I’ll be the first to admit: I’ve evangelized proactivity — the idea that good leaders are proactive about culture, ethics and employee engagement. It’s not wrong. Being prepared and setting “tone at the top” from day one is critical. But in our collective focus on proactivity, there’s been an unintended consequence: the dismissal of a well-timed reaction.
Now more than ever, we must make room for reactivity. In the wake of critically important conversations — led by #metoo, #timesup and countless people speaking up about mistreatment in the workplace (especially in the tech world) — we’re seeing a massive shift toward higher expectations and accountability when it comes to ethics.
Leaders are responding with proactive measures, including company-wide conversations, increased employee engagement and even policy changes. That’s all positive. However, it’s also time to be reactive. Responding to an inappropriate comment or questionable behavior can’t just be a behind-closed-doors, HR-facilitated conversation anymore. Sometimes, in-the-moment reactions can make just as much of an impact, if not more than long-term measures.
I’ll share an example from my own experience. I lead a fast-growth tech company. Many of you in the same role know what I mean when I say we’re a group of passionate people, but sometimes passion can result in thoughtless remarks or careless word choice. I was forced to confront that dichotomy recently when a coworker used a gendered slur in the office.
The employee was frustrated with something that happened in the course of work and used the B-word to describe the situation. A few months ago, I would have either spoken with him privately later on or, to be completely honest, let it slide. This time, though, I hesitated. The typical misgivings went through my mind: Is it appropriate to reprimand this person in front of others? Is it a big enough deal to warrant an uncomfortable moment?
But I remembered two of our company values: “open and honest” and “uncomfortable.” I realized that, obviously, this isn’t OK. It’s worth a moment of discomfort to make a lasting impression. We talk about tone at the top, but it has to be more than prepared statements shared at an all-hands meeting. We have to live those values out loud with authentic, in-the-moment reactions. It’s example setting at its most basic.
“Rethink that sentence and try it again,” I said. They did. We moved on. Everyone in earshot noticed.
This is not revolutionary, and I’m not the only person learning this lesson. I’m still learning — every single day — what it takes to be an effective leader amidst ethical transformation. My company creates software that helps hundreds of businesses implement and maintain stronger ethics. Therefore, I’m lucky to have an inside look at how leaders all over the world are learning and evolving in order to build healthy, ethical cultures. We won’t always get it right. But for those of you, like me, who are navigating what it means to be proactive and reactive, one thing I have learned is: Keep your eyes and ears open. Look for those moments where you can truly walk the walk.
Rachel Bitte is chief people officer at Jobvite and has helped build workplace culture at several companies, including Apple and Intuit, throughout her career. She echoes the need for leaders to overcome their fear of confronting issues publicly.
“Especially now, anyone in a position of power should say something in the moment, because everyone is looking to the most senior person in the room to model how to handle tense situations,” Bitte said.
The biggest barrier to speaking up, she said, is often conflict avoidance. Leaders, whether C-level execs or mid-level managers, often get “gun shy.” They don’t want to create more conflict or are uncertain of how exactly to respond. They’re used to giving prepared critical feedback in private.
“Just remember: Conflict can be healthy. It’s not punishment; it’s a coaching moment. Don’t make personal judgments, lecture for too long or get heated. Just state, ‘That’s not OK,’ and talk to them later one-on-one. The worst thing you can do is nothing,” Bitte said.
Bitte experienced this firsthand during a staff meeting once. In this case, it was a fellow senior employee on the conference line who piped up, asking her to share the presentation (which wasn’t hers): “He assumed I’d take on administrative duties by default because our admin was absent. I asked, ‘Why do you assume I’d be sharing the screen — because I’m the only female in the room?’ If you don’t feel right about something, speak up.”
When it comes to making our organizations a more ethical place to work, proactivity will always be the long-term solution, but in-the-moment reactions can make just as big of an impact. Sometimes even more. Keep a level head, be thoughtful about how and when you do it — but do it. Speak up. Don’t just set a tone — set an example.