What we think we know about a person is often just the tip of an iceberg. Just as we see only a small percentage of an iceberg above the waterline, we see only a fraction of who our colleagues are at work. Most of what makes a person tick remains largely unseen. But understanding these hidden histories, talents and characteristics is essential to building an inclusive workplace. It’s easier to treat others with respect, acceptance and appreciation if you have a more complete view of who they are.
If people were all open books and we had easy access to all of the “buried treasure” of their opinions, past experiences, out-of-left-field new ideas and personal motivators, managers could better tap the talents of their employees. It’s up to a good leader to create an environment where team members feel safe enough to let their real selves rise to the surface.
Practice Respectful Curiosity
Asking good questions is key. I loved reading Brian Grazer and Charles Fishman’s book, A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life. In the book, film and television producer Brian Grazer describes a strategy he uses to create his inspired creations (think A Beautiful Mind, Empire and 24). Each week, Grazer has scheduled “curiosity conversations” with strangers who are experts in their fields. He just sits and talks with them. Out of new and unexpected knowledge, he produces art.
The takeaway? Inquisitiveness informs and inspires us.
You are already working with your team members to acquire this type of understanding. But what I’m focusing on here are the small moments you can capitalize on daily. Your colleagues are constantly lofting “softballs” of insight in your path, telling you what they care about. Listen for those little gifts they give you and ask a respectful follow-up question to learn more about them.
Curious Conversations Are Ice Breakers
Here are a few examples of opportunities to get below the waterline with your team.
Opportunity: “This weekend I’m going to my high school reunion.”
Ice Breaker: “What did you do in high school that led you to this kind of work? Were you always interested in technology/writing/finance?”
Opportunity: “One of my kids has been having some challenges in school.”
Ice Breaker: “Being a parent is really the hardest job in the world, isn’t it? How can I be more supportive of your attempts at work life integration?”
Opportunity: “I just got back from the Partner Networking Meeting.”
Ice Breaker: “I’m so happy you are engaged in our inclusion work. Would you be willing to do a short recap of the work your group has been doing at our next staff meeting?
Opportunity: “I didn’t speak up much in the meeting just now, but wanted to let you know that I’m totally supportive of the plan you announced.”
Ice Breaker: “I appreciate you letting me know that! Sometimes the more extroverted people on the team can dominate our conversation. Do you have any suggestions for how I can solicit more contributions from quieter team members?”
You don’t have to grill your employees or colleagues in order to get to know them. Listen to what they tell you with an open mind and follow up on the input they offer. You’ll begin to better understand the people with whom you work and what they have to give.