Pitching Sticky Topics to Management
Updated: Aug 12, 2021
I came back from maternity leave at the end of the Texas summer. After the shortest, 12 weeks of my life, and in the midst of a global pandemic, I packed up my pump supplies and snacks (seriously, I feel like no one warns you about the snacks) and headed back into the office. My first order of business was to address something that had always been important but seemed to have only recently become a main focal point for businesses everywhere - diversity in the workplace. I lead strategy and corporate development at a small aviation firm, am somewhat responsible for bringing this type of stuff to light and am no stranger to dealing with resistance to "bold" ideas.
There were several things working in my favor. Not only was there now a more open conversation about systemic racism nearly everywhere, making it very clear that businesses weren’t doing enough to unwind hundreds of years of oppression, the impact that COVID-19 was having on the economy at the time was (and still is, as I write this article about a year later) disproportionately impacting BIPOC and women, and we had the data to back up the claims.
Like most, my company did not skate through 2020 with ease. There were extreme budget cuts, office space reductions, and multiple rounds of layoffs. Still, the optimist in me concluded that someone needed to be thinking about what changes we would make in preparation for our future rebuilding. I thought I’d start by planting the seed in a monthly meeting that includes senior managers and the executive team.
Days before, I read a great HBR article on the topic which cited a bunch of data from sources like McKinsey & Company. Credible sources, data to back up the claims, statistics on how diverse organizations are more profitable. I prepared a short write-up which summarized the key points of the article, included a couple of the more striking data points and linked the sources.
The meeting went great, everyone was wowed by the statistics an unanimously agreed to make diversity, equality and inclusion practices the norm going forward. NOT.
What was I thinking? Several executives, proceeded to get shockingly defensive, throwing the statistics and sources right back in my face and commenting harshly that the data was from “all you lefties”, that they “don’t see color”, that they simply "hire the most qualified candidate" along with dozens of other comments that reeked of bias and privilege. A total shock to my system after 12 (mostly unpaid) weeks away from this type of meeting setting.
To be clear, while the leadership team at my formal workplace is made up of mostly older, white men (the aviation industry knows it has work to do), I do not believe they intentionally omit or drive away diversity. I also believe those who are not taking actions to proactively improve social injustice, particularly civil rights, racial discrimination and gender inequality, have no room to say things like "I don't see color".
After reflecting on how poorly the information was received, I compiled a list of best practices to help those of us in influential roles push for more DEI practices, or any other potentially sticky topic, more effectively than I had.
What was I thinking? Several executives, proceeded to get shockingly defensive, throwing the statistics and sources right back in my face and commenting harshly that the data was from “all you lefties”, that they “don’t see color”...
Here are 4 key things I would have done differently:
Know your audience. Discussing potentially sensitive topics with your significant other, your friends, your family and your colleagues will typically require a different approach for each. When framing up the conversation at work, first, think through known tendencies of your audience (like frequent interruptions, overtalking, defensiveness, dismissiveness) then consider adjusting tone and word choice. When in doubt, keep tone neutral and say what you mean, without emotion and idioms.
Simple data and visuals. Use a few, meaningful and easy to understand statistics paired with visuals, whenever possible. When presented well, data can be memorable and tends to make the topic resonate better with audience members. If worried about scrutiny of the data or your sources, have some backup sources or statistics available that tell a similar story. (”Oh, you don’t like X source? You might be interested to know that Y published similar data...”)
Make it personal. Tell a personal, relatable story or make a hypothetical one up that directly involves one or more of your audience. Reframing the topic to “hit home” gives the audience a chance to think in 3rd person which helps distance them from the subject. If expecting your points to be met with any level of defensiveness, double down here.
Links to more information. When citing information from another source, the importance of crediting your source goes without saying. Doing this also brings few other benefits like adding credibility to your point while giving your audience the option to go back and review at a later time. This works well when citing your own research too, thanks to technologies like Office 365 and the G-Suite.
Above all else, keep fighting the good fight and don't let one bad board meeting deter you from bringing up topics and ideas at work that will help to positively impact your colleagues, your customers, or your business in general.
Subjects like Diversity, Equality and Inclusion (DEI) and Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance (ESG) can be tougher to bring up in some industries and organizations but they are far too important to ignore. Bring them up, fight hard and use every conversation as a learning opportunity to refine the approach for the next meeting.
How have these four topics worked for you? Anything else not mentioned here that has helped you successfully bring up sticky subjects in the boardroom? Would love to hear about it in the comments or through our contact form.