The Sum — The Meaning of This Week by Gloria Feldt

Issue 14 — September 1, 2017

“The first responsibility of leadership is the creation of meaning.” — Warren Bennis.

Welcome to The Sum, where I share my take on the meaning of sum of the week’s parts. I want your voice too. Leave comments here or @GloriaFeldt

Word of the week is LOVE.

As in what matters when your house is flooded.

As in the secret to dealing with hate speech at work.

As in the human capacity to rise higher than Harvey’s waters and help each other.

What matters

Suddenly we were overtaken by Hurricane Harvey, relentlessly pummeling the eastern coast of Texas, then fanning out to Louisiana. It was all I could think about. My son and daughter-in-law and their two sons live in Sugar Land, a suburb of Houston, and I have many cousins and friends in the area.

The media’s saturation coverage — can’t help the water allusions — meant that no one could escape Harvey’s wrath emotionally even if we weren’t there physically. Who among us didn’t feel for the people who lost their homes or worse, their lives or loved ones?

Thank goodness for Facebook and other social media that allowed us to stay in touch. Over and over we heard “Houses can be rebuilt. What matters is that those we love are safe.”

Against the backdrop of worry and stress over a natural disaster, we also saw the best of the human capacity for kindness and selflessness and loving thy neighbor enough to risk your own life and limb to rescue her.

Dealing with hate speech at work can feel like trying to fight a hurricane

It felt surreal to be pulled back into last week’s debates about hate speech. Yet, on reflection I realized the unifying theme is love.

I was interviewed by Salon’s Alli Joseph on how to handle hate speech in the workplace. Take The Lead’s editorial director Michele Weldon had written a helpful piece on the subject this week sparking a lot of thoughtful dialogue. Here’s the video if you care to catch the whole conversation, which ended up being fairly far-reaching.

Though my mind wasn’t completely there with Alli, I did give some tips from my own experience. For Individual employees:

1. Know who you are and what your values are. Don’t let fear keep you from employing my leadership Power Tool 2: define your own terms first before someone else defines you. Know that someone else’s hateful comments are never about you — they’re always about them.

2. Don’t be paranoid but do be clear eyed. As the airport signs say, if you see something say something. Make sure you know company policies and how to use them productively. Try to distinguish (it isn’t easy and it is often murky but making judgments and choices is what life is about) between a co-worker’s speech that is merely offensive or annoying, speech that is harassment, and hate speech that can incite violence and create a hostile climate.

3. Build yourself a mini movement. That’s Power Tool 7: Reach out. Align yourself with others who share your view. Don’t isolate yourself. That will shore you up for the moment when you have to contend with harassment or hate speech.

4. My personal first line is offense, speaking directly to the party. You’ll be amazed how much hate speech is either sheer stupidity or the kind of bullying behavior that masks insecurities. Ask if they know what they just said and how it impacts others. Stay dispassionate. And if you have colleagues who share your perspective, and who have the courage to join you in having uncomfortable conversations without attacking the offending person, you might be able to break through his (sorry guys but it is usually a male), defenses and get a chance to help him heal from whatever emotional wounds have caused his bad behavior. Love can sometimes conquer hate. And even if it doesn’t change the other person, you will be better off for experiencing a positive emotion than a negative one.

5. If the behavior continues, use the company policies. If that fails, know the law and use it. My free speech rights stop at your nose.

6. Document everything. Do not cry wolf. Help the company do the right thing.

If you are the CEO or in any leadership position, your job is first to create a culture of inclusion overtly and proactively. Declare your intention and expectations. Act symbolically on them too. The art in your office, the people you hire and have lunch with, who speaks at company conferences. It all adds up. Practice respectful speech to all. Blog about it or use whatever thought leadership medium that works for you.

If there’s a flare up, listen to everyone then deal with it swiftly, decisively and transparently. Talk about what happened afterward to further cement expectations for the future. Even problems are opportunities to improve and to teach.

Be clear about where you stand. You’ll be criticized one way or the other. Might as well be on the positive side of history.

ASU president Michael Crow said it flat out likening those who today oppose hate speech to abolitionists during the Civil War: “We’re going to abolish not slavery — we’re going to abolish all notions of not equal…And when it’s gone I can guarantee you we will have a better chance at a greater and more wholesome society.”

It takes the same leadership skills to call people to their higher selves as to their basest instincts. Be the kind of leader about whom others will say you made them a better person.

Which brings me back to the amazing human capacity to rise higher than Harvey’s waters, buoyed by love

From the neighbors who formed a human chain to rescue a woman in labor from the floodwaters to the mattress store that became a shelter, to the many acts of heroism and kindness documented day after weary day, you have to wonder why when love is so powerful anyone would resort to hate speech or acts.

My family is fortunate. We have what matters — the safety of those we love. Thanks, all of you who checked in to ask. I hope that if you or your loved ones were in Harvey’s path that you and they too are safe and encircled by love.

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Gloria Feldt is a New York Times bestselling author and co-founder and president of Take The Lead, a nonprofit women’s leadership organization.