Do you ever get nervous about accidentally saying something that might offend one of your coworkers? Or misgendering a potential client by using the wrong pronoun? You aren’t alone.
Kenji Yoshino and David Glasgow, who together run New York University School of Law’s Meltzer Center of Diversity, have noticed a rising concern among managers in recent years: saying the wrong thing. In their new book, Say The Right Thing: How to Talk About Identity, Diversity and Justice, they guide business leaders through tough modern conversations.
Yoshino shared some advice with b. on how to build an inclusive culture — and how to talk about it.
Strive to be a “good-ish” person
The first step to making progress is to let go of the idea that you’re automatically a “good” person for being an ally to marginalized communities or a “bad” person for making a hurtful mistake.
“These binary terms of either being good or bad is really dangerous because if you don’t make a mistake as a good person, you’re complacent,” Yoshino said. “If [people] do make a mistake … they’re really worried about getting pushed into the ‘bad person’ category.”
By acknowledging that mistakes are integral to growth, Yoshino believes that workers are more willing to rethink their behavior instead of simply getting defensive.
Coach, don’t cancel
On that note, Yoshino believes society needs to “hit the pause button” on cancel culture.
“If you talk to the individuals who have turned on DNI (diversity and inclusion), more often than not, they can tell you some kind of villain origin story where someone came down on them too hard or unfairly,” Yoshino said. “That can turn them from either being neutral or even positively inclined toward DNI to actually being very negative.”
Yoshino thinks organizations should move toward more of a “coaching culture” where the ultimate goal is understanding, not punishment.
“We don’t regard compassion and accountability to be at odds with each other,” said Yoshino. “Having that kind of self-compassion that says, ‘I allow myself to make mistakes,’ is going to allow us to grow past that.”
Learn to (authentically) apologize
Inevitably, there will be times when you mess up, but the important thing is often how you handle it.
“Our instinct is to both apologize but also protect ourselves,” Yoshino said. “When you try to split the difference in an apology, it doesn’t serve the act of genuinely apologizing or the act of protecting yourself.”
In the book, Yoshino and Glasgow recommend avoiding phrases such as “if I did it, I’m sorry” or “I’m sorry, but…” Instead, acknowledge your mistake forthrightly and take tangible steps to repair the damage. After all, actions speak louder than words.
Say the Right Thing is available now.