these conversations. So many organizations have been focused on courageous conversations and talking about diversity, equity and inclusion in ways they hadn't been before. But I was quite frankly nervous that some leaders were going to drop the ball in this moment to have something to say.

And, I stayed up that night and I just had to put pen to paper, and it really started off as an email to my clients. So, any of my corporate clients, they actually got a personal email from me that night, so that the next morning they could go to work and know what to tell their teams and know how to react or at least have some perspective.

And that's why we wanted to focus on that tactical aspect of the article. And so, then that next morning I thought, well, people beyond my clients probably would benefit from this, and so I quickly contacted my coauthors and said, "Hey, let's turn this email into HBR." HBR was amenable to it.

They said, if you can get it out in the next hour, we'll run it. And so we quickly turned my initial email to my clients into this article.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:04:45] That's incredible. I actually write for HBR myself. So the idea of how this was happening in real time and just so immediately, this is really amazing.

You mentioned your coauthors, Dr. Alison Hall Birch and Dr. Erika Hall. And I just wanted to know if you could give us a little bit of background and how you collaborate with each other and how you know each other, just to give us some context.

Ella F. Washington: [00:05:13] So Drs Hall and Birch, they are close friends of mine.

We've known each other since graduate school. We all came to know each other through a wonderful organization called the PhD Project that supports having more people of color in the front of business schools classrooms. So we are all professors at our respective business schools. And because I know them personally and I've known them for quite some time I knew that they would be able and excited to jump on this opportunity to get this article out through HBR, because we all really care about this topic and we're all diversity and inclusion researchers in our own lanes.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:05:57] Right. And let's get into the main points of the article, which gave, as you're saying, tactical advice, very specific guidance on how to have conversations about, "Current events that elicit strong opinions and emotions from their team members." And you guide managers, and you mentioned this a minute ago to lean into this moment of, and the quote is, "of disbelief, frustration, anger, fear, and anything else people might be feeling and have the conversation rather than shy away from it."

So can you tell us a little more about why you advise that course of action?

Ella F. Washington: [00:06:39] Well, we've been talking as a society about the importance of diversity and inclusion conversations, but this felt like a moment to actually do it, like to walk the walk instead of just proverbially talking the talk, meaning we say we want to talk about these things, but when the opportunity presents itself, we're still not comfortable.

I wanted to nudge and even push people a little bit to say, "This is the moment." This is that opportunity for you to do what you say that you want to do or do what you've been reading about over the past six or eight months. And, beyond having the right thing or best thing to say, I think that the core of what we wanted to get out was to create space.

We cannot ignore that these, like you said "current events," are having an impact on our work day. We're not able to turn off the news. We're actually at home. So it's not even like we can say we're in our office and we're isolated from the outside world. We're at home. And instead of acting like it's not happening, I think it was important for leaders and managers to know that it's important to create space and see how your team is doing. I mean, it should not be business as usual. Nothing about this past twelve months has been really business as usual.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:07:57] That's for sure.

Ella F. Washington: [00:07:58] But this was certainly not a time where we should act like everything is okay, and it was just another thing that happened in the news.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:08:07] Right. And I just want to comment here because people might be thinking, "How does this relate to relaunching?" The way we look at it is that today's relaunchers are tomorrow's leaders. And when relaunchers relaunch their careers, some of them are going to be managers, and this is going to become a very relevant for them in that context.

Dr. Washington, you go on to talk about how managers need to be "hyper-aware" of context, and as you say, "Each team member's context is unique." So can you talk or elaborate a little bit more with some examples of unique contexts in response to the attack on the Capitol?

Ella F. Washington: [00:08:53] Absolutely. And I think this point of context is really relevant to your audience. So the relaunchers, because we all come to our workspaces with our personal experiences, our personal values and all of that does color how we see the world, but also how we interact with other people. And so in the article, when we talk about each team member's context is unique,

we wanted to call out that everyone is not looking at the news and seeing the same thing or having the same emotional reaction. So for example, many people of color like myself as a black woman looked at the response of the Capitol police in disbelief. And I was personally infuriated because the response was so docile compared to the Black Lives Matter protest, a response of last summer, right?

Other people might be triggered by seeing the Confederate flag paraded through our nation's Capitol, as they might be survivors or families were survivors of the Holocaust. And that might create some emotional connection there of past violence.

You might have other employees that may be immigrants or descendants of immigrants. And they have histories in countries where there have been violent government uprisings that actually led to civil wars, or maybe their family was impacted, where they were personally impacted or displaced.

So there are so many different things, and that's just a sliver of what could be someone's context. There are so many contexts, and then to be fair, there might be people who said that they were appreciative of what happened at the Capitol. That was the way that some groups were standing up for our rights as Americans. I think all of that is relevant. I don't think there's any kind of wrong context, but what's important for leaders and managers to be able to do is to recognize that we're all coming to the table in the workplace from a different perspective. And that's what gets back to creating space.

It's not about pushing a personal agenda but it is about honoring the unique perspectives that we all have. And I think the Capitol is politically connected, so of course people will say, "Well, we shouldn't be talking about politics in the workplace." But, that was the one event, right?

There are so many different things that happen our world that we're bringing our unique perspectives about, it's important for us to practice this perspective, taking and at least creating space for people to share how they're interacting with what's happening outside in the world.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:11:32] Right, and you get very specific and very tactical in the article and this key guidance is a seven point template for managers to follow when leading what could be delicate and emotional conversations in response to January 6, and other traumatic national world events. So I wanted to know if you could actually walk us through the seven steps or the seven elements of that template.

Ella F. Washington: [00:12:02] Happy to, and what I think is a strong takeaway from these points is that you can use almost all of these points anytime and after any crisis, but even if you're just checking in on your team, trying to allow for conversations around tough topics. So the first thing, and I think probably the most important part of this whole framework is creating space.

Letting your team know that you see the crisis, we all see the crisis and it's on your mind and you realize it might be on their mind. Saying things like, "I want you to know that being able to be part of your whole self to work is not ignoring the things that impact us outside of work."

Or even more simply, "What's on your mind today? I know there's a lot going on, what's on your mind? I just want to check in with everyone to see how you're doing." And part of creating space is also letting them know that it's okay to not engage in that conversation, by saying, "I just want to create space so that you can share how you feel, but it's okay if you don't want to talk about it. And if you want to talk about it at a later time, that's okay, too." So just having that sense of open dialogue is really important. Sometimes people aren't able to articulate their thoughts in that moment.

They might need time to process, but knowing that they have a manager that has an open door and cares is really important, even if they never decide to take you up on that. I have certainly heard from employees about the power of having a manager that they know is there and welcomes those conversations, even if they decide not to engage.

So beyond just setting the stage, creating that safe space, a leader should always acknowledge that you understand how difficult it can be to process traumatic events. And that, they might just be distracted and even to ask them, if you need time off, if that's appropriate for your organization or even, "I just know that it might be tough to focus today at work. So just know I understand. And I'm here for you." Just simply acknowledging, not acting like there's nothing going on is really important. And then I think we get into the third point is affirming, demonstrating that you appreciate and you value individual perspectives on this matter.

So, that's connected to what we said before about setting the context and just letting everyone know that you value their perspective. Saying things like, "Thank you for opening up and speaking up so honestly about this topic," it's letting people know that it's okay to share whatever is true for them.

And then as we build on this framework it's important to personalize and not generalize or make assumptions about what other people are feeling. And so, as I can say as a person of color, I felt this way and I compared it to the Black Lives Matter protests. I don't want to speak for every person of color.

I am speaking for myself. And so saying things like, "I felt this way when watching the news," or "Today, this is really on my mind as a black woman," or "This is on my mind as a leader, because I'm wondering how to lead my team today with so much going on." You don't want to say that you're assuming how other people feel, and you certainly don't want to extrapolate to a whole group of people.

Keep it personal, keep it within yourself. And then finally, offering support. Asking your team members, "What do you need?" And let them know, letting them know that you're there to support them in the future. Again, if they want to circle back on this conversation. And then from an organizational perspective, I think it's always a great idea to reinforce how this connects to their place in the workplace, reminding them of the organizations and your own commitment to employee wellbeing, the values of the organization and diversity, equity and inclusion.

I think this is one of those times where organizations say they value diversity, equity and inclusion, and this is an opportunity for them to show that in their actions. And along those lines of reinforcing the organization's values, you can highlight resources that can either support the mental health of employees in those moments, or resources around diversity, equity and inclusion.

And I think that's how we bring those efforts to life and they don't just have to live in the silos of the HR teams by connecting those resources with the conversations we're having on our teams.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:16:26] I just have a couple of follow-up questions. So one thing is, are these conversations ideally taking place one-on-one with the manager and each person who reports it, him or her, or is it a group conversation? And do some people feel like,"I don't want to talk about it in a group, but I will talk about it one-on-one?" What do you think about that part?

Ella F. Washington: [00:16:51] That's an excellent question. It depends. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to diversity and inclusion, and there's not a one-size fits-all-approach to leadership and managing others. Because there's not a one-size-fits-all approach, it's important for managers to get to know their team. That's why, this can't be the first conversation you ever have with your team about something that is related to their personal feelings and emotions.

This should be ongoing dialogue, managers should get to know their team members and vice versa. And by getting to know your team members, you're learning how they feel comfortable communicating. I have heard both ends of that question. I've heard employees say, "I don't feel comfortable talking in big groups, I really feel more comfortable and appreciate it when my manager had a one-off conversation with me, it made me feel welcomed and I wasn't put on the spot." I've also heard the opposite that, "I want to have these conversations in the larger group or in our larger team, because, I think if we're really saying it's important to our organization, we need to be able to talk about it, and I'm glad that my manager continuously creates a space where we can feel comfortable speaking up and saying how we feel on our team." There's not a one-size-fits-all approach. And the best approach is what works well for your team and how you'll know that is by getting to know your team. And even asking them, "What do you feel most comfortable with?"

So if someone is just starting, I would start with one-on-one conversations and maybe try to build to those group level conversations. But again, it really just depends on the individual comfort level and the team comfort level and what is deemed as appropriate within the larger organizational culture.

If only one team is having these conversations throughout the whole organization, well, they're probably not going to feel all that comfortable, but if we make this a normalized part of our organization's culture, I would venture to say that more team level conversations would be welcomed and people will feel comfortable with that.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:19:00] You know, as you're pointing out, this seven point template can really be applied to a huge range of situations. Certainly traumatic and difficult conversations, but you could argue that it could be a tool that you use as a manager in many contexts.

Ella F. Washington: [00:19:22] Absolutely. I mean, think about if the organization is going through a reduction in force. Saying, "I understand that you might be distracted today. And let me know if there's something on your mind that I can help with." How caring of an approach would that be? It's not that that person is saying they can fix it or change what's happening, but, we know what's going on and let's not act like it's not happening. Let's acknowledge it and make people at least feel like they belong in this space.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:19:51] So, Professor Washington, I'm thinking now that we're about six weeks out after the January 6 attack, and I'm curious about your thoughts on the evolution of the public discussion, and whether you expected it to be front and center in the news cycle all the way along, or you thought it would fade, or what were you projecting versus what actually happened? And did it surprise you or not?

Ella F. Washington: [00:20:29] It's a great question. You know, we have gone through so much in the past year from the global pandemic to the racial reckoning, to inciting xenophobia in this country against Asian Americans.

I mean, there's been so much, it feels like there's always something in the news. And so it's not surprising that the conversations quickly shift to something else, what's next in the news cycle. But I don't think that we should overlook the hurt and the pain that that particular event caused and the cumulative stress and pain that has been happening over the past year.

I had a focus group just yesterday with a client, and people were talking about how difficult it still is for them to just wrap their mind around all the things that are happening in our world, and how hurtful it is and how they want a space to talk about it at work, because it's not business as usual.

And so while we don't control individually the news cycle, or what's top of mind in the media, we can make sure to acknowledge that we are not living in business- as-usual times. And we haven't been for the past year. And we don't know when we'll get back to a feeling of normalcy. And so because of that, I think, these interpersonal relationships, these connections on your teams and with your managers are even more important.

A lot of people are working from home and they feel siloed. So if they're only social and human interaction is with their work teams in really tough times, like we're going through, think about how much more it means to them to know that there's a caring person, even if it's a caring person on the other side of the zoom meeting or video call.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:22:23] Yeah, we're seeing a lot of that. We work with big companies to create return to work programs. And then once those programs are created, every time they run, we train the managers and we work very closely with the cohort of relaunchers that are going through the program. And we are hearing a lot of commentary from the relaunchers feeling siloed. You know, they're new in the organization and they don't have the benefit of the casual interaction you have of passing someone in the hall or, just meeting new people that you might normally, if you're brand new in a workplace and you're physically in the space. So, that has definitely been an issue, and I think made these discussions that you're talking about that need to be managed so carefully, it makes it a lot harder to handle it in a virtual environment.

We miss the water cooler talk and part of an organization's culture is not just what happens, in our working experience, it's what happens in those unscripted moments, those moments in between meetings. And we're missing that and I think that leaders should be thoughtful about how to try to recreate some of that in the virtual work environment, at least spaces for people to connect across teams or connect on topics outside of what we have to get done.

And, because many of us are being asked to do more with less and we're stretched for time. It's like well, I don't have time to have another zoom call or happy hour, or what have you, because there's so much to be done. But I think that we are sacrificing the employee experience, the human experience that we lean on for our work in the community that we enjoy by being a part of these organizations. I think we have to remember that is important as well, and we're missing that in this virtual environment.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:24:27] Absolutely. Dr. Washington, I want to skip to a question that's more about you. You are a Professor of Practice at Georgetown's McDonough School of Business, and you're also the founder of Ellavate Solutions, which provides diversity and inclusion strategy and training for organizations.

Can you please tell us, tell our audience more about your academic background and your concentration, what courses you teach and more about the work of Elevate Solutions?

Ella F. Washington: [00:24:57] Absolutely. So I consider myself a true research practitioner. Throughout my whole career, my research has been focused on diversity, equity and inclusion, and my consulting work has also been focused on that space.

I feel really blessed to be able to research the things that people want to know about, but also connected with what's actually happening in organizations. And when I was going through grad school, one thing that really bothered me is that oftentimes academics are in our ivory towers and we're not talking to practitioners, and practitioners are trying to figure out what works on the ground, but not going back to connect to those empirical research findings that academics have done.

And so part of my personal mission and my career has been to bridge that gap even more, making sure that consultants and organizational practitioners are connected with the wonderful research that my academic colleagues are doing. And so, I do that very thing. I research the journeys that companies go on around diversity, equity and inclusion, what that means to be on the journey, and how organizations can think of themselves in this maturity of their own DEI journeys.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:26:18] So Dr. Washington, we're wrapping up now. And I'm going to ask you a little more in a minute about how people can find out about Ellavate Solutions. But before we get there, I wanted to ask you the question that we ask all of our podcast guests. And that is, what is your best piece of advice for our relauncher audience even if it's something that we already talked about?

Ella F. Washington: [00:26:40] Absolutely. So, as a relauncher you have a unique and valuable perspective based off of your time out of the workplace, for whatever reason that you took that time. And so I believe in a strengths-based perspective of elevating our value in the workplace.

And so I would encourage relaunchers to think about, what are those unique strengths that you're bringing to your teams because of your unique experience that other people may not have? And particularly, how can you leverage your leadership abilities that maybe you have developed in this non-traditional space to connect with your team members and other people in ways that other people can't?

So, I think it's wonderful to have diversity of perspective. That's what this is all about. And as a relauncher you certainly have a diverse perspective that should be valued and you certainly should make sure to make it known.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:27:36] That's excellent. And you are right on about relaunchers providing age diversity and also diversity in terms of life experience when they've had a career break and they’re coming back.

So I am so appreciative of the conversation. And before we close out, I wanted to know if you can give our audience information on how they can find out more about Elevate Solutions.

Ella F. Washington: [00:28:03] I'd love it if you'd connect with me on Twitter, I can be found at @EllaFWashington on Twitter. My website for Ellavate Solutions is, E L L A V A T E S O L U T I O N and also tune into our weekly podcast Cultural Competence, which can be found on all podcast platforms.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:28:28] Oh, great. Thank you. And I'm really glad you spelled it because I was going to ask you to spell it too. It's a unique spelling, and we're also going to include a link to your HBR article in our podcast notes.

Ella F. Washington: [00:28:41] Excellent.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:28:42] So thank you for joining us today, Dr. Washington.

Ella F. Washington: [00:28:45] Thanks so much for having me and thank you all for listening.

Carol Fishman Cohen:[00:28:48] Thanks for listening to 3,2,1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss strategies, advice and success stories about returning to work after a career break. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, the CEO and co-founder of iRelaunch and your host. For more information on iRelaunch conferences and events, to sign up for our job board and access our returned to work tools and resources, go to

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