Leadership Basics: Ethics in Communication

It’s often said that if all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail. It is meant to suggest that people are always seeking confirmation for the things they already believe. And it turns out that I really believe in the use and application of good communication.

@chanthaboune once said that all problems are really communication problems. I think that is the case here.

Communication is something all living creatures do whether through written word, spoken language, sign language, or any other means. No matter how you manage to share information with others, the best leaders I’ve had are aware of a few universal basics.

The Basics of Ethical Communication*

One of the skills I share with any leader I mentor, is the need for ethics in our everyday communication. The National Communication Association has adopted a credo for ethical communication. Their credo states that “ethical communication enhances human worth and dignity by fostering truthfulness, fairness, responsibility, personal integrity, and respect for self and other.”

I hope you take the time to read it, but if you haven’t decided if it’s for you or not, I’ll give you the highlights below.

  • Be truthful and begin with understanding, then engage in civil discourse. Don’t intentionally deceive anyone, and before you disagree with someone else’s point of view, make sure you’ve made the effort to understand what they mean. If you disagree, discuss your differences in a way that doesn’t negate the inherent value of the person you’re speaking with.
  • Speak bravely in the pursuit of fairness and justice, and be clear about where you stand. If you see a way that a solution could be more equitable, speak up about it. When you have a point of view, respectfully make it clear so that others know so that we can all strive to know each other better.
  • Be aware that all communication has an effect, and strive to make that effect positive (but admit when it’s harmful). Anyone who calls communication a soft skill hasn’t experienced having to work through the difficult process of communicating harmful things with care. We have all caused people to feel and act a certain way with what we’ve expressed to them, and
  • Share information around significant choices, while being respectful of privacy and confidentiality. As leaders, we should always try to inform those who are most impacted by something first. It can be a lengthy process depending on the size of your organization, and certainly takes effort to get used to. But it is a necessary part of creating psychological safety in your organization as well a fundamental responsibility you accept when you agree to lead.

tl;dr for the tl;dr

And if even that was too long, it boils down to this: Communicate with care (for your words and your people) and embrace your responsibility (for the processes and the outcomes).

*It’s important to note, as always, that no one gets these things perfect every time. It’s not about perfection over all else, it’s about being mindful and committing to trying your hardest.

The Power of Vulnerability

In 2010, Brené Brown delivered a TED talk that changed the way I understood leadership. She talked about the importance of sharing our failures, and the power of vulnerability in leadership. It’s an exceptional talk, and worth a listen if you’ve never given yourself the time.

Three of the most remarkable concepts she shared are about shame and fear of disconnection; vulnerability and courageous imperfection; and certainty in the absence of vulnerability.

So let me give you the tiniest rundown, in case you didn’t watch her talk.

  • Fear of Disconnection: Brown’s research found that the heart of shame (and hiding parts of who you are) is a fear of disconnection. You don’t want to be left out of a group, so you don’t mention the things that might make that happen. The less you talk about those things, the more you are sure they will cause people to leave you, and the more shameful you feel about them.
  • Courageous Imperfection: Her research also found that people who did not struggle with a fear of disconnection didn’t have an abundance of perfect alignment with people around them. They mostly just felt that, imperfect though they were, they were still worthy of being included. They didn’t feel comfortable or uncomfortable in the embrace of their own vulnerabilities, they had the courage to move forward anyway.
  • Absence of Vulnerability: The final life-changing concept she shared was that those who refuse to embrace imperfection strive to make everything certain. They have one way, one version of what’s right, and everyone else is just wrong and dumb. And as my mentor once said “As long as you know you’re right, you will never be able to grow.”

Being vulnerable can make us terribly sad, but it can also open us up to the possibility of being terribly happy. Because once you know that we’re all a little bit imperfect, it’s easier to let yourself be imperfect, too.

Imperfection in Leadership

Being imperfect in leadership* is one of those things that you never quite finish learning. It’s hard to commit to being able to say “I don’t know, but let’s find out” when you see people looking to you for guidance. And, to bring it completely out of hypotheticals, it’s terrifying to be an imperfect leader as a woman because some people are just waiting for you to be wrong.

In my experience, it’s best when approached as a balance. A large part of my leadership philosophy hinges on the idea that being wrong doesn’t mean you are bad, it means you are trying something new. Being wrong is the sore muscle of personal and professional growth.

For anyone who is new to this concept, it feels unsettling. And I think that’s good. If you want to try to do this anyway, I have a few pointers for you!

  1. Meet people where they are. No one ever changed their perspective by spending time with only people who are exactly like them. If you are a leader, you may find that you’re coming out ahead in power imbalances, so do what you can to seek out others.
  2. Share the foundations first. When offering plans for next steps, always come prepared to share how you got there. Letting others know that you have done some thinking, gives them the courage to ask you to think about other things as well.
  3. Don’t rush the unknown. No one likes being unsure of what to do next, but when we rush through uncertainty it can lead us to solutions that are limited in their effect on the problem. Get comfortable with growth mindsets and fearless exploration.
  4. Listen twice as much as you speak. One of the characteristics that all my favorite leaders have in common is their thirst for information. They ask questions from everyone, they comment last, and they do their best to disagree constructively.

Never Stop Learning

And for myself, I always remember that there was a time when I knew nothing — knew nothing about WordPress, or leadership, or cooking, or life — and that if I had been surrounded by conversations that stifled my curiosity I would never have become the person I am today.

I want everyone to have the chance to be their best self, and when we commit to the shared human experience of learning we can change ourselves (and others) in immeasurable ways.

* In case you’ve never heard my definition of leadership, it is pretty broad. I don’t think it’s about titles or hierarchy, I think it’s about anyone who has engaged in mentorship, anyone who is someone’s role model, and anyone whose duty of care reaches beyond themselves.

Fostering Collaboration Across Cultures

Diversity doesn’t come without tension. The key is to know how to make it into jazz and not discordant noise.

Stereotypes are shortcuts our brains use to make fast decisions (especially when there is too much information or potential unknowns). We tend to infer a lot about others based on our past experiences, whether it’s accurate to do so or not. As the world becomes more connected and our interactions more immediate, we interact with people unlike us every day without even realizing it.

Our brains, being the prediction machines that they are, take these stereotypes and form an idea of how interactions will go.

Illustration: Design vs Development

As a quick example let’s look at the work-centric, cross-cultural environment between Design and Development.

A stereotypical concept of a Designer might be that they are:

  • untidy
  • unencumbered by deadlines
  • value form over function
  • generally “right-brained”

A stereotypical concept of a Developer might be that they are:

  • fastidious
  • unencumbered by manners
  • value function over form
  • generally “left-brained”

Objections over these questionable stereotypes aside, these two groups objectively look like completely different cultures. Each have their own language or jargon that sets them apart. The etiquette of how to interact with their work is different. Humor among these two groups can be impossibly nuanced, but it ties them together.

These things act as communication barriers and can hinder a process called the Negotiation of Meaning.

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Empathy vs Altruism in Modern Leadership

The concept of empathy is one that has become popular as a leadership ideal. We expect empathy from CEOs, ask designers to join empathy challenges, and tell people to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. Empathy is, at its simplest, knowing what someone else is going through. It’s often identified as a counterpart to sympathy and is seen as an important quality of modern leadership.

But setting empathy as a gold standard in leadership has its downfalls [1]. Empathetic leadership relies on personal experiences with situations that are atypical for you and assumes similar tolerance levels for discomfort. More importantly though, it assumes that experiencing something is the same as understanding.

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Building a Culture of Safety

When I think back over the many communities I’ve been part of over the years — whether at work, as a volunteer, or in a church — those that were most vibrant had many things in common. They had leadership that was engaging, they had regular gatherings, and they were clear about who they served. As I’ve grown into my own concepts of leadership, I have come to recognize that one of the largest (and most hidden) things they had in common was a dedication to cultural safety. Letting people come as they are, and honoring that, was foundational to how they operated.

Safety can mean different things to different people, though, so here’s a quick overview of how I see it.

Types of Safety

  • Physical Safety – The ability to remain free from bodily harm. For my current work in the WordPress project, this mostly comes up in relation to in-person events.
  • Psychological Safety – The ability to express yourself freely. This comes up in all of the community’s communication channels, from Slack and team blogs to twitter and events.
  • Social Safety – The ability be your whole self among others. This, naturally, comes up in all of our spaces both in-person and on-line.
  • Moral Safety – The ability to reconcile your work with your morals. This comes up mostly with volunteers in WordPress.

Though I’m sure this isn’t a comprehensive list, I do feel that these four kinds of safety line right up with some basic needs of healthy modern communities: personal safety, open communication, inclusivity, and aligned values.

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My Leadership Philosophy

For no fewer than three years, my twitter bio has included the statement “I’m bad at writing recipes, great at cooking the food.” When I set out to define my leadership philosophy, I didn’t realize how true that statement would be.

I’ve been guiding and advising future leaders for many years, as a mentor and overall advocate, and my advice hasn’t changed much in that time. My concept of good leadership is informed by being a woman in a male-dominated field, a person of color in a primarily white-dominated world, and a general faith in the power of a good-hearted group of people.

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To All Women in Tech*

There are many “right ways” to be a woman in tech, and I hope that people have learned to welcome you with open arms. But at the same time, I worry that some women may not feel brave enough to ask if they are welcome.

I have something subversive to share with you.

I once felt that to be a woman in a male-dominated field (that’s just existing, not even excelling) you had to be as un-female as possible. I had this suspicion in the back of my mind that not allowing women to express themselves as women (but then also claiming them as part of your diverse workforce) — I had this suspicion that it was a lie.

Then I had two great chats with two great women, and I’m going to share their wisdom forever. And I’m writing it here so that you can, too.

  1. Helen 侯-Sandí and I were at a WordCamp afterparty and wearing very fancy dresses. I told her I felt self-conscious because “it was too feminine” (it wasn’t) and her response was “Women have boobs. If we want women in technology, men will have to learn that boobs** aren’t what keep people from being developers.”
  2. I told my sister I was having a heckuva time choosing the color of my laptop. I was stuck on “If I get a pink one, will anyone take me seriously?” and also “Should I be working to dignify WordPress overall” (by getting a dark grey laptop? idk). And she said to me “Anyone who will choose not to take you seriously because your laptop is pink was already not going to take you seriously. Get a pink laptop and remind them that women are leaders, too.”

That is when I saw through some distracting self-perpetuating nonsense:

  • Women, do not shame other women for being too feminine.
  • Women, do not shame other women for being too masculine.
  • Women, do not shame others for not fitting your idea of who they should be.

It’s hard enough out here trying to smash this towering patriarchy. Don’t hamstring everyone from within. Get your sister-phoenixes and get the heck ready to rise.

*Tech and medicine and any other male-dominated field out there.
**The use of the word “boobs” isn’t a vocabulary choice that you would associate with my blog, and especially not in a post labeled “leadership”. However, I felt that given Helen’s notoriety, no one would believe me if I pretended that the word choice was anything but that.