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Inclusive Communication: What are YOU Saying?

Maya Angelou once said, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”

Her words came home to roost for me this past week when I posted on LinkedIn about a course I had taken called, “How to become an Anti-Racist Leader.” I wrote,

“So often these courses can be scary for White people – we are often afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing or become defensive because we don’t want to be accused of being a racist…If you are White leader who wants to be part of the solution, [here is information on the course]…”

Take a moment to look at those sentences. Notice anything wrong? I didn’t, either. But thanks to the wise and kind guidance of  JinJa Birkenbeuel, I now know better. JinJa, a business owner that helps global brands with their branding and messaging around diversity, equity and inclusion, privately messaged me and explained that capitalizing the “W” in the word “White” is making a statement that could be construed as “White Power” to a Black person.

I had mistakenly believed that given the AP’s announcement that it will begin capitalizing the “B” in Black, it made sense to capitalize the “W” in White. After hearing from JinJa, I Googled the “W” and was taken aback when I learned that by capitalizing it, it could be construed that I was reinforcing White supremacist beliefs…oh, the irony!

But the conversation didn’t end there. JinJa and I continued our discussion over email where she shared the perspective of Eve L. Ewing, a Black scholar who studies race, on why she choses to capitalize the “W”. Her rationale is as follows:

“When we ignore the specificity and significance of Whiteness — the things that it is, the things that it does — we contribute to its seeming neutrality and thereby grant it power to maintain its invisibility.”

If we capitalize Black and Asian and Latinx, but don’t capitalize White, then White becomes the default, the foundation from which everything is compared against. That does not align with my beliefs and my vision of a truly inclusive society. It’s been a learning journey, but I’ve decided to capitalize the “W” when I refer to White people. Yes, I risk coming across as racist to some people, but my decision is informed and intentional.

That’s what leaders do.

We have the courage to try, we listen and learn from our mistakes, and then we make decisions based on what is aligned with our beliefs. In this time when so much is confusing and feels uncertain, it can be hard to know what is the right thing to say or even do. This can lead us to be afraid to engage in difficult or risky conversations. But when you don’t take the risk, you don’t learn. You can’t do better because you don’t know better.

That’s not leading, that’s following.

Building an inclusive culture takes courage and intentionality, especially when your team is not collocated. If you’re leading a remote team, if you are trying to stay connected to colleagues around the globe, or if you’re just trying to make sure what you’re saying is conveyed as you mean it, here are a few tips from the PrismWork collaborators to help you navigate the new normal:

Selected Best Practices for Inclusive Team Communication:

  • Optimize Communication Tools: Understand what tool makes the most sense for which communication opportunity. Ask yourself, is this a synchronous or asynchronous opportunity to communicate? Here is our What to Use When guide culled from the best practices of leading companies.
  • Set Meeting and Thinking Time: Agree upon set “meeting” hours and “deep thinking” hours. For example, at PrismWork, we don’t hold meetings before 10:30am. This gives our team time to do deep thinking work to develop innovative ideas that grow our business. It also creates space to ensure we can care for family issues or exercise or do whatever self care we need to thrive.
  • Establish CARES hours: San Francisco-based AnswerLab has provided all employees with five Cares hours per week. These can be used for anything an employee chooses, including working out, child learning, community outreach, etc. Cares hours are sacred and meetings cannot be booked on top of this scheduled time. 
  • Increase the Frequency of All Hands Meetings: Many of the companies we work with have moved to more frequent company All Hands meetings. The vast majority are holding meetings two times per month, rather than once a month or once a quarter. When we are all isolated and can’t be together, more regular chances to be together, even online, is critical to continue to support and build your culture.
  • Expand the Content of All Hands Meetings: Poll your employees to better understand the types of information they may be interested in hearing about–the results might be surprising. For example, New York-based Madison Logic found employees were seeking more information about stress management, personal finance, and effective collaboration. As a result of this feedback, they invited outside experts to their All Hands agendas. 

When it comes to being an inclusive communicator, remember we’re not going to get it right all of the time. We probably aren’t going to get it right most of the time. But trying, failing, learning, and doing better the next time, that is the essence of a 21st century leader.

Be well, stay well, lead on.


Lisen Stromberg

Lisen Stromberg is the CEO and founder of PrismWork and a 2GO Advisory Group consultant. She is a workplace culture innovation and leadership expert who works with clients to help them build next-in-class 21st century cultures with the future-forward leaders their company needs to succeed. As an award-winning independent journalist, her work can be found in The New York Times, Fortune, Newsweek, and other top media outlets. Her book, Work Pause Thrive: How to Pause for Parenthood Without Killing Your Career, reveals how trailblazing women disrupted the traditional career paradigm to achieve their personal and professional goals and how forward-thinking companies create workplaces that enable women to thrive.

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