February 17, 2022

Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Every February, the U.S. honors the contributions and sacrifices of African Americans who have helped shape the nation. Why? Because Black History IS American History.

The Association for the Study of African American Life and History designates a new theme for Black History Month each year in keeping with the practice that Carter G. Woodson the “father of Black history” established. This year’s theme? Black Health and Wellness. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: health is wealth!

However, growing up I’d always been passive about the doctors I entrusted with my care. For the first 18 years, I went with whoever my mother chose since I was on her insurance and trusted her judgment. That progressed to seeing whoever was in-network and close enough to campus so I could catch the bus since I didn’t have a car. But, I always found that even if they were nice, I was uncomfortable speaking up when I had a question or concern. What was it that made me feel so uncomfortable? Was it the countless times I felt embarrassed about expressing back pain for years while being dismissed by doctors always told it was weight-related (only to find out years later I had a curved spine?) In addition to the fact that I only interacted with people who looked like me as they were checking me in? I felt lucky when someone whose complexion matched mine entered the room even if it was only to take my vitals, right before they left to make space for the white doctor. Or the fact that the appointment was shorter than the time I spent in a Chik-fil-A drive-thru.

As I reflected I realized I had been uncomfortable and alone for so long because I was working with all but a few doctors who barely paid me any mind as I advocated for the necessary and against the unnecessary procedures. Just because I can tolerate a lot of pain doesn’t mean I want to be subjected to it. What I later came to realize, was that I wasn’t totally helpless and that I had a say in the matter.

So, when I moved to Louisiana in 2019, I decided to find a black primary care doctor, a black therapist, and I’m that much better because of it. As a result, I’m comfortable asking questions when I don’t understand something that was said without feeling judged. I make requests for referrals without feeling like a burden, and I follow up for clarity without feeling dumb. I’m met with compassion, understanding, and validation. Covid-19 came with many lessons. The most important one for me is to take my health into my own hands – by being proactive, listening to my body, and ensuring those whom I entrust with my care value my words, feelings, and opinions. I want that for all of us. You may not understand or relate to my experience, that doesn’t make it any less real.

So as a leader how can you get comfortable with being a little bit uncomfortable as you listen to, learn from, celebrate, elevate, and uplift the underrepresented employees that work with you, so they don’t get fed up and leave?

Recognize that there’s work to be done and make a conscious decision to do it – plain and simple.

Ask your team members what areas can be improved in a safe manner where they won’t feel like there will be retaliation, and be prepared for the answers.

Whether you’re starting from ground zero or you’ve been trying to make your company one of the best places to work when you ask what can be improved, be prepared for there to be suggestions that can be uncomfortable for you. Your job as a decision-maker is to consider the alternative of not implementing these suggestions and if it’s worth losing employees, resources, and time because your ego is bruised.

Make a commitment to be beyond the bare minimum to address employee needs and ask for feedback to ensure you’re on the right track

To truly be effective this journey includes equity audits, strategy sessions, and feedback from the team. This is not a one workshop, initiative, or conversation and done kind of deal. Not if you want lasting change, anyways.

Outsource help! Especially if you don’t have a dedicated department to address the team.

Even if you do have a DEI department or a very proactive Human Resources team, an outside and unbiased perspective could be exactly what your company needs to overcome roadblocks. It’s not the employees who have no decision-making power’s responsibility to create an inclusive culture.

By doing the hard work and being uncomfortable, you make the workplace comfortable for everyone.

Diana Vasquez is the Founder and CEO of Beyond Diversity Consulting LLC, a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Consulting company that equips leaders with the tools to transform their organizational culture to one where people who show up want to keep showing up.

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