headshot of Dr. Courtney McCluney, educator and researcher, who discusses the invisible thread connecting inclusion, wellness, and performance at work in this DDI podcast episode, beside different colored threads woven together


The Invisible Thread Between Inclusion, Wellness, and Performance

The relationship between workplace inclusion, wellness, and performance is hard to grasp but has major implications for your team. Understand the connection and how to support mental health at work.

Publish Date: December 6, 2022

Episode Length: 53 minutes

/ Resources / Podcasts / The Invisible Thread Between Inclusion, Wellness, and Performance

In this Episode

In this episode of the Leadership 480 podcast, Dr. Courtney McCluney, award-winning educator, researcher, consultant, and founder of EquiWell Partners, joins DDI to discuss the invisible thread connecting inclusion, wellness, and performance in the workplace. Understand why it's so important to create and support mentally healthy environments for employees, plus learn different ways to think about inclusion and bringing your whole self to work.


Beth Almes:

Hi leaders and welcome back to the Leadership 480 Podcast. I'm your host, Beth Almes. And today's topic is one that the vast majority of leaders struggle with, but a lot of times you can't quite put your finger on why. I'm talking about the often invisible thread connecting inclusion, wellness, and team performance.

And it can be so hard for leaders to see the connection between these three things, but it has crucial implications for your team, both in terms of how they're performing, as well as looking at your turnover numbers.

With us today is a guest I'm very excited about, Dr. Courtney McCluney. Courtney is an award-winning educator, researcher, consultant, and advisor, reimagining ways to foster equity and wellness in the workplace. She's a professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University, a research director with TMI Consulting, and the founder of EquiWell Partners. Courtney, welcome to the Leadership 480 Podcast.

Dr. Courtney McCluney:

Hi Beth, I'm so glad to be here. Thanks for having me.

Beth Almes:

So I'm going to start with the big meaty question of performance because it's often the most visible thing for leaders. A lot of times what we hear from leaders is they have no idea that someone on their team is struggling until something dramatic happens. Suddenly they put in their notice or they've got an outburst against a coworker or their performance drops out of nowhere. And it can be really puzzling because you're sitting there going, "I thought things were fine." And then it turns out there's a lot going on with this person.

So in your research, what's often going on behind the scenes that can make it seem like things are fine when really they aren't?

Dr. Courtney McCluney:

I think where this relates most closely to my research is considering the holistic lives that people are having in and outside of work. As much as we think that people can leave personal issues at home, a lot of things travel with us into the workplace.

Over the past few years, it's been a lot of grief and frustration associated with our political climate, our social climate, and dealing with a global pandemic. These are things that cause a lot of psychological, physical, and emotional distress and it's really hard for people to disconnect from that when it's time to start work.

Not to mention that inside of work people are also dealing with a range of treatment and experiences like microaggressions or feeling like their work is not valued as equally as their peers because they might have to step away for caregiving responsibilities or to take care of their mental health for a day or two.

This is not aligned with how we think about an ideal worker, someone who comes into work and is performing at their best and never has a day where they are just off or need some time to themselves, but that's not quite how life works. We have lots of things going on in our bodies, in our minds, and again with our families that can affect how it is that we show up and perform at work.

So even though what managers may notice is the decline in performance or that one momentary outbreak, what they might be missing is the ongoing struggles that I think a lot of people are dealing with right now associated with burnout and stress and just feeling overwhelmed with the state of the world and with how much work there is to be done.

Beth Almes:

That's such a great segue. And you mentioned this a little bit earlier as you were sharing about a lot of people still have the expectation that you leave your personal life at the door when you come to work. And in some ways there can be an argument for that in that there's a job to be done and we all have to be professional. However, that attitude of checking your personal life at the door, as you mentioned, is often unrealistic. And what's the risk if you don't address these issues? What happens to your team?

Dr. Courtney McCluney:

I think a lot of workers are realizing that it is difficult to check your personal life at the door. It also counters a lot of the messages that we hear around inclusion, which are usually boiling down to bringing your whole self to work. And how is it possible for someone to bring their whole self to work when the workplace itself is not designed to address the grief that they might be experiencing or the microaggressions or mental health crises?

So a lot of our workplaces aren't well equipped or have the capacity to address these human needs and individuals might feel conflicted with the message that inclusion espouses, that we want people to bring their whole selves to work.

And being authentic at work actually has a lot of great benefits for both the individual and the company. People feel that when they are authentic, they can tap into a side of themselves that may not be directly related to their work, but nevertheless can make them more creative and expansive with their thinking.

I often use the example of people who wear makeup working at a beauty company. You can talk firsthand both as a consumer and user of the product and how well it might be marketed to people who are part of your specific identity group if you're encouraged to bring that authentic part of yourself into the workplace. But at the same time, that authentic part of yourself is also dealing with large, wide-scale, highly publicized events that might be targeting your specific group.

In my work, I focus a lot on Black employees and as we've seen over the past few years, there's been ongoing racially traumatic events that are occurring in society. And so while you might be thinking about what it's like to be Black in society in general, you're also bringing those thoughts into the workplace.

But a lot of workplaces, again, they are not equipped to have those really difficult and tough conversations about all of these horrific issues that are happening in the world and that can make it really hard for someone to be authentic at work.

This of course has implications for wellness too. Trying to juggle all these different parts of yourselves and hoping to be authentic and being able to bring that to your work can be emotionally and physically exhausting, not to mention cognitively taxing. There's a lot of things that might be going on in people's minds as they try to think about how can I be authentic and show up as my true self while also experiencing all this grief and heartache.

And I'm really excited that we're having this conversation as a nation. The US surgeon general recently released a report where they were doing a lot more linkages between the psychological and mental wellbeing of people at work and the need for them to feel that they belong and are included.

So I'm so excited about that framework and some of the statistics they found really bring this to the fore and make it an important thing that we need to consider at work. So one of their findings was that 84% of workers say that their workplace conditions had contributed to at least one mental health challenge. That is a high number.

Beth Almes:


Dr. Courtney McCluney:

84%, that is huge. And when we think about the downstream consequences of mental health, we don't have a lot of coverage with insurance policies to protect mental health, not to mention a lot of employees don't have time to address their mental health needs while managing and juggling home life and dealing with their work.

And so in response to that, 81% of workers report that they are looking for workplaces that will support their mental health. So this is the future of work, the future of talent, and retention strategy. Is your workplace one where people feel that their mental health will be supported, protected, and elevated, not one where they might be experiencing a mental health crisis or it contributes negatively to their mental health?

So I think this is definitely so important for managers and leaders to think about and design workplaces that can address these mental health issues because it's not going anywhere.

Beth Almes:

And the mental health part is tricky because everything's so interconnected, it's such a domino effect. I think sometimes I've heard from some folks of, I mean, you have time to go to a doctor's appointment and they think of mental health of like, okay, if you need to go to counseling, go take your hour or whatever to go do that, fine. But it's not really just that, right?

It's, how many hours are you working? Do you have the time to take care of your physical health, which has a huge impact on your mental health? What other family needs are pressing down on you? Are you getting other things that bring you joy in life that give you those emotional reserves? It's so much stuff packed into mental health.

Dr. Courtney McCluney:

Absolutely. Our mental health is certainly influenced by how much movement we get in our day, for example. And there is some emerging research, I think Dr. Katina Sawyer has some new work on trying to figure out how to integrate movement and exercise into people's everyday work life.

We saw this shift in how much people were able to move when remote work became an option and was more widespread. But now that we have some return-to-office policies, people are losing out on their at-home workout times and their ways of taking breaks and walking.

So how can workplaces better accommodate the need for movement and how that has this positive effect on our mental health if we can move around, stretch, go for a walk outside, et cetera? So that's where I'm hoping workplaces, as you're asking people to return to the office, are also thinking about returning to a place that's healthy and contributing to your health in a positive way.

Beth Almes:

I think that's such an important part of just having those little times to take care of yourself throughout the day can be really great, especially if you're able to work from home or have some control over your schedule throughout the day.

I wanted to dive a little bit into, we talked at the top of the episode about talking about inclusion too, and for those who are minorities at work, and maybe that's because of gender, race, disability, whatever, you're the minority on your team, one of the things that I've seen you write about and talk about is a concept of code-switching.

And it's one of those things that can mislead leaders into thinking that everyone's fine when really they're not. So can you explain what code-switching is and how leaders can be more thoughtful about it with their teams?

Dr. Courtney McCluney:

Absolutely. Code-switching is one of many impression management strategies that I think we as humans have learned and evolved with over time. But it is differently applied depending on how it is that you are marginalized or underrepresented or in a minority status at work.

So I think of it as a strategy, whether conscious or unconscious, but it's a way for you to adjust and modify how it is that you present yourself, whether that's how you dress or how you speak or what name you go by in any given situation.

And it's especially used to help the other person that you're interacting with feel more comfortable and to feel that they like you more. And there's a lot of reasons behind why wanting someone to feel comfortable in an interaction at work. It's most often the people who are in positions of power, those who can hire us or fire us or promote us, they have a lot of power over our career path. So it would behoove people to make that other person feel comfortable and like them and making sure they know that they are high performing.

And so for people who are coming from marginalized backgrounds, it gets really tricky because some of the baseline assumptions or stereotypes we might have attached to particular groups of people counteract how it is that leaders and managers think about a high performer or a dedicated worker or a committed worker.

So a lot of my work focuses on Black employees in professional fields, and one of the things that I find that they have difficulty navigating are these stereotypes or assumptions that Black people are lazy or incompetent. So they engage in a lot of code-switching behaviors where they try to modify how often they speak, but also how loudly they might speak, or even if they have a name that's associated with their ethnic identity and all the stereotypes that can come from that.

One of the things that's been super unique to Black women for example, is also how they style their hair. There have been lots of studies showing that there is a bias attached to more Afrocentric natural hairstyles like braids or afros. People tend to think of those women as being less competent, dominant, all these elements of their identity that would work against them in the workplace.

So in order to make someone feel comfortable, let's say in an interview situation, a lot of Black women are choosing to straighten their hair and make it look more like white women and Eurocentric hairstyles. And that has seen unfortunately, a lot of success for people who modify their appearance in that way.

For Asian-identified folks, it might be things like choosing a more English-sounding name, something that's easier to pronounce. It makes that initial interaction more comfortable if someone can pronounce your name and feel that they can connect with you on that level.

So code-switching, as you said, it can certainly present this facade that I'm fine at work, although this traumatic thing might be happening in my life or in the world. Code-switching is also all about modifying your emotions and making sure that you keep your emotions in check and not crying, for example, at work.

And I think a lot of women especially try really hard not to express too many emotions because then they'll be labeled as too feminine, not belonging in the workplace, especially in leadership roles. So I've done a lot of research with women in corporate levels and at the board level and they talk about running to the bathroom to go cry because they don't want to cry in front of their colleagues because it'll be associated with all these stereotypes.

But if I am hiding my tears, if I am hiding how challenging it is or stressful it is to change my hair or how much I feel inauthentic by having to select a name that is not my actual authentic name, then of course a manager or leader will be unaware to the extent to which people are engaging in code-switching and masking their true selves and true feelings.

So it's certainly something that's not readily observable. People over time might not even realize that they're doing it until they interact with people who are part of their same group.

Beth Almes:

That is so interesting to me. That point that not only does the manager not realize that people are doing it, we're so used to doing this in our own lives, we don't even sometimes realize that we're doing it.

Dr. Courtney McCluney:

Exactly. I used to call it my mom's phone voice.

Beth Almes:

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Dr. Courtney McCluney:

Or our work voice.

Beth Almes:

We talk about that too. We talk about work voice. I know immediately if my husband is picking up a call that he thinks is from work or if it's from a family member, completely different greeting style, a completely different tone of voice. And I do the same thing, you take your voice down a couple of ... It's lower when you answer a work call. It's so funny how immediately you know.

Dr. Courtney McCluney:

Exactly. And again, for some types of code-switching, it's not extremely problematic because it's just modifying how you present yourself in different social situations. How you are on vacation is not how you are in your home life and that's okay. But I do think the risk profile differs for people depending on how marginalized or underrepresented they might be at work.

Code-switching could be the thing that decides whether or not you get to keep your job or be promoted or how much money you're even offered. Michael Krauss and some of his colleagues at a very fascinating study where they had people listen to audio clips of individuals with different accents.

And people who had Southern accents, and I say this as someone who grew up in North Carolina and has worked a lot on her Southern accent, but people with Southern accents, a lot of the participants in the study felt like they deserved less pay than people who had more Northern accents or accents that are associated with "being a professional."

And a lot of the ideas we have around what a professional sounds like or looks like, it really comes from our history, our media, and who we see in positions of power. But no matter how much I modify how I speak or how I style my hair, I will never be a tall, heterosexual, white, able-bodied man. It's like I can't embody that identity fully.

So we really have to start unpacking what conditions are we creating at work that leads people to feel that code-switching is the only way that they can be successful. And I will say as an aside, this does not mean as leaders that you should go up to all of your employees and ask them every day if they're code-switching or not.

Beth Almes:

Right, because they probably don't even know. You're like, "No, no, I'm just being professional." But I think the acknowledgment of how much work it sometimes takes and labor. So I loved your point of yes, to some degree we all present ourselves a little bit differently in different social situations. The way we interact with our friends is different than how we want to be perceived in the workplace, and that's all okay.

But from the leader's perspective, how do you be thoughtful about if your team is doing this and then be conscious of where it's getting dangerous, of this is an enormous mental load on folks, or we're creating this environment where it's like everybody is struggling to fit in. What do you do as the leader to try to catch when it gets to be too much?

Dr. Courtney McCluney:

I certainly encourage a lot of leaders to start with themselves to really think about those moments in their own life where they felt that you couldn't be honest about what was going on or how it is that you really felt. Was it the day that you had a big presentation with the board and although you weren't feeling well, you felt that you had to power through? What kind of norm is that setting up for your employees? They see you coming to work sick, so therefore they feel pressure that they have to come to work sick, for example.

And I think about a lot of the mostly white men in the executive level positions that I've consulted or worked with, a lot of them realizing that they felt uncomfortable mentioning how they had to leave work early to go take care of their children or to be present when their spouse, if they were in a heterosexual relationship, was birthing their child. And how many of them mentioned missing these critical moments in their children's lives because they felt like it didn't align with the ideal of what a leader should be doing. You put work first above family.

It makes me think about some amazing work by Dr. Erin Reid where she was also unpacking this idealized version of a man at work and it was one that does not care about his spouse and children and a lot of men feel that pressure.

So given that a lot of leaders do still tend to identify as men, that is certainly a space where I encourage you to start, is to think about in your own life where you have felt you had to separate work from everything else you were doing and what effects that might have had on you. And imagine how that effect would be amplified for people who have less power and status than you in the workplace.

I think other things we could do, the pandemic really presented an opportunity for us to think about all these terms we throw around, like how engaged are people at work. When we became remote workers, it was a little bit more challenging to gauge engagement. So what a lot of companies were doing was mandating that individuals keep their cameras on the entire time they're at work. And this had a lot of consequences.

My colleagues and I collected some data on this and published some of the findings in the Harvard Business Review where individuals feeling pressure to keep their cameras on reported way more stress at the end of the day. There's a lot of performance that's happening on cameras.

And then you're concerned about what's going on in your background for people who have caregiving responsibilities or just have fewer resources and live in the type of home where they might be sharing a space with other people. That could be both distracting, but it also creates a lot of anxiety, like what are they thinking about me if they can see these things in my background?

And that meta perception of yourself is something that's hard to grapple with and it's almost like looking at yourself in the mirror all day too. A lot of people mentioning, they're not actually looking at their colleagues, they're looking at themselves and making sure that they look presentable and look as if they are professional or engaged at work.

So one of the things I think managers could do in that situation is simply asking yourself, do we need to have cameras on or off? Is it okay if individuals turn their cameras off? How else can we assess whether or not people are getting their work done and feeling like they are contributing to the workplace?

I would love for us to move in that direction of measuring things like engagement, like how much are people contributing to this project? How happy and satisfied do they feel at the end of the work week? How well do they think they're able to master the task that they have before them? Are they feeling like they're learning and growing and feeling excited about their work? Those could be some of the ways that we measure engagement, not is their camera on or off.

Beth Almes:

And that reminds me, I've seen a couple of articles recently with some studies showing that especially remote workers, but this can be true of other people, that the pressure to appear busy is actually what's decreasing their productivity rather than their actual work itself.

So feeling like I have to appear at a certain level or that I'm doing a certain number of activities when in many professions it can be something like, you do need to do some research on the internet in order to inform something else that you're doing, but they feel like, oh, that feels like it's not work to me, or is it feeling like I'm productive enough? Or sometimes taking a 10-minute walk, and stepping away from your computer can be the thing that breaks the problem that you were trying to figure out, but that doesn't appear to be productive.

So I've seen a lot of things of people being so worried to counteract those perceptions of them. And I think particularly if they feel that there is some kind of stigma, whether it's by gender, by race, or if it's women who are pregnant or something of like, I'm working extra hard just in order to keep up.

Dr. Courtney McCluney:

Yes, I think about all the non-visible productive elements of our lives. I am more productive if I sleep and if I'm allowed to sleep. And there is some, I think more emerging research. I think it primarily started in the creativity space where people were realizing you're more creative after taking a break.

But for office workers, for people who are working in something that's considered more routine and repetitive, individuals are not seeing the main benefit or payout of allowing breaks more than 30 minutes or so, let's say. That's certainly one of my goals as the founder of EquiWell Partners, is to really revise and think about how we might revise things like breaks at work from a federal standard.

I think right now we have the same policy in place from 1959 that individuals only need a 30-minute break for eight hours of work. And at that time, that might have sounded like a great deal, but it is not aligning with how it is that we live our lives these days, especially when we think about all the benefits from breaks, both at the micro level, like taking a walk, but also at the macro level.

Some companies are starting to experiment with things like four-day work weeks for example. Or LinkedIn, they had a whole week where their entire office was closed, and taking these sabbatical weeks are becoming more of a norm in the professional space. And I wonder what that does not only for people's wellbeing but also for retention.

I would love to work in an organization where having breaks is normalized and implemented and that would make it easier for me as a Black woman, as a woman who has menstruation, as someone who really does have to think creatively and needs time away from work to not have to request that or feel the pressure that I am not being a team player, if I'm pulling away from work, that that puts pressure on my colleagues to pick up the slack. That makes it really hard for people to opt into their breaks, even if they have PTO as one of the benefits of their job.

Beth Almes:

And I think there are some workplaces where they have the power to be flexible and choose not to. So they have an opportunity to make some choices there. But there are also some workplaces, and I know a lot of the leaders who listen to our podcast work in some environments where that may not be possible, so I'm thinking certain manufacturing environments, or healthcare, for example, is a great one. They simply can't shut down the hospital for a week. It'd be lovely if no one was sick, but in their environments, that's not a possibility.

But you've worked with some companies who have that, like obviously you need to be here for work and we wish we could give you more flexibility, but we honestly cannot. So what are some ways and tactics that they can use to try to embrace some of these concepts of wellness within those parameters?

Dr. Courtney McCluney:

Yes, this makes me think about my work with Dr. Julie Haizlip and the team over at the University of Virginia School of Nursing and School of Medicine. They had pioneered this practice as a healthcare team called The Pause.

And its initial design was after a patient has coded, that is that they are not responding to treatment, medicine and they're going into cardiac arrest, after an unsuccessful resuscitation, so in the instance where a patient might die, this practice that they implemented was maybe a minute, maybe a minute and a half of a pause where every person who is in that medical team, which includes a lot of people from various different professions that might be in the room during a code, they all pause, take some deep breaths and tell each other, we tried our best and we honor this person's life who we were unsuccessful in saving. But we do want to acknowledge that we tried our best.

That brief pause before running to the next thing that you have to do, especially in emergency departments for example, where you might have an influx of people coming in or before even talking to a patient's family, a lot of the providers reported feeling less stress and more that they desire to work in organizations that allow for pauses like this.

And so there were higher retention rates and this is something that they certainly had to put into practice at a large scale when the pandemic hit. And then it wasn't only in the settings where a patient might code, but it was also in general, we need to make sure and check in with each other and ensure that we are taking this 30-second breath break in between going to different patients' rooms or different floors.

The other things that they were doing in the instance where they can't necessarily take time off, there has been some research showing that healthcare institutions implemented these digital kudos boards where they're able to shout people out for any form of work that they've done that helps make someone else's work a bit easier or a more meaningful interaction.

So these were physicians, for example, coming on this kudos board and saying, "I really want to thank the nurse that helped to check in all these patients. They did it so smoothly, it made my day easier." Or it could be someone who is a patient advocate also sharing on the kudos board how they appreciate the doctor re-explaining something that the patient didn't quite understand, or taking a moment to speak in the patient's native language before switching over to English, for example. These little moments in the lives of the providers really does help to sustain them in their long hours and work shifts.

There certainly does still need to be an overhaul of the healthcare system. I don't want to ignore the reality that structurally we have not designed a well-resourced healthcare system. I think some of that also comes in with redesigning how it is that we have medical school, that whole pipeline into medical professions needs to change.

But in the interim, in the meantime, I think stuff like that, those pauses, building high-quality connections with your colleagues, especially across disciplines, those are things that people who are in these essential roles I think could be a game changer for how it is that they are experiencing their work.

Beth Almes:

I love that it's these little moments just to recognize everyone's humanity in the room. So if you have something like in a healthcare setting of a patient passing away or something even like say you're in manufacturing and a safety scare or something along those lines, there are so many things that can happen throughout the day or even just something traumatic happening on your team or whatever it is.

Taking these little moments to recognize the humanity and that yes, we're professionals, but even if you're a professional in healthcare, watching someone die is a very difficult thing, feeling afraid for your safety can be a very difficult thing. And just taking that moment to regroup, no, it doesn't solve all problems, but can go a really long way to helping people pull back, feel like they can do this and move on.

And that leads me to my next question too of one of the things we've heard a lot of conversation about is, and you opened with this of right now there's so much going on in the world too. There are social crises going on, there are so many things, and there's been a pandemic going on.

There are so many things that are weighing on a lot of folks coming to work and no matter what crisis has happened, you have to show up to work on Monday and it can be exhausting to do that. And what we've often heard from leaders, even very well-intentioned ones, is that they get that. They know people have to show up to work amid crisis, but they don't know how to handle it.

So maybe there's a really upsetting social event that happened over the weekend and everybody's thinking about it, but as the leader, I'm afraid that I'm going to say the wrong thing. I'm afraid that if I reach out, what if that person ... I don't want to make assumptions about what somebody wants. I might reach out and say, "Hey, are you doing okay?" And some people may say, "Hey, I really appreciate that." And somebody else may say, "I don't know why you're thinking I can't work because this happens."

So what's an appropriate way for leaders to think about the fact of how their employees are showing up to work amid crisis and how to start handling that?

Dr. Courtney McCluney:

I'm going to draw back to a word you shared earlier where it's sharing your humanity at work. So certainly thinking from a humanity perspective, really tapping into all the things they told us not to consider at work, like your emotions, how it is that this crisis might land for folks like, man, how would I feel if X, Y, and Z were happening to my community or to someone who I know or to me? And really starting from that place of empathy as a way of figuring out how to relate to your colleagues.

I think from there it goes to managers and leaders thinking about what is it that I actually have control over in this person's life. Usually, it's the workload, it's the deadline of when you want to get a project in, it's a relationship with the client.

So trying to figure out from an empathetic standpoint, how can I help make this person's life a bit easier, whether it is that they need more time, whether they need to pass off the work to someone else. Just thinking about what it is that you actually have control over and presenting those options to folks.

So I love your example where you mentioned how everyone's going to respond very differently to the different forms of support that a manager could offer. So making sure you have multiple forms of support as an option is a helpful way of making sure you're going to meet the needs of your employees because we are all different.

I think about that with grief for example. A lot of employees talk about how work can be both a space where it helps them not think about it, if they don't want to think about it for a time, and for others it's, I immediately need time away from work in order to grieve.

And grief, if we're thinking about humane workplaces and designing from a place of humanity, grief is not very linear. It's not you just need a week and then you can get back into it. It might be two months from now that you realize, oh, now is when I'm feeling the grief.

And how can we design as managers, can you be more flexible in how it is that you're implementing policies like grief and leave and things like that. And so this makes me think about some work that one of my colleagues, Dr. Danielle King, and I and several of our other colleagues wrote in the Harvard Business Review about giving Black employees time to rest and recover.

So that could look more immediate. Again, just offering that space and time for people who are witnessing crisis after crisis that are disproportionately affecting their communities. Giving them time to step away from work, giving them that option, then making sure that there's also a way for their work to get done. And then offering to listen to what it is that they need and telling them this is what I'm able to do after hearing what it is that they really want.

So I'm going to talk about listening sessions in a moment, but I think they're relevant here too, where I think managers, again, we need to redesign work so managers have more time to do this. But what would it look like to check in with your employees on a regular basis and hear and learn from them what it is that you need in this time of your life this week?

I know as a person who menstruates what I need on one week is probably different than what I need on another week. And I would love for a manager to acknowledge like, "Hey, how's it going this week?" And it's like, "Not so great. I got a lot going on in here."

And if there's an option to step back, to not be the main person on point for this client presentation, for example, can we normalize managers checking in, gathering that information, and being mindful of what it is that they can and have control over and what they do not.

So those are some of the things I think managers can do that would ensure that they are not "getting it wrong" because they're allowing the employee to voice what it is that they need and then presenting multiple options for them to then choose from.

Beth Almes:

I love that concept of giving them some different options, and how they want to react because it is so different for different people for sure. Some people want one thing, and some people want something different. It's such a powerful thing.

You mentioned listening sessions very briefly because one of the sticky areas we hear from leaders too is that they do want to listen. You want to listen to your employees. You want to take the time. And especially when you're in an area that's uncomfortable for you saying, "Oh, I don't know that I should be leading this discussion. I don't feel like I'm the expert," which is good, really great intentions, that's not a bad sentiment.

At the same time what we hear sometimes from employees is that they feel like they are expected to educate others, and it's exhausting, about their condition. And again, as we mentioned, people are very different. Some people are like, "I'm passionate about this, I want to share my experience with you." And other people are like, "Listen, that's not my job. Just because I'm the only woman in the room, I don't want to sit here and explain to you how everything is for women or whatever your situation is."

So how can leaders facilitate better conversations, do a good job of trying to listen, and give people the opportunity to speak while walking that fine line of not expecting people who may be feeling particularly vulnerable at that time to educate others?

Dr. Courtney McCluney:

Yes, such a great question. And as I mentioned, I am not a huge fan of listening sessions honestly, because I'm both curious and I've also heard this from different, mostly multicultural-focused employee resource groups that I've heard from, they're not quite sure where it goes. What was the point of this listening session is a question that I think a lot of employees have. It's not clear what is going to be done with this thing that I shared with you.

A lot of groups too often feel like the only time they are asked for their opinion is when there is some sort of identity-related crisis and that is the first and last time that they actually are interacting with executive leadership, for example. But not when there's time to launch a new product or a potential redirection with the company or questions around, are the services we provide actually making a contribution or how can we sustain this?

So that's where I think about the manager and the teams on a micro level, how can we extend that and expand that to the organization? To what extent are there regular channels for individuals to communicate and to voice their insight and contribute really to how it is that the workplace is being run beyond just sharing about their possibly traumatic experiences?

This makes me think about some new work that's led by Dr. Quinetta Roberson on contributive justice. And what they are theorizing is that the ways that people can start to feel more included at work is if they're able to contribute to work in a meaningful way and that it extends beyond just their individual identities.

That being said, talking things out, I say this as someone who goes to therapy quite often, shout out to Rachel, is cathartic and it's very healing. But one of the things that I encourage leaders to do as part of building their skillset around facilitation is one, inviting that as an actual skill and competency that they need to learn.

So if executives are thinking about what core competencies do you want to see in people who are ascending into leadership roles, facilitation of productive conversations should certainly be one of them. And that is where you might bring in executive coaches or also provide opportunities for those leaders to take training and education around facilitating effective and productive conversations.

I think a lot of them will realize, especially if they're taking it with the right folks, I think Aiko Bethea is probably a good one, they will realize asking questions, like are you code-switching right now is probably not appropriate.

Beth Almes:

Right. Yeah.

Dr. Courtney McCluney:

... of facilitating a protective conversation.

And this is also where I think things, the other part of catharsis, speaking is certainly one of them, but some ground ... I guess not groundbreaking at this point. Some foundational psychology research on what is a great cathartic experience for helping people to develop empathy for others, but also to think about concrete actions they might take with their empathy, therefore transforming it into compassion, is writing.

So I think about the work by Pennebaker, I don't even know Pennebaker's first name, that's how iconic they are, and Jane Dutton and other folks over the Center for Positive Organizations at the University of Michigan. They've done a lot of work on creating compassionate spaces and conversations and compassionate workplaces. I think about the work of Monica Worline and Jane Dutton on building compassionate organizations.

And a lot of that, it requires both this facilitation and working with people interacting, but also a lot of self-work, a lot of that self-reflection. And the main way that I do this is by journaling, but for others, it could be meditating, it could be just spending time outdoors, or sitting in silence. Whatever it is that can help you focus in on your needs, it helps you to become more aware and in tune with other people's needs in a strange way.

So I think of that as some of the things that managers can do as part of preparing to be more inclusive, but also intentional about their facilitation. So ensuring that the only time that you're reaching out to groups is not only when these traumatic events are happening, but how can you create regular channels of communication so that people are informed and aware, but also able to contribute to the workplace. I think that's the main starting point.

And the second one is figuring out how to transform that empathy into action and to be more compassionate at work overall. And I think there are a lot of amazing facilitators and experts out there that can help to build this core competency.

And I'd love to see that as a competency for leaders moving forward because there is an increased pressure as we saw, that 81%, of people are looking for jobs that will facilitate positive mental health and making sure that it's enhancing their mental health. So this is going to be an increased demand on leaders and managers, are you able to create and facilitate a mentally healthy environment for employees?

Beth Almes:

I think that's so important. And I love the idea of giving people space to maybe share and talk when they want to, but that requiring them to educate others ... And it called to mind something you had mentioned earlier in our conversation about, you gave an example about a makeup company thinking about, oh, as users of makeup and things like that.

And it was reminding me of a number of stories I have heard of companies that when they don't invite and make a safe space for inclusion, they often miss a lot of things, in the products they create, in whatever it is that their team is doing.

So for example there, I remember there have been certainly lots of cases for things where if you don't have anyone with darker skin who tests your products or think about your products or gives input, it doesn't work and they deliver to the market and it's a complete fail.

Or I think one of the iPhones had a huge issue with, they didn't test it with left-handed people and then they were like, the way you created this, it doesn't work for people who are left-handed. But you might even have people on your team. It's not just about the representation, did you even ask? But it's also then that space you're creating of do they feel comfortable sharing? Like listen, I'm coming to this perspective as a professional, but also because I have all these other things in my background that they can share.

So as we've chatted today, there's so much nuance in these areas and I know that for a lot of leaders it feels really hard because they have so many pressures coming from them. They're like, "Yes, I want to give people space and I want to be a nice person, but also we have a job to get done and I've got to make sure I'm managing that. And then also, I try to do the best I can, but sometimes people don't react the way I think."

So they're afraid of getting it wrong and sometimes that causes you to do nothing because you're worried you're going to hurt someone. So how do you catch the sign that you might have made a mistake and go about correcting this because this is very human stuff we're talking about?

Dr. Courtney McCluney:

It is. And unfortunately, I don't think people are going to like this answer, but we're all going to make mistakes. Not making a mistake should not hinder people from trying, especially when it comes to inclusion and wellbeing. We cannot afford to have people only engage in this work or seek to improve people's experience if they can get it right because we know making mistakes is going to be an integral part of how we learn, and how it is that we get better.

So I think I want to pull from two folks that I'm thinking about right now, Dr. Laura Morgan Roberts is really big on this idea and concept of grace and I think of it as more than just a spiritual idea. It's something that can actually be integrated into how it is that we work.

She and her colleague Sandra Cha and Stephanie Creary wrote this amazing article on relational fumbles at work and how it is that you are going to fumble when it comes to engaging with a marginalized population, for example. I've certainly fumbled, it's a mistake that we make, but how do we come out of that, do we come out of it graciously and thankful for the learning that could happen? Are we open and receptive to feedback?

I think a lot of our physiological reactions to mistakes and errors are ones that shut us down like, "Oh my gosh, I've said the wrong thing, so I should be silent forever." Or we have two great consequences in our workplace.

Now don't get me wrong, there is a very clear line of what should and should not be tolerated at work unless you're a billionaire and then you can do whatever you want. But for everyone else, there's a clear line where we should not be tolerating certain behaviors or treatments, but everything else after that is very gray.

And I would love to see more organizations engaging in that compassionate behavior so that people feel more comfortable doing what Stephanie Creary calls taking the leap, taking the leap into being a more inclusive and compassionate leader and being someone who cares about individuals' wellbeing.

So some of the ways I think people can start to prepare for that is to get more comfortable being uncomfortable because discomfort is part of the job when you become a leader, especially when you're engaging in these human issues that we're talking about around inclusion, belonging, and wellness.

And the other part is to realize that this is never a one-and-done. This is a new way of existing and working and being at work. So it's never-ending. My hope for everyone is that along the way you learn and evolve and grow. I think about this with, for me, it's physical exercise.

No matter how many times I do it, it still hurts every time and I still feel a little bit of fatigue that comes after it. It's never a point where, man, I just jogged that 10 miles and I feel like I can do 10 more. No, no, no, no. Maybe, maybe not.

So I encourage leaders to not think of it as once I do this one thing I am done, but this thing that I'm doing around being more inclusive and addressing employee wellbeing, it's helping me get stronger. But along with that comes more things I need to learn, and more discomfort that's going to happen along the way. And worrying about whether I get it right or wrong is not helpful. It is anxiety that's not going to help you actually do better and learn how to be better.

So I do hope people embrace that discomfort a little bit more, learn to take that leap and show themselves more grace, and for companies to show more grace too for employees that are trying to be more inclusive and to create more healthy environments.

Beth Almes:

I think that idea of showing grace to others, both to yourself, that you're going to make a mistake as a leader, and as we look to ... I think if, as a leader, you've created an environment where people feel safe to share with you, you have a better chance that people are going to come back to you privately and say, "Hey, that bothered me."

You've created the opening for them and you say, "Oh, I messed it up. I'm going to do it differently next time." But I think if you've taken some of the right steps, you at least have opened the door to feedback so you know when you might be getting it wrong, even if it's unintentional.

And I think people will give you some grace to say, "Hey, I don't think this is what you intended to do, but here's the effect it had on me." It's really such a great thing if people can give you the feedback that's hard.

Dr. Courtney McCluney:

Exactly. And it's so beautiful. That's the parts of human life that I want more of us to experience because that's more real life. It's not you're getting it right all the time. More real life is learning how to have the conflict, learn from it and become better for it, for having gone through that.

Beth Almes:

And that invisible thread we talked about of where you do all these things of you're taking care of folks from a wellness perspective, you're making sure they are included and welcomed, all of that does have such a huge effect on performance. And I think you'll see that really as people blossom on your teams.

And when they can share, here's what's going on and here's what's bothering me about the workplace, personal items as well as they're going to feel comfortable saying, "Hey, I'm worried about the direction of this project. I don't think it's going to work. Or we have a major flaw." Those two things go really well together as we close the loop between all of those things going on in the background and then what's actually happening in performance on your team.

Dr. Courtney McCluney:

Exactly. Exactly.

Beth Almes:

So the last question I have for you is one that I ask all of our guests on the show. Can you share with me a moment of leadership that changed your life for good or for bad, inspirational, or made you say, "Gosh, I will never do that."

Dr. Courtney McCluney:

Yes. I'm thinking about someone who was a leader in my life when I was in my doctoral program. My advisor, Dr. Jacqueline Mattis. So I don't know if anyone's done a Ph.D. program, but it is a very stressful experience, one in which you question your entire existence and whether or not you can actually do this. There's a lot of stress built into it.

And one of the things that she models so beautifully as the leader of our research lab and advising doctoral students was again, showing herself a lot of grace, but also normalizing taking breaks when things aren't working.

So I have a vivid example of working inside of her retreat space that she and her sister founded in New Jersey. So she invited me to come there to write my dissertation. Even though it was meant to be relaxing, it was a little stressful. She was right down the hall. So if I'm ever not working, she could just show up and say, "Hey, what's going on?"

But one of the things that she did in that space, was she saw me getting visibly upset, and actually, it transformed from psychological distress to physical distress. I started to feel sick and she forced me to stop working. Her sister made me this amazing soup and tea and they forced me to go to bed.

And people might not think of that as leadership actually encouraging someone to step away from work, but I think a great leader knows when it is that their employees have ... before they might even get to burnout. You've got to be able to see those signs or to at least understand that this is a lot that you are putting on yourself and that I might be putting on you.

So again, I have control over, for me, when I turned in that dissertation. For other people, it could be we told the client we'd get back to them on this date, I have control over that. Let me adjust so that way my employees aren't burning out.

That, not only made me trust her more in terms of I believe that she has my best interest at heart, that she's not merely concerned about the work itself, but she's also concerned about me as a person and wants me to be whole and happy as I'm doing this work, not regretting it and dreading it and the work itself being associated with all these negative things.

I felt so refreshed that next day I may or may not have had to vomit, but I felt really great afterward. And then it was so easy for me to, as we say, as you were saying before, hey, this is not working, or I think I need a break. And being able to voice those concerns and her being able to ask me because she observed it before, where are you feeling this distress? What aspect of this work is causing your distress? How can I help you work through it?

That is the type of leader that I aspire to be, is someone who can acknowledge the humanity of people who I'm working with or possibly supervising, and encourage them to do something that may seem counter to what my role is as their manager, is actually step away from work for a second and take that break.

I would love to see more managers do that. I think you would have happier workers, more fulfilled workers, and people who at the end of the day trust you. And people don't leave companies when they trust their managers. That is one of the biggest retention factors is how well do I feel that my manager has my best interest at heart and do I trust them that they will help me get this work done.

So I was always and will forever be inspired by her leadership. So thank you Dr. Mattis for your help.

Beth Almes:

That is such a great story. I'm sure you have thought about the flip side too. If they hadn't stepped in to do that, recognize that moment of humanity, the alternative might have been you never finished your dissertation at all, where you said I drop out or I'm too sick to continue.

So without those little saving moments, it might have gone in a different direction. And I don't mean to speak for you, but I just think about that with so many different moments of, if you fail to do that, it can have some pretty serious consequences. So thank you so much for sharing your stories, your expertise, your insight, and your research. We appreciate you being here today on the Leadership 480 Podcast.

Dr. Courtney McCluney:

Thank you so much for having me. I'm excited and I hope all the best for these leaders as you go into making more inclusive, healthy workplaces.

Beth Almes:

And thank you to our listeners who took part of their 480 minutes to be with us today, and we ask that you remember to make every moment of leadership count.

Topics covered in this blog