Leaders Can’t Shy Away from Sensitive Topics, Even When It’s Awkward

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Bill Boulding for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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We are living in times when it’s increasingly difficult — if not impossible — to go into the office and leave what’s going on outside behind. We are reckoning with difficult and emotional issues in our society — sexual harassment, racism, and deep political divides — that don’t get checked at the door. We are only human; it’s impossible to think we can come to work and not continue to feel angry, hurt, or disappointed by issues that don’t originate with our companies or our colleagues.

As the dean of a business school, I have many conversations with business leaders who are telling me they feel increasingly challenged by how outside issues are affecting their team members. For many people, topics involving politics or social issues have been considered taboo at work. How do you handle them? What if you say the wrong thing? What if you sound stupid? What if you offend someone? What if it’s awkward? After all, as the old maxim goes, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”

When it comes to the context we live in today, I respectfully disagree and offer this humble piece of advice: Talk. There is a danger in remaining silent. In the absence of conversation, people make assumptions. They may assume you don’t care or that you agree with a viewpoint that makes them feel marginalized. They may make assumptions about who you are or that you aren’t acting with positive intent.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had recently with WNBA President Lisa Borders that illustrates the peril of silence. We were discussing race relations in the United States. Lisa’s take is that we are in such a bad place because we passed legislation 50 years ago, and then lots of us stopped talking about the problem. As Lisa says, “If you didn’t clean the gutters on your house for five years they wouldn’t control the rainwater. They might even fall off your house. So what makes you think we could pass a law, not pay attention for 50 years, and not expect our society to devolve into chaos? It makes perfect sense where we are.” It makes sense to me as well. Silence can make the problem worse.

If we really drill down on what holds us back from having these conversations it usually comes down to fear. We fear looking stupid. We fear not saying the perfect thing. We fear how awkward the conversation will be. However, if done with genuine humility and the intent to seek true understanding, an awkward conversation can be one of the best ways to deepen relationships.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Bill Boulding is Dean of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.


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