How to have ‘difficult conversations’ at work

Twitter’s JAPAC head of I&D shares why it’s crucial to talk about exclusion to drive real organisational change

How to have ‘difficult conversations’ at work

Want to drive genuine inclusivity at work? Start by holding open discussions about exclusion and how it makes people feel.

That’s how you can enable empathy in others and raise awareness around uncomfortable realities like discrimination and identity bias, according to Preet Grewal, head of inclusion and diversity (I&D) for JAPAC at Twitter. More importantly, it can show just how common bias is and hopefully enable action as well as promote understanding across the organisation.

“[At Twitter] we do this exercise of asking where you have previously felt a sense of exclusion, whether you’re a leader, an employee, or an independent contributor,” Grewal told HRD. “And we realise that at some point in our lives, everybody has felt a sense of exclusion, whether it’s because of your identity, race, or some form of who you are.”

Read more: How can teams stay inclusive when operating remotely?

Clear lines between ‘us and them’
Speaking to HRD, Grewal candidly shared her own personal experiences and revealed how they moulded her worldview during her formative ‘growing up’ years – as well as inspiring her future career. She was born in India into a Sikh family, a minority religion in the diversely populated nation. From a young age, it was made clear that there were “always these lines that people draw”, despite co-existing in the same community.

“As a kid you learned very early on that who you interact with is clearly defined by your identity,” she said. “So that was a big learning for me growing up.”

At 15 years old, Grewal moved to Canada with her family, where she watched as her parents worked to ‘re-establish’ themselves in a new country as the ‘immigrant family’.

“In Canada, funny enough, I was seen as the Indian girl,” she said. “I’m now the Brown girl in class, so they don’t care about your religion or whatever community you come from – all of a sudden you’re being ‘colour-coded’.”

Even in high school, she remembered how communities naturally stuck to their own – for instance, the Indian students typically ‘hung out’ in their own corner, while the aboriginal, indigenous students stayed in theirs.

“It was very clear once again that you have boundaries,” she said. “People are within their communities. It’s all about who you are and your identities. That imprints on you a little bit. So, growing up, that’s kind of been my environment. You always know there is an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ – who gets along with whom and everything like that.”

Read more: 'Leaders should look inwards – to create real change'

Exclusion feels like a physical pain
Her experiences at a young age made her highly aware of the importance of diversity and its impact on individuals. As did her father’s advice to “never just do things for myself” and to always consider about others around her. This sense of empathy was something she carried with her throughout her life, as she moved from India, to Canada, and finally to Singapore in 2016, where she currently lives with her family.

She understands that not everyone has the same motivations around promoting inclusivity, which is why her team at Twitter pushes for initiatives that enable others to ‘be in someone else’s shoes’. One such program involves offering a safe and open space for individuals, both leaders and employees, to share their personal experiences.

And while it’s important to talk about the benefits of being inclusive, Twitter makes it a point to simultaneously discuss about exclusion. Such exercises have been evermore impactful in engaging employees at all levels to prioritise I&D in their everyday interactions.

Read more: President Halimah warns against ‘disturbing’ discrimination

It’s no wonder then that Grewal referenced research on how being excluded can feel “as powerful as a physical pain”, when sharing why it’s crucial to discuss about exclusion if you’re keen to drive real change around inclusivity. Over the years, psychologists have studied how being rejected or excluded in social groups can translate into physical pain in individuals and even affect how you evaluate yourself as well as your capabilities.

One of the more prevalent studies, presented back in 2003 by psychologist Naomi Eisenberger from UCLA, found that ‘rejection really hurts’. Since then, many other academics and psychologists revisited the topic and found similar reactions in individuals. A recent study in 2019 on the relationship between social and physical pain by researchers at University of Queensland and Melbourne reached similar conclusions.

“Altogether, this is consistent with the idea that the implications of social pain are principally experienced as negative and socially oriented, and relevant to our present argument that social pain signals damage to the integrity of the social self, thereby motivating action,” researchers wrote in the 2019 study.

Read more: How to invest in an 'authentic' inclusion policy

How to hold these ‘painful’ conversations
Science aside, Grewal shared that having these conversations can also help leaders identify areas of I&D that needs more attention. This can be especially helpful in the Asia Pacific region, where companies have highly diverse and multi-cultural teams who prioritise different needs and hold unique discussions locally.

To help leaders along, she shared tips on how to have effective conversations:

  • Create a safe space for everyone to share their experiences

These should be voluntary, so if anyone wanted to share something, they’re encouraged to do so to help others ‘understand their pain’ outside of work. Having this safe space was impactful for Twitter in several circumstances last year, like when the Black Lives Matter movement was happening globally, and anti-Asian racism resulted from COVID-19.

  • Coach leaders to hold regular conversations with their teams.

Encourage leaders to hold these difficult discussions with their teammates. At Twitter, leaders attended mandatory training sessions to give them a framework as well as guidelines on how to manage such sensitive exchanges.

  • Enable leaders to share their own experiences.

Like they always say, change must start from the top. So, if you want to have authentic discussions around tough topics like racism, sexism, ableism, or LGBTQ discrimination, leaders should start the ball rolling by sharing their own experiences to show employees that it’s okay for them to do the same.

While not everyone can relate to the same experiences, acknowledging that your co-worker has gone through difficult situations and still shows up to work every day can lead to more empathy. It could also enable ally-ship, which is crucial for organisations to create genuinely inclusive cultures and workplace practices.

“I would encourage more and more companies to really just create that open space [and] open time for people to be able to share and have difficult conversations when needed,” added Grewal. “You kind of need to lean into difficult conversations for change to happen.”

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