I received this letter from one of my dear clients and here is the advice I gave her:
Dear Coach Iyabo,
I lead an IT team of 15 core members. We have worked together for years. I am very proud of my team as we are diverse and we work well together. One of my core members was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago. As a team, we supported her and since then, each October for Breast cancer awareness, we fundraise and walk together as a team. We all shaved the hair off our heads when she was undergoing chemo and told our clients about it. We men only wore pink ties for over nine months all in support of her. We received tremendous support from our clients. It was all very open and supportive. During the health crisis, each member of the team stepped up and we were able to exceed all our goals and deliverables including income during that period. That is how well we work together.
Recently, another newer team member informed me that she would need some time off to undergo the various medical treatments as she was diagnosed with breast cancer as well. This person has a totally different personality. She is much more introverted. She is not as forthcoming with personal information but she does excellent work. She is a valued member of the team as she is the most qualified member of our team. This woman meets and exceeds all goals. However, she does not want me disclosing anything about her situation to anyone else. I feel very awkward about all of this as she is one of three women on our team and she is the only African American.
She is entitled to her privacy but I want to support her and let her know that the entire team is behind her. In addition, the team has to have some understanding of her absence in order to step in and support her. I would love a repeat of last time, as it was a wonderful way for the team to bond and the positive effects lasted a long time. I am wondering why she does not feel as if she is a full-fledged member of the team.
What do I address with her and how do I have this uncomfortable conversation?
Awkward in Chicago.
I responded below:
Dear Awkward in Chicago,
First, thank you. Thank you for being sensitive enough to realize that there are a lot of subtleties going on here. And thank you for wanting to be brave and courageous enough to address the issue. I appreciate your sensitivity to the fact that both women have different personalities. I love that you want to address this issue. You have a great balance between getting the job done and caring for your people and this is a significant hallmark of great leadership.
If I were in your shoes, I would do the following:
I would first examine my own thoughts around gender and race. I would try and get that this is not about me. The only focus is this woman who is fighting for her life. For women, our breasts are part of what make us different from men. This cancer is not only attacking a bodily part for the woman, it is also attacking her femininity. I am sure she feels mighty vulnerable right now. In addition, as a black woman, she has gotten the message repeatedly that she has to be “strong” which means “suck it up” and “do not show weakness.” It also means failure is not an option.
What you may not be getting is that cancer means sickness, but to this particular woman, cancer may also mean failure. Be aware of that. You may not see it as failure, but she obviously takes pride in her work and if cancer gets in the way, then she probably fears for her job security.
Once you examine yourself, then, I suggest you do the following:
- Set up the space: Take her out to lunch and talk about yourself. Yes, yourself. Talk about your family, your kids, where you grew up, and, this is critical, some of your failures. Especially some of your failures. Check your body language when you are talking to her. Look her in the eye. If possible, remove any barriers that are between you and her physically, such as a table. Lean into her. In short, treat her like the human that she is. Let her know that you see her, you are engaged with her and she is important to you.
- Model behavior: Then, be vulnerable. Tell her about the other employee and how you want to support her in the same way. She may not know that the team is capable of all that support. Tell her how much you value her as a person and not just because she does damn good work. Name your fear. Tell her that you are afraid of offending her and how uncomfortable it feels to push up against her privacy. Leave questions hanging in the air. It is ok to say things like, “I don’t know how to do this.” “I hope I am not messing up right now.” “I do not want to add to your stress right now but I just have to ask.” Admit that the “C” word is scary to you. If anyone in your family has ever had cancer, admit it and tell her. In other words, talk from your humanity. Eyeball to eyeball. Not as her boss.
- Discover her needs: Ask her what she needs. Do not infer her needs. Ask her questions like, “What would support look like for you right now? How long is chemo? Who is taking you to your chemo appointments? Do you have friends and family outside of work that are willing to support you? Have you ever gone through anything like this before? Ask her, “how can we, as a team, PARTNER with you in this process? (Yes, I am yelling the word “partner.”)
- Show her your plan: Explain to her how her job will be covered. Explain to her how the rest of the team is going to be stepping in because she is part of the team. Use this as an opportunity to remind her of her value to the team. Tell her you want her healthy and you do not want her worrying about her job or her performance. Let her know she will have her job when she gets back. Even if she is giving you definite dates about returning to work, give her the flexibility she needs. And make sure you deliver.
- Shut up: Allow for uncomfortable silence for her to absorb all you have said. This is not about you. It is now about her. Make sure you are observing her throughout this time. Do not be surprised if she cries. Allow her. Find a tissue. Don’t touch her to comfort her unless you ask first!! You know this. Be present for her in silence.
- Make a request: After the silence, ask her if she has any questions of you. Then tell her how you want the whole team to support her because you know for a fact that they are capable of such. Invite her into a reciprocal relationship with the team by informing her that the team would feel so much better about stepping up if they knew what she was going through.
- Affirm her: Let her know that she is a valuable member of the team regardless of what she chooses to do. Affirm to her that you are fine with whatever she chooses to do. Invite her to keep you informed of her process and remind her that you are there for her.
Most of all, be ok with anything she says and does. This is about her and not about you.
That is how you have a brave conversation. You do it from a place of empathy towards the other person, not towards your own discomfort.
Now, let me add a little bit to all of that.
A woman experiences work differently than a man. A black woman experiences work differently than a white woman. A parent experiences work differently than a single person. Not only are there individual differences, there are gender and racial differences. I can tell you that many black women do not feel that work is a supportive place. Often, we feel that we have to come to work to perform and that we have to outperform everyone else to get equal respect. You may not want to hear that, but that is the general consensus among black women in America.
Therefore, any form of illness, which affects our performance, becomes a liability that we cannot afford to disclose because we cannot afford to be perceived of as weak. You may not want to hear it but that is the truth.
You have to intentionally create a culture on your team that is sensitive to her unique reality and not just your assumptions about her reality. As team leader, you constantly have to be aware of the differences in culture that exist on your team.
Support looks different in different cultures. Asking the awkward questions and being uncomfortable in discovering what your team member needs shows that you are a great leader.
You ask why she does not feel as if she is a full-fledged member of the team? Have you truly made her feel that she is part of the team by including her as a person on the team? Not just her great skills? This is a wonderful opportunity for you to show her that you want all of her to be part of the team.
My hope is that you will embrace any discomfort you have around gender and race and prove to her that she is valuable to your team.
In solidarity with you for overcoming subtle gender and racial issues that exist on your team,