Skill of Speaking Up: Responsible Conflict Resolution Technique, Part II


In the previous post on the Skill of Speaking Up, a Responsible Conflict Resolution Technique, I described a case in which Yolanda, a new Latina staff member, made a suggestion at a staff meeting on how to increase their sales. She noted that she liked to spend time in small talk and relationship building before launching into the sales pitch. Jim, her White male colleague, dismissed her statement by responding, “I disagree completely. People want you to get to the point and not waste their time. All that small talk and personal stuff is so Hispanic.”

Josh, a coworker, spoke up responsibly using the three guidelines provided in the post. Not surprisingly, Jim took offense and countered to Josh, “Are you implying I’m racist?”

Jim graciously accepted Josh’s implicit disclaimer that he meant no harm, albeit acknowledging that he felt confused about what had happened. They all then went back to the meeting agenda.

That was the gist of the post. To read the full post, click here.

What happens after you speak up responsibly?

In the comments section to the post, Carole Marmell, a friend and reader, posed this thoughtful comment:

I’m still uncomfortable with the response. Granted, there needs to be some immediate feedback to get back on an even keel, but I believe the group also needs to process the negative impact of Jim’s statement. As stated here, Jim only knows that Josh didn’t like what he said; he has no real idea why, or why his statement was inappropriate.
I agree about avoiding confrontation and name-calling. Still, this feels like a fragment, a first step toward addressing a major issue.

I basically agree with Carole.  More is needed. This is why I decided to address the aftermath to speaking up responsibly here in this separate post.  There are two principles here that serve as my guidelines for what to do after speaking up:

  1. Celebrate small wins
  2. Trust the process [to produce another teachable moment]

Celebrate small wins

The first is to celebrate any small wins. I love this concept. Jean Ramsey and I talk about it extensively in Chapter 7 of Reframing Change. The idea is that change doesn’t happen all at once. It occurs step-by-step, sometimes tiny-step-by-tiny-step.

Josh has done a wonderful deed for the staff and Yolanda. He let the staff know that offensive comments won’t go unchallenged, thereby setting a norm for the group that may not have been there before. He also let Yolanda know that she was not alone. Someone would stand with her if she were unfairly singled out.

Those are two small wins on the long path toward establishing an inclusive, respectful workplace. They should be heralded as such and if I had been Josh’s colleague, I would have let him know I appreciated his intervention.

But Carole is asking, does it end there?  Does Jim know what he did wrong? Is there a major issue that needs to be addressed at some point and if so how?

Trust the process [to produce another  teachable moment]

This leads to the next principle:  Trust the process. As long as we stay focused on the long-term goal — in this case, an inclusive workplace — then things will evolve to create opportunities for the issue to be brought to the forefront again and again. Each new time is another opportunity to speak up responsibly and produce yet another small win.

Josh doesn’t have to settle the issue once and for all in this one meeting.  In the first place, he can’t. Attitudinal change doesn’t occur in one sitting. If offensive comments are the norm in the organization, they will occur again.

Now stopping the meeting to process the issue is possible in some work cultures.  However, judging from Jim’s quick defense, I wouldn’t guess that’s the case in this particular work group. Trusting the process is a longer term strategy.

Josh can trust the process enough to know that offensive comments will keep showing up as long as they are part of the culture, providing him and others with fresh new material to speak up about. So, Josh (and others in his workgroup who want a more respectful, inclusive work environment) can just wait for the more teachable moments to show up and then speak up responsibly each and every time.  If they are diligent about this, eventually, a new norm will evolve: in this company, we treat one another with respect.

What if I want change now?

Promoting change through small wins, trusting the process, and pouncing on each teachable moment requires patience. If we want change now, then it’s really hard to be disciplined about this.

And, of course, if you really think you cannot wait for the process to evolve, then you will want to get more proactive about it. You may ask the manager to have a meeting to discuss it, or you can ask for a leadership or diversity consultant to be brought in to facilitate addressing the issue (Yes, we at Leading Consciously would be happy to discuss how we might approach your particular work situation.)

It’s up to all of us

Yesterday, I attended a luncheon where awards were given by the Anti-Defamation League-Southwest “to educators for their outstanding efforts to create an atmosphere in their schools that rejects prejudice and promotes respect for and understanding of diversity in their classrooms and on their campuses.”

Students from a Houston area school put on a skit about a young girl who had been targeted for bullying by a classmate while the other classmates silently stood by, lamenting that they should have spoken up but didn’t. The message was clear: it’s up to all of us to stop bullying and exclusion.

Whether you get external support or go it alone, you can still act on the guidelines for speaking up responsibly in the moment when you witness someone being unfairly targeted. Afterwards, you can decide to either take further action or to trust the process, continue acting on teachable moments, and celebrate any small wins along the way.

Reference:  Reframing Change:  How to deal with workplace dynamics, influence others, and bring people together to initiate positive change


1. What do you think about the principle of small wins? of trusting the opposition to create the teachable moment?

2. What about you?  How do you approach bringing about culture change in situations where you are not overtly in charge?

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