Day One of the 2018 SHRM Diversity & Inclusion Conference began with a keynote address from Brandon Stanton, creator of the wildly popular (it reaches 25 million people) blog, Humans of New York. I’m a fan of the site because I like hearing/reading people’s stories. Everyone has one. I care about people so it would follow that I care about their stories.
If you’re not familiar with Humans of New York, Brandon travels the world taking photos of people and on the site he shares those photos along with some part of their story. As he discussed how he is able to accomplish this, something he said really resonated with me as an HR professional. He said one of the questions he is often asked is “How do you get people to talk?” After all, these people do not know him, they have no previous relationship with him, yet they often share intimate details of their lives with him. His response – “I just ask.”
He followed up noting the importance of getting to a place where a person is examining and unpacking an emotional, impactful part of their life. It involves intent listening, asking follow-up questions and not thinking about himself or having an agenda. This reminded me of what HR professionals are charged with doing when an employee comes to us with an issue/concern. Before we can address the concern, we need to know what it is and what’s behind it. Just as Brandon does with his photo subjects, we need to listen intently and ask follow-up questions without having an agenda. We need to make the individual feel safe enough to share with us. Psychological safety is a key component of inclusion.
The first question Brandon usually asks a person is “What is your greatest struggle right now?” I immediately thought of how helpful it would be to HR professionals to know the answer to this question when speaking with an employee who has a concern. Actually, it would be good for us to know even if they aren’t having an issue. Understanding what people are experiencing is critical to developing and maintaining an inclusive culture. People are often reluctant to talk out of fear of being exposed; however, they will also have a deep appreciation for being listened to and having their concerns validated. At the end of the day, validation outweighs fear. Ask (with genuine concern) and you will probably receive the answer. People have an innate desire to be heard and understood. PRO TIP: Employees are people.
Another comment that resonated with me was “The world is all about sharing right now; but we’re really not listening.” Between work life, home life, social life, social media, etc., the world is full of noise. Full of it. We hear a lot; but we actually listen to very little. This also relates directly to our roles in HR. On any given day we hear a lot of information and we have to make sure that we take the time to listen to what’s critical, particularly employee concerns and complaints. Not only do we need to listen but we need to ask the right questions, follow-up and check-in. We need to have open lines of communication. To do this effectively, we need to ensure people feel safe enough to be vulnerable.
“Safety is about intent; not content. Learn to monitor and manage safety and you can talk to anyone about anything.” – Emily Gregory, VitalSmarts