Leading With Empathy & Allyship Show

How Pandemic Trauma Is Showing Up At Work With Sara Wachter-Boettcher

Leading With Empathy & AllyShip promo with the Change Catalyst logo and photos of Sara Wachter-Boettcher, a White woman with short black hair who’s wearing a black denim jacket paired with a white top, and host Melinda Briana Epler, a White woman with red hair, glasses, and orange shirt holding a white mug behind a laptop.

In Episode 64, Sara Wachter-Boettcher, Founder of Active Voice, joins Melinda in a discussion on how pandemic-related trauma affects leaders’ abilities to manage their teams. Sara provides practical tips on how we can regain access to our critical thinking and work through the trauma without harming people around us. She also touches on what organizations, managers, and allies can do to build trust and create a safe space for courageous conversations in the workplace.

Additional Resources

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  • “‘How do I redefine success in ways that are attainable right now? What does success look like in this terrible, weird year?’ was a question I asked myself last year. And I think that once you can do that, you are pulling yourself out of those knee-jerk responses; you’re pulling yourself out of the stress state, slowing yourself down, and allowing yourself to make more considered choices and the choices that can align with your values more deeply.”
  • “Know that as a leader, if you don’t feel comfortable with any vulnerability, that is going to have an impact in your organization. And that impact— probably you’re already feeling it in terms of people being disengaged, burnt-out, feeling unsafe, and leaving.”
  • “I would ask folks to look at where do you need to have organizational resilience? When I say organizational resilience, I mean if your people take a break or if somebody leaves then everything crumbles— that’s not a resilient organization. If people feel like they’d have to work double-time before they take a week’s vacation, that’s not a resilient organization. What are the ways that we actually think about fallbacks, fail-safes, the ability for somebody else to pick up your work and actually know what you were doing?”
  • “With experiences that are traumatic, the idea is that the stress is so big that instead of that becoming a fleeting thing, it’s a chronic thing. And so, you kind of persist in that state, or it kind of keeps getting re-triggered over and over again. And that means we’ll actually go through our lives in a state where we are less able to access critical thinking… we are less able to make decisions based on data… we are less able to listen to other people and actually hear their experiences like all of these other things that I think a lot of us would say we value become actually inaccessible because we’re stuck in that knee-jerk response place.”


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Guest Speakers
Headshot of Sara Wachter-Boettcher, a White woman with short black hair who’s wearing a black denim jacket paired with a white top and jeans. She is sitting at a wooden table with a white brick wall, shelving unit with plants, orange couch, hanging lamps, and a window off to the side behind her

Sara Wachter-Boettcher
Founder of Active Voice

Sara Wachter-Boettcher is an author, speaker, coach, and strategist dedicated to changing design and tech for good. She’s the founder of Active Voice, a coaching and training company helping organizations build radical, courageous leadership practices.

Her most recent book, Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech, was named one of the best tech books of the year by Wired. She also wrote Design for Real Life (with Eric Meyer) and Content Everywhere, and has been published in The Washington Post, The Guardian, and McSweeney’s. Find her at home in Philly, on Twitter @sara_ann_marie or at sarawb.com.


Melinda: Welcome to “Leading With Empathy & AllyShip” where we have deep real conversations: to build empathy for one another, and to take action to be more inclusive, and to lead the change in our workplaces and communities. I’m Melinda Briana Epler, Founder and CEO of Change Catalyst, and author of “How to Be an Ally.” I’m a diversity, equity, and inclusion speaker, advocate, and advisor. You can learn more about my work and sign up to join us for a live recording at ally.cc


Hello, everyone. Today we’re learning from Sara Wachter-Boettcher, Founder of Active Voice, on how pandemic trauma is showing up at work, what we can do to work through this trauma so we don’t harm people around us, and the work that we can do in our companies to address this as well. Sara, can you tell us a bit about your story? Where’d you grow up, and what led you to the work that you do today?


Sara: Well, I grew up in a few different places. As a little kid, in California and Santa Cruz and San Jose, and then for a long time in Oregon. I went to college in Oregon, and while I was in college there, I actually worked for a number of years at a rape crisis center. So I was running educational programs and working on the crisis line and things like that. That’s going to come up later today, I’m sure. Out of that, once I finished school, I had studied journalism, and I was out looking for a job, as one does. 


I ended up falling into copywriting briefly, so I was working at an ad agency. At first, I had this moment of like, “Oh, well, this is really fun. This is neat. I can write pithy headlines all day.” But pretty soon, I actually got very, very bored. Some of it was copywriting, some of it was probably the place I was working. I don’t think it’s representative of everybody’s experience. But I was like, this is not actually for me. I was not a marketing person; I didn’t really like selling things. 


But I did love writing, and I did have a lot of questions about what exactly that looked like as a career. I actually ended up working in content strategy, kind of early stages of UX writing. That opened up all of these doors to me in the tech industry, and I started working on a lot of tech products and with design teams. So I spent a bunch of years as a consultant in design and tech spaces, really focused on how do we make our user experience and the content that we’re presenting to people more useful, more usable, etc., all of this good stuff. 


It was during that time that I actually reconnected with a lot of that work that I had done as a student when I was working with rape crisis center, where I got really interested in the ways that I was seeing digital tools and products and platforms kind of overstep boundaries or have content that was not particularly empathetic or inclusive to people. So seeing all of these problems and biases baked into tech products. So that ended up taking my career in this totally other direction. 


I got really focused on: what is our responsibility as people who create things, to build more equitable, less harmful, more responsible experiences? I started writing and speaking about that. That led me to the last turn I’ll talk about at the moment, which is, then really looking at, well, what are the realities within organizations that make it really difficult to change what’s happening in the products that we’re designing? Where are people feeling unsafe and unable to speak up? What are the barriers that people experience when they do try to shift an organization’s practices? Who gets listened to and who doesn’t get listened to? How does power work? 


That led me into this whole universe of what I guess I’ll call alternative leadership. That is to say, I’m a huge believer in leadership, and I think you and I are probably on the same page about this. I think leadership is really important, and I think so much of the leadership content and thought leaders, or whatever out there, have a perspective on leadership that I just don’t share. I really started looking at my work through this lens of like, how do you bring these things together around themes of justice and equity and accountability? Just sort of understanding how people work and what hurts them, both the end-users of products that we create in tech and also the people working in our companies. So that brought me to where I am now.


Melinda: Awesome. So from that, I know when we started talking about what we wanted to talk about together, you were really focused on pandemic trauma and how that is showing up. Can you talk about that a little bit? What are people experiencing that is being felt in the workplace, and how is that showing up in how we lead and how we interact?


Sara: Like I said, I was consulting for a long time in more UX-related work, so working on strategy and product. Then in February of 2020, I completely switched gears, and that is when I made my business really fundamentally around people, communication, relationships with each other at work, etc. I’ve gone through a whole coaching program. It was like, I’m making this big shift. That was February of 2020, which means that February and March 2020 is when I also started doing a lot of coaching with leaders who are working in tech and design, lots and lots of one-on-ones, and also working with teams as they’re going through all of the stresses of the pandemic. So what it’s meant is that I’ve had these really intimate conversations with people over the past almost two years now. 


So I’ve really watched with all of the people I work with, who are working at different levels, and in different types of organizations and in different types of roles. Mostly, like I said, tech and design-related, but a broad swath of people within that. I feel like I’ve gotten this really intimate portrait of some of the things people are going through, and what’s been said and unsaid. 


And what I keep finding over and over again, is that people who’ve spent the pandemic with a relative degree of comfort in a certain way — which is to say: they are still employed in generally stable and high-paying jobs in the sector that we’re talking about, they are oftentimes in a position of leadership, and they may have a team to lead — they’ve often talked about how much they’re struggling, and then how much they feel like they’re not supposed to be struggling because they have it good compared to others. 


The impact of that, that I keep seeing, is people have kind of pushed their needs down in service of the team that’s reporting to them, for example, or the thing that’s on fire in front of them right now. They are in fact struggling, even if they’ve had it relatively good because having it relatively good during a global pandemic doesn’t mean that you have not also struggled. So the impact of that has been that when they’re not attentive to what they’ve gone through personally, that they find themselves struggling to lead effectively. They’re doing things like micromanaging, struggling to delegate anything, holding on to things too long, etc. A lot of that comes from this place of feeling powerless. 


So when people feel really powerless — and [they’re going through] a traumatic experience, like a pandemic, that breaks your idea of how the world works — it is very natural and normal to look for things that you can control. But when we don’t really acknowledge that that’s what’s happening, it’s very hard to look for good and healthy things to control. Because that is a thing you can do that can actually really help you feel better. But instead, we enact that sense of powerlessness onto others. So what that means is, we end up disempowering other people around us in order for us to feel a sense of power. 


Also, it doesn’t work. It doesn’t actually solve your problem. I mean, not only does it harm the other person, which it does — being micromanaged, not being trusted, all of those things harm other people — but it also never satisfies that need to feel a sense of power or control. Because no matter how much you try to control other people, they keep being other people and they keep being human. So it’s very unsatisfying. 


So what ends up happening is it creates a cycle, where when people get stuck in it, they will continue to go back to that well. As if like: “Well, if I’m just more like that, then somehow, I’m gonna get back the sense of control I crave. So I’ll just like intensify, intensify, intensify, the ways that I have these problematic controlling behaviors.” And it continues to have a negative impact; it doesn’t actually satisfy that need. So it’s sort of like this void you keep trying to fill. 


So for a lot of leaders, I found that it’s really helpful to look at [a couple of things]. What their relationship to control is, right now? What is their relationship to the sense of choice that they have in their life? Where do they find themselves communicating from a place of choicelessness? And then how do you give people a sense of what is in their control that is healthy for them to go look at, and then what are the spaces that they need to pull back from that are maybe not going to satisfy that need? 


I think that’s one big impact that I’ve seen of people’s traumatic experiences around the pandemic showing up at work, and kind of unprocessed stuff showing up at work. There are more of them. But it really comes back to, when we don’t take the time to talk through and acknowledge to ourselves what we’ve been experiencing as real and valid, it sits with us and it impacts the way that we show up to the people around us, and it tends to have the greatest impact on people who have less power than us. 


So for example, if you care about diversity, equity, inclusion work, or if you care about being an ally; any of these things that I presume your audience cares about. It’s like, if you’re not attending to yourself and your feelings and your experiences, you’re most likely to micromanage somebody who has less power than you. It comes from historically oppressed and marginalized groups. Like, you’re going to do it to somebody who is junior, not to the CEO. So it can really compound problematic or oppressive behaviors in the workplace.


Melinda: Yeah. I would say, in addition to that, because we’re experiencing stress, we know that the more stress we have and the more stressed we are, the less we have the capacity for empathy and the less we have the capacity for self-regulation when it comes to biases and microaggressions, too. So I think that compounds it as well, is that we don’t have those pieces, and we’re not opening our brain space and our emotional space to make sure that we’re filtering out biases and microaggressions.


Sara: Yeah. I think maybe this is a helpful time to talk briefly about what I mean when I talk about trauma, and what that actually looks like. Because we’re not talking necessarily about something like PTSD, we’re not talking about a clinical diagnosis of somebody as being traumatized. But what I think we’re really talking about is experiences that are so stressful, that they exceed your ability to cope with them. That’s why I think it’s so helpful to think about stressors like you mentioned. Because what happens, of course, is that when people are under stress, when humans are under stress, humans have stress responses; it’s a natural thing. So what it means is, you go into a fight-flight mechanism. It’s basically how do you respond to a threat. 


So yes, all humans have this response, where [they’re like], “Okay, I sense a threat, and now my nervous system is going to react.” Like, your pulse changes, cortisol level goes up, all of these things happen physiologically. Then what happens to you mentally is you go into, again, a fight-or-flight state, so you are making knee-jerk split-second reactions. 


So in those stressful moments, which are meant to be a fleeting moment — that’s meant to be [your response] is, how do I handle this dangerous moment — but what happens in those moments is that, like you said, you don’t have access to those skills: to slow down, to have a more critical look at the situation, or to say, “wait a second, am I relying on a bias here?” All of that goes out the window because you’re in that fight-flight response, that is helpful in an actual acute danger situation. The problem is that we end up in those kinds of responses in all kinds of other situations where they are incredibly unhelpful. 


So with experiences that are traumatic, the idea is really that the stress is so big, that instead of that becoming a fleeting thing, it’s a chronic thing. So you kind of persist in that state, or it keeps getting retriggered over and over again. That means that we’ll actually go through our lives in a state where we are less able to access critical thinking, we are less able to make decisions based off of data, we are less able to listen to other people and actually hear their experiences. All of these other things, that I think a lot of us would say we value, become actually inaccessible because we’re stuck in that knee-jerk response place.


Melinda: In Episode 61, we talked about burnout in particular, and it seems like there are multiple things happening, where that trauma or stress response can cause managers and leaders to burn out. Then, I would suspect that also, when they are micromanaging people who are also experiencing stress, it compounds that potential for burnout across their teams as well. 


Sara: Yeah. I think a lot about the burnout conversation, which obviously, it’s like the word of the year. Burnout is everywhere, and that’s a very real thing. But at the same time, I often feel like those conversations are too limited in scope. I think a lot of burnout conversations are looking at things like workload, or feelings that people aren’t taking enough time away, that kind of stuff. Those are real factors. 


But I think in addition to that when we talk about burnout, we have to talk about things like stress and chronic stress, which comes right back to this whole trauma thing — trauma causes the sense of chronic stress — and how does that burn through people, no matter how much they’re working. Like, you could be working five hours a week and experience burnout if you are under chronic stress all the time. If you are operating in a fear state that is tremendously draining, you will run out of gas. 


Same with things like if you feel really powerless all the time like I mentioned with micromanaging for managers, but for humans in general. If you’ve spent the last two years feeling powerless at kind of a macro-global level, and at work, you have felt really stalled. I’ve seen this in a lot of organizations, where things like promotions get put on pause, and the review cycles are screwed up, or the initiative you were most excited about gets kind of backburnered. When those things happen, it can contribute to a general sense of being stalled or stuck, which over time is also really draining for people. 


All of those things contribute to that state of burnout. It’s something where there is no quick fix for it. I do think, though, that what we really need to start with is figuring out: what are the things that are actually draining us, where are we getting stuck in those chronic stress cycles, what are the feelings and experiences we haven’t been processing? Just to really understand what’s going on with ourselves. What is it that makes us operate at that state of like a 10 on the anxiety meter? What are all those things for us? Because until we can understand those things at a personal level, it’s going to be hard to think about how we can solve them for ourselves. So there’s a personal angle to it. In addition, of course, there’s a massive structural organizational angle to this that we should also talk about.


Melinda: Yeah, definitely. Well, let’s start with the personal angle. What are some specific things that we can do to really process and work through the pandemic trauma that people are experiencing? That people are uniquely experiencing, depending on who you are, where you are, what’s your identity? I think all of that contributes to that experience. How do we process that so we don’t hurt people around us?


Sara: Yeah. I think that there are a lot of things that can happen at the personal level, and maybe the interpersonal level, that is really just around: can you take stock of what you are feeling, and what are the feelings that you’ve been pushing down or avoiding? One of the things I have found is, that sounds simple, and it’s actually really hard for people. It’s particularly difficult for people in a work context because so many of us have learned, either implicitly or explicitly, that we should leave our feelings at the door. That work is a place for rational decision-making. That we are a data-driven organization. 


If you are a woman, or if you were raised as a femme in society, you are oftentimes taught that it is important to not show anger, and that you need to be nice. So we can be disconnected from anger. What I have found particularly is that it is common for people for whom anger is not an acceptable emotion to express — which includes: women and people who are perceived female writ large, people of color probably writ large as well, particularly, I would say Black women in America experience this probably at the highest level, if there were a way to quantify it — that for those groups, it can even become a thing where we become so alienated from our own anger, we don’t even know that that’s what we’re feeling. 


So what I see happening in the workplaces is that people will shunt all of that into this flat category of stress, because stress is an appropriate response. Like if somebody asks how you’re doing or how you’re feeling, you can tell people that you’re stressed, and that’s okay. You can’t necessarily tell people that you’re sad, or that you’re angry. You can’t necessarily tell people that you’re lonely. So there are all these other feelings that get erased in that process. 


I think that the more that we can get real with ourselves about this to say, what specifically am I feeling, and to get underneath those easy answers like stressed, the more that we can then go to that and say, “Ok, what’s happening there?” And just be curious about it. One of the big things I hear people do is, as soon as they start going inward and looking at those feelings, they start making up stories about how they shouldn’t feel that way. “I shouldn’t be angry; he didn’t really mean it that way.” “I shouldn’t be so frustrated by this, it’s not that big of a deal.” So what happens there is, it kind of cuts us off from processing what the feeling actually is. Because the feeling exists. 


Like, if I tell you that you shouldn’t feel a way, I can assure you that will not make you feel differently. It might hurt you, or it might make you feel not listened to, but it’s not going to change how you feel. So the thing is, when I tell myself, “Sara, you shouldn’t feel angry,” what that actually does is I’m still angry, I’m still mad. But then on top of that anger, I’ve just added a layer of shame. Because then I feel like, “Okay, I’m angry. But I don’t believe that it’s okay for me to be angry.” So now what I have to do is I have to hide that; I can’t let people see that. So that’s that shame coming. 


Now when we’re in that place where we are feeling ashamed, that is also when we are defensive. Because now I need to block things out; I can’t be vulnerable. I need to make sure that you can’t see that I have this feeling that I don’t think I should have. In that defense state, we are also more likely to lash out at other people and to harm people, and be harmful to people from groups that have less power than us. 


So it’s really, really important to be able to say, can I get curious about what I’m feeling instead of being judgmental about it? Instead of trying to say, do I deserve this or not deserve this? Instead, we can say, “This is what is. Now, what can I learn from that? What is this anger trying to tell me right now? What can I take from this? What do I want to let go of from this? Like, what’s here for me?” When we let go of that thought of do I deserve this or not deserve this, and when we let go have this idea that we’re just stressed, for example, what we actually get access to is all of these other deeper questions. Like, then you can ask questions of the feeling instead of hiding from it or putting it away. 


That is actually what lets the feeling go, is just being able to look at it a little bit and say, “Okay, I’m going to sit with this. I will sit with this; this exists. Now I can choose.” So now I have a choice where I can say, “Okay, I’m angry. What do I want to do next?” That goes right back to what you mentioned before, which is when we are experiencing something at work, how do we stay out of those knee-jerk reactions, and be able to have access to our critical thinking and to stay out of bias? This is one of the ways we do it, is we slow down when we’re having that feeling, and allow ourselves to really feel it. Then instead of operating in the feeling, we can look at the feeling.


Melinda: Yeah, I’m just thinking about my own emotions, and I’m sure that I’m not alone. That a lot of my emotions were, yes, there’s some anger, and also, just general anxiety about the state of the world; anxiety about my job and anxiety about my work, and all of that. I think that for me, and I think for a lot of introverts, it’s going inward — through meditation and writing for me — but I think even just taking a moment to really breathe and take that moment before I react to remember. It’s like, “Oh, wait. What is that emotion that’s in my gut? What is that emotion that’s somewhere in my body?” Just really investigating that, I think that’s really important.


Sara: Yeah. So this is a whole category of fear responses: anxiety, etc. Fear is a normal human reaction; it is very common to feel fear. We feel fear, probably like many times a day, every day. But again, there are groups that are not culturally taught that feeling fear, or expressing the feelings of fear, is okay, and that has really detrimental effects. So men, generally speaking, are often taught — again, implicitly and explicitly — that they shouldn’t demonstrate fear. That being afraid is not something to say out loud, because that signifies weakness. Even if you don’t believe in that kind of gender norm, even if you actively want to break that kind of gender norm, a lot of that conditioning happens so early that it’s really common for people to feel disconnected from that sense of fear, or being unable to name it, where they’re scared to name that they’re scared. 


I think, in a similar way, what we see is that really harming people’s ability to work through that fear, and to ask that fearsome questions. Because again, it’s really helpful to slow down and to say, “Okay, yeah, I’m scared. First off, it’s okay that I’m scared. Second, what’s really scaring me here? Like, what am I really afraid of, where is that coming from? Can I think about that fear a little more slowly so that I can evaluate?” 


For example, anxiety during the pandemic. I think you mentioned your business, I had a lot of anxiety about my business. It was like, what have I done? I didn’t always handle it well. There was a time early on in the pandemic where I really remember that that fear and anxiety were getting expressed in some kind of controlling behaviors on a project I was working on, and it did not produce the results that I wanted. 


So what I had to learn to do was to be able to say, “Oh, wait, what are you really afraid of? Okay, you made this big decision in your business, but you’re afraid not really about failing so much.” Like, you can tell yourself it’s being afraid that I don’t know, money won’t come in. But I was like, no, that’s actually not it. I was afraid that people would see me as a failure, as somebody who didn’t have it together. I was scared at the perception, more so actually than scared of the immediate financial impacts and things like that. So actually, when I stopped and thought about it, that was really what it was, is I didn’t want people to see me that way. Again, now where does that come from? I could spend another two hours unpacking that, but I’ll leave that one for therapy.


Melinda: Also, definitely, we live in a world where so much is on display, too. I think we’re in a different space than we used to be, where everything is out there. 


Sara: But at the same time, I think also, when we’re in a fear state, those kinds of risks feel really amplified. So the idea that everybody is watching you, that’s [exaggerated]. No, everybody wasn’t watching me, they had some other stuff going on. First off, who is “everybody,” and that they’re all out there watching me looking for me to fail? No, they’re not! Or that they’re going to judge what I’m doing in that either/or way? Like, either she’s successful, or she’s a failure at this? That’s not actually a useful way of looking at it. 


But I think that once you can actually recognize that fear, and once you recognize what you’re actually afraid of, you look at it, and again, now you can ask some other questions. Like, who do I mean by “everybody?” Who do I think is actually doing that? What do I actually want out of this work that I’m doing? How do I redefine success? By the way, this is a big one for burnout: how do I redefine success in ways that are attainable right now? So, what does success look like in this terrible weird year was a question I asked myself last year. 


I think that once you can do that, again, you are pulling yourself out of those knee-jerk responses; you’re pulling yourself out of the stress state. Basically, you’re slowing yourself down and allowing yourself to make more considered choices and the choices that then can align with your values more deeply.


Melinda: Let’s talk a little bit about the interpersonal piece. I think, particularly maybe we can talk about, as managers and as leaders, this is happening on your teams, and everybody in some way or another is going through something in this moment. So what do you do with that as a manager, and what do you do with that across teams?


Sara: The thing I will say is that, managers or leaders, if operating in some of these spaces is uncomfortable or feels awkward, know that that is really normal. I think that for most of the leaders that I know and work with, it’s a classic thing. They got good at doing a job as an IC, and then got promoted in to managing people who do that job, and then promoted from there to wherever. None of that is wrong or bad, but what happens is that for a lot of leaders, the skills that they have learned around management or leading have been mostly kind of like, picked up on the job ad hoc. On the other hand, a lot of the training that people are going to is very tactical. 


This is a whole different kind of universe of leadership. This is really around: how do you ask open non-judgmental questions, and really listen to people? How do you be with people? How do you sit with them through their challenging times? When do you know that it’s time to hold back from trying to fix it? So there are all of these things, and these are skills that, for a lot of people, they’re just not used to them. They haven’t been called upon to do that. That hasn’t been prioritized in any of the rubrics or metrics that they have. So like anything, if you don’t do it and you’re not used to it, of course, it’s going to feel weird and you might not be great at it. 


So I think a big interpersonal piece of this that I recommend for leaders — because I run a lot of workshops with organizations — is that this is the kind of stuff that you’ve got to practice, and ideally, practice it with other leaders or peers to get more comfortable in these spaces. Get comfortable talking about how you’re feeling, talking about the universe of emotion. Get more comfortable with self-reflection, with people who are also trying to get better at this thing as well. So that you can do a better job of it when you’re talking with your peers. 


But I think interpersonally, the biggest thing is that there is not a manager out there who can fix the impact of the pandemic for the people on their team, period. There are practical things managers can do. There are ways that our organizations could absolutely do a better job. 


But the role here is not to say that whatever comes up for your employees is something you’re supposed to fix. It’s to say, how do I create space where it is safe for them to acknowledge what they’re experiencing, where they feel like they have room to reflect? [How do I make sure] they don’t feel pressured to operate in that knee-jerk response because they feel like they do have the space to process their experiences? That is what’s going to open up room for them to have that access to some healing. 


It’s also a matter of building trust over time, that you can have these conversations with your leader and you will not be punished for it. Because a lot of people feel like they really can’t be a leader with how they’re really feeling. That’s not going to change overnight, you have to demonstrate that over and over again to build up that trust with people, particularly if that trust has ever been broken in the past.


Melinda: I think we’re talking about building trust and psychological safety, to really have those conversations. Do you have any practical tips for people to do that effectively?


Sara: I think one of the first things I would say is that, the more that you consistently — I mean in every one-on-one, at the beginning of every meeting — the more you consistently make some space to check in with how people are doing, the more that they learn to rely on that. That’s a real thing you actually care about, and not a thing that you learned to do last week at some session and now you’re going to inflict it upon them. Also, that you learn some of the boundaries around that too. It’s like you can’t expect that people are going to get hyper-vulnerable about everything happening in their life. This is not about making them bring their whole selves. This is about saying, “Hey, things have been weird and hard. What’s it been like for you? What are you experiencing?” Then, to get honestly curious with the answer, and that means not judging it. 


So not judging whether they’ve had it worse or better than somebody else, not judging whether they deserve to feel however it is that they’re feeling, not judging whether they’re telling the truth or not telling the truth about their experience. Just saying, “Okay, I hear that this is your experience, and I accept that your experience is a real experience, even if it doesn’t match my own. Even if it’s not relatable to me, it’s still an experience that I take as real and that deserves respect.” If you consistently go into every conversation from that place, over time, you will begin to build more trust with people. That they can tell you what their experience is, and it’s not going to be questioned, it’s not going to be belittled, etc. 


The other thing that I would really recommend doing — that I think also helps you stay as a leader, scoped to some space that is appropriate for work — is you don’t need to play therapist. I’ve actually had a bunch of people say things like, my one-on-ones have started to feel like therapy sessions, which I completely understand, and I think that’s also a bit of a warning flag. Just being like, “Okay, absolutely. People are expressing a lot of feelings right now, so it makes sense that that’s showing up there? What is it that I can provide, and what is beyond the scope of what I can provide as a manager?” Because what you don’t really need is to have a manager who’s going to try to psychoanalyze you. Nope, please don’t. 


But instead, to be able to say, let’s think about this in terms of what you need at work. Like, “Okay, well, let me understand at least, what are the things that are really draining you at work right now? Where are you getting energy? Is there anything that’s going well? What are you excited about? What do you really need more of? What are you missing? What would make this a place you actually want to still be at in six months or a year?” I mean, God knows so many people are quitting, and there are a lot of reasons for that. So trying to get underneath the skin a little bit of how people are doing and saying, what can we actually change here? 


To just also let people know, these are things I really want to know about. You may not have answers for everything right away. Like if I ask you what’s draining you, a lot of people do have a very quick response to that. But like, maybe what do you want more of, or where have you felt the most energy over the past week? Sometimes they’ll need some time to answer those. So just saying, “It’s okay you can’t answer that right now, but I’m going to ask you again next week. So give yourself some space to think about that, because I really want to hear. Because I really want to figure out how we can optimize things to work for you.


I think when people hear those messages consistently — again, consistency really matters; you can’t jump in and do this one time, this is a way of being — once you can embody that way of being consistent, the kinds of conversations that you have can just change dramatically.


Melinda: Yeah. I think you mentioned this, but I want to call it out, that also, as a leader, part of building trust and creating that safe space is also modeling it too; modeling vulnerability and really sharing your own experiences too.


Sara: Yeah, I think that’s the other thing. If you go into a situation wanting to maintain this impenetrable facade of being the leader, you are not going to get real, honest, vulnerable responses from your people. Why would they? You’re not doing it. Because what you’re modeling is that that’s what is safe, or that is what is appropriate, or that is what’s expected. So it really does need to start with you, which is why it goes right back to the idea that, have you actually given yourself space to process what you’re experiencing and have you allowed yourself to reflect? 


I mean, with vulnerability, I think there’s a spectrum. It doesn’t mean that you have to tell the people on your team, every unprocessed thought that crosses your mind. It does not mean that you then flip the tables and turn them into your unlicensed therapist, don’t do that. But what it means though, is being able to communicate with people. “I felt things that are hard here too, and it’s okay to talk about them. It is okay for them to exist, and many things can exist at the same time.” So you can be a phenomenal leader, you can be a brilliant designer, you can be whatever other things you are, you can be a loving parent, and you can be somebody who is scared and struggling, or depressed or lonely. Like, all of those things can exist in one person, because it turns out, we are complicated and multifaceted humans.


So allow people to see a little bit more, just like one or two more sides of you than you may be typical would show them, and that can go a long way. Again, you still get to choose what you want to share. I think this is important for everybody, leader or not, that there’s no “bring your whole self to work.” That’s kind of a lie. It is much more about how do you create spaces where people can choose which parts of themselves to bring and that whatever they choose to bring is accepted? I think some of that is to say, you get to make a choice about how much you want to share and what that looks like for you. But know that as a leader, if you do not feel comfortable with any vulnerability, that is going to have an impact on your organization. That impact, you are probably already feeling in terms of people being disengaged, burnt out, feeling unsafe, and leaving.


Melinda: It seems like a lot of these actually are things that we can do for our colleagues, colleague-to-colleague, in addition to doing our own work, as allies. So it applies when we’re not managing people, for individual contributors, or even managers to managers. Are there any other things that we can do as allies to really ensure holding that we’re all experiencing pandemic trauma?


Sara: There is this piece that is around making sure that you are really processing your experiences with the appropriate people. So peer groups are really, really helpful for this. Leaders oftentimes don’t have a strong peer network. Because so much of their energy is focused on managing up and managing down, the idea of building relationships with peers really often gets put into last place in the priority line. That leaves leaders without appropriate people in their workplace to share some of this with, who can be support people for them, and can be a sounding board and can really listen, without there being an unhealthy power dynamic there. 


The other thing that I would say is that, if you can come at this work from a place of, like I said, dealing with your own stuff first a bit and understanding where you’re at, it’ll allow you some space to look at what’s happening in your organization, and to advocate for structural choices that are going to support more of the people that you work with and more of the things that you see. So if you don’t really know what people are going through — if you have not built that trust, where you can hear from them that this is what it’s actually been like for me, this is what’s really draining mean — it’s going to be very hard for you to know what might fix it. You might be able to give people some basic things like extra time off. Sure, extra time off is almost always good. But there are more or less effective ways to do that, and there are other things people might need, and you won’t know about it. 


If you can start to do this work, what you will find is that you will learn things that can lead to more useful structural interventions in the way that the organization is operating. I think for a lot of people, that is feeling like, for example, can they take time away without it meaning something about them, without it creating a career hit for them? So it’s not just about that the policy exists, but it’s like who gets access to that policy and who gets access to that policy without being judged for accessing that policy? I think that that is a really, really big area that leaders need to focus on. 


There is this post from Anne Helen Peterson, she’s a Culture Writer I really love, from a few months ago about the “feel free to take some time if you need it” message, which is what a lot of bosses have done. She’s like, well, who gets to say that they need it? I think instead of that, it takes us out of this shrug response — which is like, feel free to take some time, it’s there; the resources are there — to actually say, what are the barriers that are preventing people from certain groups from being able to take leave? 


For example, the perception that moms particularly are no longer career-minded, no longer ambitious or whatever, they are getting sidelined in their career like. So parents who have taken on maybe the bulk of caregiving and schooling and whatever, over the past couple of years, are also people who may feel the least safe taking access to leave or other benefits like that, because of the perception that they’ll experience for it. What are you going to do about that? 


So it really forces you to get to a place where you’re hearing all this stuff and you’re understanding it differently. Then you’re saying, what are the actual actions I can take that will move some of this from an individual level to a systems-level?


Melinda: Yeah, that’s great. In terms of that systems-level, I think you’ve mentioned quite a few along the way. I think also, clearly from a manager’s perspective, creating that safe space for managers is not something that very many leaders and companies really are doing yet. So in creating that safe space and the training as well, what are other systemic things to think about?


Sara: Oh, gosh. Well, actually, in regards to creating that safe space or that safety, I would absolutely recommend folks pick up a book. It’s called A Culture of Safety by Alla Weinberg, and it’s come out in early 2021. The book is really about, what are some of the grounding practices that leaders can have for their teams to create a greater sense of safety, starting with physical safety? Like how do you actually calm people down, calm down their nervous system, get people present in space? So that book is full of really helpful tools. 


But going back to the structural question, one of the things that I would ask organizations to think about, or leaders to think about, is that I think we’ve used the word ‘resilience’ a lot for individuals last couple of years. Personal resilience is a real thing. It is meaningful, it is important. But I would ask folks to look at where do you need to have organizational resilience? When I say ‘organizational resilience,’ I mean that if your people feel like if they take a break or if somebody leaves, everything crumbles, that’s not a resilient organization. If people feel like they have to work double-time before they take a week’s vacation, that’s not a resilient organization. 


So what are the ways that we actually think about fallbacks, fail-safes, or the ability for somebody else to pick up your work and actually know what you were doing? Documentation is a big piece of that. Like, a lot of the ways that people have been working is oftentimes because of pressure, like time pressure, or working in an agile environment. Again, I’m not anti-agile software by any means. It’s more like, when we get into these modes of thinking that everything is leaner, everything needs to be a sprint, we lose a lot. So one of the things that we lose oftentimes is a sense of resilience. 


So what I would say is, look at where your organization needs to build a resilient capacity to handle difficult times. This is a big difficult time we’ve gone through. But the reality is that your people were going through difficult times before the pandemic too. The fractures we’re seeing now, were already there and they were being unevenly felt because there were groups that were feeling them more than others. They’re more visible right now. 


There is a lot about the pandemic that has been truly terrible, I don’t like to go to a silver-lining tone. But I do think that one of the things we can take from this time is that it has made a lot of fractures that already existed, very visible. Look at that as a gift and say, now that I can see these things in a way I couldn’t see them before, what am I going to do about them for the long haul and not as a band-aid?


Melinda: Excellent, this has been super helpful. I loved this conversation, and I think there are so many more layers that we could go into; maybe there will be a future conversation. But where can people learn more about your work?


Sara: You can go to ActiveVoiceHQ.com for all my business stuff. Sign up for the newsletter there, I do a kind of meaty monthly newsletter about topics like this. You can follow me on Twitter @Sara_Ann_Murray.


Melinda: Awesome! For those listening and watching, there are a couple of episodes that we mentioned or topics we mentioned where you can go and learn more. We talked about anger quite a bit in Episode 63 with Meag-gan O’Reilly, and then also burnout in Episode 61. So those would both create great resources to learn more. 


One action that you will take moving forward, and I want to ask you all to do that one action, I think — Sara, let me know if you have an action too — is how will you work through and think about your own trauma and what you’re experiencing, and what does that work look like for you? Really take the time to do that. Well, thank you all for listening and watching, and we will see you next week. 


To learn more about this episode’s topic, visit ally.cc. Allyship is a journey. It’s a journey of self-exploration, learning, unlearning, healing, and taking consistent action. The more we take action, the more we grow as leaders and transform our communities. So what action will you take today? Please share your actions on learning with us by emailing Podcast@ChangeCatalyst.co, or on social media, because we’d love to hear from you. Thank you for listening. Please subscribe to the podcast on the YouTube channel and share this. Let’s keep moving allies around the world. 


Leading With Empathy & Allyship is an original show by Change Catalyst, where we build inclusive innovation through training, consulting, and events. We appreciate you listening to our show and taking action as an ally. See you next week.

About the Host

Host: Melinda Briana Epler

Melinda Briana Epler has over 25 years of experience developing business innovation and inclusion strategies for startups, Fortune 500 companies, and global NGOs.

As CEO of Change Catalyst, Melinda currently works with the tech industry to solve diversity and inclusion together. Using her background in storytelling and large-scale culture change, she is a strategic advisor for tech companies, tech hubs, and governments around the world. She co-leads a series of global solutions-focused conferences called Tech Inclusion, where she has partnered with over 450 tech companies and community organizations and hosted 43 solutions-focused diversity and inclusion events around the world.

Previously, Melinda was a Marketing and Culture Executive and award-winning documentary filmmaker – her film and television work includes projects that exposed the AIDS crisis in South Africa, explored women’s rights in Turkey, and prepared communities for the effects of climate change. She has worked on several television shows, including NBC’s The West Wing.

Melinda is a TED speaker. She speaks, mentors and writes about diversity and inclusion in tech, allyship, social entrepreneurship, underrepresented entrepreneurs and investing. She has spoken on hundreds of stages around the world, including SXSW, Grace Hopper, Wisdom 2.0, the World Bank, Obama White House, Clinton Foundation, Black Enterprise, Google, Indeed, Capital One and McKinsey.

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Change Catalyst Co-Founder Melinda Briana Epler has spoken across the globe in hundreds of venues and virtual events. Empathy, Allyship, Advocacy, Microaggressions, Inclusive Leadership, and Building Inclusive Teams are just some of the topics Melinda has spoken on. Let us know about your next speaking engagement needs! Melinda has also spoken on how to build organizational capacity to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion, such as how to lead behavior change or how to build allies and advocates.


This show has given me clear opportunities to learn in the midst of 2020’s numerous social and personal challenges, including engaging remote content. I’ve learned new terms, heard new voices, diversified my interests and internalized personal narratives that have inspired me to get more active.

The show shaped my scope of reasoning on the dynamics in the corporate world, brand building, harmony across board with team mates. Your series has helped me feel less alone and less daunted by the challenges I face as a leader at a company that is used to moving fast with decisions and making swift progress across the board. I so earnestly want to grow and deepen my perspective when it comes to diversity and allyship; it’s not always clear how to do it. This series has felt like a path I can follow and revisit and draw strength and insight from. Thank you.

I watched many of your live shows in 2020, and I learned something from every discussion. They were inspiring on many levels. Early on during the pandemic (especially), the show also provided me with a sense of community that I was sorely needing. Thank you.

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