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Lessons Learned On Accountability

Reflections on accountability from a misstep in a communication around diversity, equity and inclusion

By Julie Kratz

I recently made a misstep in one of my communications around diversity, equity and inclusion on LinkedIn. I made a post that was attempting to call in the white male majority group to DEI work using a simple graphic, but before posting I missed the mark on closely reviewing the language. The image ended up being misworded and was an oversimplification of a deeply rooted and traumatic racial past, and it caused harm to my community and followers. After receiving lots of feedback from this community and team and reflecting on my mistake, I want to share more about what I learned from this situation. I hope that this reflection will be helpful for other leaders who may find themselves navigating a misstep in the future.

Intent doesn’t matter, impact does

Diversity, equity and inclusion work often centers around growth and learning (and unlearning), and there are bound to be growing pains. When we inevitably bumble and stumble as part of that growth, it’s easy to get defensive. When I made this communication mistake, instead of addressing the problem directly, I tried to explain my intentions. My initial thought was that everyone just did not understand what I was trying to say – I was leaning on my good intentions with what I was trying to convey, versus the impact it had on the community and my following.

People aren’t interested in your intentions when what you say causes harm. Systemic issues affecting marginalized communities have persisted for years. When we haven’t had the lived experiences of the harm ourselves, it can be easy to think people are overreacting or they simply just don’t understand your intention. If what you say or do causes harm to someone else or to a marginalized community, the right thing is to acknowledge the impact and apologize right away. 

While I waited a few hours to apologize for my communication, my initial apology didn’t feel sincere. After reflecting on it, I understand that words matter, and I should have given more thought not to my intentions, but to the impact that they created. A quick and simple band-aid apology doesn’t work, taking accountability is necessary. I’ve since taken some great lessons from following these 4 steps for an effective apology.  Additionally, I’ve found this guide to Recognizing and Responding to Microaggressions at Work by Ella F. Washington to offer some excellent guidelines for moving forward.

Emotions can be your enemy (and your friend)

Initially, when I received feedback on my communication, I operated from a place of defensiveness. As humans, when we are experiencing emotions, especially something core to our values, we tend to take them personally. Our amygdala, the fear center of our brain, is firing and our blood pressure increases – we can’t think as clearly with the rational part of our brain. My initial emotional response was that I was being attacked unfairly. I thought, “I post helpful content and work hard to foster inclusion every day, everyone is just overreacting and attacking me.” This was my emotions taking over and only focusing on my intent, instead of my harmful impact.

One of the lessons I learned was to come from a place of empathy, especially with somebody that disagrees with you strongly. If you can empathize and try to take on their perspective it’s much easier to quiet the emotions and not operate from a place of pure defense. I wish I would have done that earlier, as it took a few days for my emotions to quiet to be able to respond from a place of empathy.

Hope is not a strategy

The initial surge in LinkedIn comments and reshares on my communication was overwhelming. I kept hoping that it would quiet down as the days progressed and people turned their attention to other priorities. I was hoping my mistake would just go away.

When we make a mistake, it’s easy to hide it or to hope that it will magically go away. Rarely does avoiding conflict solve it. We cannot solve a problem we refuse to see. Being proactive and addressing the root of the issue is more important than protecting our egos. I wish I had been more proactive and deleted my post and replaced it with a more inclusive message immediately to mitigate the harm that was caused to my community.

Accountability is critical

DEI work has been ongoing in many organizations for many years now, but unfortunately it is lacking real accountability. It can’t be a check-the-box, one-and-done, talking about DEI without action. This is my attempt to take action to own this mistake. I apologize for the harm my statement created. I’ve opted to keep my communication up on LinkedIn, not because I’m proud of it (I am not), but because I think it offers a lesson for others to learn from and it reminds me that I have to continue to always try to be better and continue on this journey. I’m grateful for all the feedback that pushed me to learn and grow, and for my community holding me accountable for this mistake. 

My hope is that we can practice forgiveness for the mistakes that we all inevitably will make in this space. It’s progress over perfection. These conversations are shifting daily and my hope is that they will accelerate. When people make mistakes as they surely do, we need to hold them accountable and expect them to be better. 

Thank you, allies. I promise to be better.