Managers: How to be an ally and build an inclusive team

Over my years at Elastic, I’ve found myself privileged to be part of a number of different conversations around diversity, equity, and inclusion, starting with the Women of Elastic breakfasts at some of our oldest user conferences. Those meetups turned out to be just the start of a small snowball headed down a big hill, and have led to all kinds of wonderful diversity initiatives all throughout the company.

In the Business Technology team, we have worked hard to create a diverse team featuring multiple women in leadership roles, people of color, individuals who are not neurotypical, folks who struggle with mental health, and individuals who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community. As a white, cisgender woman living the single life, I don’t always have shared experiences in each of these spaces, but I have found that the best way I can help sustain a diverse team is by being an ally, and I've become an ally by being intentional and curious about the experiences of my teammates. I’d like to share what that’s meant to me as a manager.

Step back. See people for their full set of experiences.

At the end of the day, all of us have experienced what it feels like to be excluded. Everyone knows what it’s like to have that skin-crawling feeling when someone else is talking about you instead of with you. We’ve all felt the pain of being lumped into a generalization, when what our lives really feel like under pressure is something like standing at the intersection of several different disasters and having a hard time teasing out which specific one is most responsible for today’s challenges. 

Intersectionality” is a big, scary word that often gets thrown around devoid of its context. As a manager, one of the biggest takeaways is this: when someone on your team is experiencing a challenge or a trauma, and their problem happens to be at the intersection of more than one factor of their life, focusing on the precise mix of factors instead of the experience of the problem itself isn’t helpful in resolving the pain of the experience.

For instance, I’m writing this blog post as a woman in technology while my parents are living with me in my home until theirs can be made more accessible for their circumstances. At the same time, a project I’ve spent well over a year on is in post-deployment hypercare, with activity levels at all-time highs. 

In my circumstances, it’s not helpful to ask me if I’m being hit by the women in technology bus or the American healthcare bus today. I’m in the middle of an accident in the middle of an intersection. I just need help. My challenges aren’t just because I’m a woman, or just because my family is learning the landscape of certain healthcare and accessibility challenges. Instead, the problems I face are based on the combination of my lived experiences, and sometimes they compound depending on what those experiences are.

Listen. Meet people where they are.

Building a truly diverse team means acknowledging that underrepresented communities in tech have a long history of being left out while others quibble over the details. Meeting your teammates where they are mitigates the risk of trying to shoehorn their experiences into your worldview, and studies have shown time and time again that diverse, safe teams deliver far greater results.

Several years ago, I learned that one of the principles of therapy isn’t to qualify what someone tells you, but to meet them where they are and engage with their experiences. If someone said to me tomorrow, “I don’t feel safe as a LGBTQ+ person,” I wouldn’t qualify that by saying, “Why do you think that?” Rather, I would ask, “What is it like to not feel safe?”

It takes practice to set yourself aside — your assumptions, your biases, your background — while someone else is talking to you about an experience that you haven’t had, without questioning those experiences directly. It’s a subtle shift to meet people where they are. Accepting how they tell stories about themselves at face value. Asking how it feels, instead of immediately digging in for evidence that fits your worldview or suggesting they change and conform. But if you can manage it, you will be rewarded beyond measure: the professional relationships (and friendships) you will build on this basis will be richer for your willingness to dive in and relate.

Take time to understand. Don’t look for an immediate fix.

The next time someone comes to you with a challenge, especially if it’s from their personal experience, don’t immediately reach for evidence or a fix. Sit with them. Ask what it’s like. Put on their shoes for a minute. Then assume what they’re telling you is correct to them and go out into the world with your strengths, your power, and your privilege, and look what you can do to make things just a little bit better for that person who’s not like you today.

If you’re looking for a way to be a better ally and a better manager, there’s no better habit to start to practice than to be willing to be with someone. Give them, and yourself, the gift of open, healing hands. Meet them where they are — at the intersection.

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