How to Manage When Things Are Not Okay (And Haven’t Been For Centuries)

We are in a moment of reckoning.

While we—The Management Center—can’t undo the harms of nearly half a millennium of the degradation and dehumanization of Black people in the United States, we can help envision a path forward for managers and leaders. We can create and share tools for managers that honor the humanity of their teammates—especially those who are Black, including Black women, men, and non-binary people, Black queer and trans folks, and Black people with disabilities (among many other intersecting marginalized identities).*

In this article, we share our best thinking on supporting your staff at a time when things are not okay (and haven’t been for a long time).

Before we jump in, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • While many people contributed, this article was mostly written by a non-Black person (a light-skinned, able-bodied, queer, Asian American cis woman, to be more specific).
  • Most of our readers are non-Black managers. In many ways, this article was written with you in mind—not to center non-Black experiences, but because we non-Black folks have a lot of work to do.
  • Some of you are Black managers or staff. We hope that you find some ideas here that work for you, and we always welcome your feedback when that’s not the case (email us at newsletter@managementcenter.org!).
  • We know there are no easy fixes. Some of our advice might be spot-on for some and completely miss the mark for others. As always, our insights are offerings—take what you need and leave the rest.
  • This article is about what you can do. To learn more about how we’re responding right now, check out these reflections from our CEO.

How to talk about what’s going on with your team

Acknowledge to your whole team what’s happening and why it matters. If there’s one lesson we’ve learned from the pandemic, it’s that who we are outside of work can’t be separated from who we are at work. And yet, many of us have mastered the art of compartmentalization. Sometimes, our privilege enables us to set aside horrific news and go about our days as usual. Often, compartmentalization is a survival mechanism. And for many Black staff, managers, and leaders, it is a suffocating performance of professionalism. As a leader or manager (especially if you’re not Black), merely naming what’s happening can help lift the burden of pretending that everything is okay.

When you do say something, keep the following in mind:

1. Acknowledge history.

What’s happening isn’t just about a recent eruption of police brutality. As a country, we are grappling with the result of hundreds of years of systemic racism and state-sanctioned violence against Black people. The uprisings that have been happening and will continue to occur in response to these systemic injustices are part of long lineages of resistance.

2. Be specific and accurate.

Learn and say the names and pronouns of those that we’re mourning: Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Nina Pop, Dreasjon Reed, George Floyd, Tony McDade, David McAtee. Remember that these are just the ones we know. These are just the ones we’ve heard about in the last month.

3. Hold the different experiences and journeys on your team.

Some people are intimately familiar with what is happening, while others are just starting to see the contours. Some are tired of (maybe triggered by) talking about it, and others are itching to join the conversation. Some need rest; others need action.

How to offer support as a manager

Acknowledging the situation is only one step. Beyond that, there are concrete, helpful things that managers can do over the next few weeks and beyond. But before you proceed, stop and evaluate your relationship with the person you want to support. Accepting help from someone when you’re going through a rough time requires a degree of trust. Real talk: if you haven’t already demonstrated your commitment to anti-racism, your Black staff and colleagues might not want you to check in on them.

Whatever the case may be, there are some things that you can do right now to support your Black staff:

1. Be protective of their—or your—labor and energy.

To non-Black managers: don’t ask Black staff to solve your DEI problems or educate non-Black staff on allyship. To Black managers and staff: choose when and how you want to engage so that you can preserve your energy.

2. Ask what people need; share options.

What people need can change from day to day and person to person. That’s why you should ask regularly in multiple channels, such as via check-in, email, or survey. Here are questions you can ask in a check-in meeting:

  • What can I do to support you? Do you have emotional or material needs that I can help you meet?
  • Some people on our team are [taking the rest of the week off / canceling non-essential meetings / leaving work early]. Would this be helpful to you?
  • Is there anything you want me to know or keep in mind?

During team meetings, try a check-in question like: “What do you want everyone else to know about what you need or how you’re showing up today?”

3. Reprioritize.

Talk to all of your team members about what’s on their plate. Do it for yourself, too. True reprioritization will require redistribution of work, so ask yourself: what can you adjust to lighten the load for your Black colleagues or yourself, if you are a Black manager? Work with non-Black colleagues and direct reports to do the same. Consider dedicating a team meeting to revisiting priorities and division of labor. If you’re a Black manager to Black staff, modeling moving things off your plate might be what they need from you right now.

4. Give time off, no questions asked.

While some people may turn to work as a coping mechanism, most people would probably benefit from more space. That’s why you might consider making time off the norm—something that your Black staff members don’t need to opt into or request as an accommodation.

How to use team time

Everyone on your team—not just Black folks—needs to process and reflect because addressing systemic racism requires everyone’s efforts. Think about how to spend group time, whether it’s compulsory (staff meetings) or optional (lunch gatherings). Here are some ideas:

1. Support Black colleagues to be in community with each other.

Make space to organize, grieve, heal, and/or celebrate Black joy and humanity.

2. Create spaces for non-Black folks to examine their role in combating anti-Blackness.

At TMC, we recently held a gathering of non-Black indigenous people and people of color on our team. Here are some questions that prompted our discussions:

  • What can we do to address anti-Black racism in our personal lives and as colleagues? What are our choice points?
  • How can we immediately support our Black colleagues? What can we offer that fully honors them and meets their needs?
  • What are our short- and long-term commitments for moving forward to address anti-Blackness?

In addition to (or instead of) convening non-Black folks, if you are a non-Black manager, consider raising these questions in 1-1 conversations with your colleagues.

3. Review your organizational calendar.

Repurpose existing forums for discussion, reflection, or action (perhaps your next virtual happy hour could be a phone bank to defund the police, or an upcoming community panel can focus on connecting your organization’s key issues to the Movement for Black Lives). At the very least, remove the optional just-for-fun events (no one wants to play trivia right now, Andy).

Note that the above are ideas for the short-term—in the medium- and long-term, you’ll need to offer spaces for education, reflection, and renewing commitments.

What to do at the leadership level

Check-ins and caucuses are not enough. As we said, this is a moment of reckoning—especially for historically white, predominantly white, and white-led organizations, but also for organizations led by or mainly composed of non-Black people of color and indigenous people.

1. Take an honest look at your organization’s commitment to racial justice.

With your leadership team, examine your internal systems and your external impact. Now is not the time to re-write your mission statement, but it is the time to assess where you are on your racial equity journey and get clear on how your mission serves to advance racial justice. Here are some questions to ask:

  • How does our organization contribute to the dismantling of systemic racism?
  • What are we doing to improve the lives of Black people—our staff, clients, stakeholders, members, or community members? What are we doing to contribute to Black liberation?
  • What are we doing to hear the perspectives of Black people and other marginalized people on our team and in our community?
  • Is our commitment to racial justice and anti-racism reflected in the markers of our organizational identity (such as our vision, mission, priorities, budget, and goals)?
  • How do covert and overt white supremacy show up in our organization?

2. Expand beyond DEI workshops.

Guess who’s probably been to an implicit bias or diversity, equity, and inclusion training? Amy Cooper. Derek Chauvin. Tou Thao. We know that diversity training alone doesn’t usually work to change behavior. Racism in America is older than “America” itself, and a daylong seminar won’t stop the weaponization of white womanhood, the complicity of Asian Americans in anti-Blackness, or the disregard of Black humanity. Training is one stop on the journey, but we need to do more. Find ways to create and foster habits of anti-racism.

3. Make—or take—space for Black voices.

While some people are newly seeing systemic racism for what it is, still many others have been talking, organizing, and mobilizing against it for a long time. Some of these folks are inside your organizations. Some of these people are you. If you’re a Black manager (and if you’re up for it), take the space that you need—ask the questions, carve out the time, say the thing. If you are not Black, make space for Black folks—especially Black women, Black trans people, queer Black people, and Black folks with disabilities. Seek their feedback and perspectives on how you and your organization can do better (but don’t force them to be problem-solvers).

Finally, here is a (non-comprehensive) list of resources:

*6/3/20 Note: In an earlier version of this article (published on 6/20), this sentence read: “We can create and share tools for managers that honor the humanity of their teammates—especially those who are Black, including Black women, Black queer and trans folks, and Black people with disabilities.” We’re sorry for any negative impact the original sentence may have caused by leaving out Black men while specifying other groups within the Black community. Thanks to the thoughtful feedback of a reader, we have since edited the sentence to include Black men and non-binary people and to better acknowledge the various intersections of Blackness and other marginalized identities. 


Read our follow-up to this article here: So you’ve declared that Black Lives Matter. Now what?