Defensiveness Is Derailing Efforts to Fix Workplace Discrimination 

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Feb 11, 2021

There’s evidence aplenty of workplace discrimination, from microaggressions to firings (e.g., Google’s dismissing Timnit Gebru, one of their most prominent Black female employees).

But when evidence of workplace discrimination is presented to leaders, the vast majority get defensive. And many leaders even seek to punish those who raise concerns.

In a recent study “Many Leaders Don’t Want To Hear About Discrimination In The Workplace,” Leadership IQ surveyed 5,778 people and made some disturbing discoveries.

Only 29% of employees say that management at their organization always listens to employee concerns about discrimination without blame or defensiveness. As bad as that is, it gets worse:

  • 25% of women feel that management listens to workplace discrimination concerns without blame or defensiveness, while that number is 38% for men. 
  • 1 in 10 Black employees feel that management always listens to concerns about discrimination in the workplace without getting defensive, while white employees are approximately 250% more likely to feel that management always listens without defensiveness.
  • 4 in 10 white men feel that management always listens to their concerns, but only 1 in 10 Black women feel that management listens without blame or defensiveness.

Not only is defensiveness rampant, but so too is fear of retribution. While 53% of white men feel they can always report concerns about discrimination without causing problems for themselves, only 7% of Black women feel similarly.

There are obviously myriad systemic factors that drive discrimination in the workplace, but the study makes clear that there are also interpersonal ones, namely a leader’s ability to listen to concerns without blame or defensiveness.

Listening without defensiveness, thankfully, is a skill that can actually be taught. One of the keys is that you, the listener, don’t get to be the judge of whether you’ve listened effectively. Rather, the person doing the talking (e.g., an employee expressing concerns about discrimination) is the adjudicator. Nearly everyone thinks they’re good listeners. But when we ask the person doing the talking whether their message was really heard, the results are dismal.

So here’s a simple technique: Confirm that you heard what the other person just said and corroborate that you understood the individual correctly. This is really as simple as following this three-step process:

Step 1: Say, “I want to make sure I really understand what you’re saying.”

Step 2: Restate what you heard them say.

Step 3: Say, “Did I get that right?”

While much of the active-listening training over the past few decades has focused on the first two steps, when it comes to hearing uncomfortable messages (like discrimination concerns), it’s the third step that matters most.

We haven’t listened without blame and defensiveness until the other person says, “yes, you got it right.” And if they say, “no, that’s wrong” or “you completely missed the point,” then we need to say, “I’m sorry I got it wrong. Would you share again? I really want to understand your perspective.”

Imagine that one of your top Black female employees calls you and says, “You rejected my latest research report, and you’re holding my document to a higher standard than you would for a white employee.” (This is what Google was alleged to have done with Dr. Timnit Gebru, the co-leader of their Ethical AI team).

Rather than immediately respond with, “I most certainly did not!” or some other defensive response,  well-trained leader will say, “I want to make sure I really understand what you’re saying. Can I restate what I think I heard you say?”

And then, after actually restating what we heard them say, we’ll ask for confirmation; “Did I get that right?”

If there’s even a hint of defensiveness in our response, the employee will say, “No, that’s not what I’m saying!” Faced with that giant sign that we’ve messed up, we’ll say, “I’m sorry, can I try this again?”

Listening without defensiveness isn’t easy, and if we’re talking about something that makes us uncomfortable, we’re likely going to need a few rounds before we’ve heard someone correctly.

Yet once we’ve done the listening, we can then start to take real action. Speaking of, I know it seems like I’m neglecting the action-taking stage, but the reality is that one of the major reasons that companies and leaders aren’t acting to eradicate workplace discrimination is that they can’t even get past the part where they listen without blame or defensiveness.

But if we can get every leader to test whether they’ve successfully heard the concerns about workplace discrimination, we might be able to create enough understanding to force some deep and meaningful change.

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