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Understand your team’s ‘lived experience’


Understand your team’s ‘lived experience’

Leaders should do the work on their own lived experiences and identity if they want to create a sense of belonging in their team

Behind every one of us is our lived experience, a childhood, cultural, socio-economic, religious, gender identity, our ancestral story. Lived experience means you’ve lived it personally and therefore it is subjective.

It isn’t something you can be taught, or learn or pass on through relationships with others. It isn’t something you argue, it’s something you have. Only those that have experienced the phenomena can communicate them to the outside world. It, therefore, provides an understanding of an experience from those who have lived it – phenomenology being the study of lived experience and the phenomena that arise from the experience of being in the world.

Aspects of our lived experience can inspire us to achieve greatness, act with compassion, be resilient and make a difference. However, it can also wreak havoc, self-sabotage, leave us feeling invisible, disempowered and impact how we show up in the workplace and even lead to a lack of confidence to be authentic.

Unless you yourself have lived the experience of feeling excluded, rejected, abandoned, not belonging, shamed, racism, sexism, abuse, bullying, or micro-aggressions, there is no guarantee as a leader you’ll understand the deeper repercussions of these when they show up in your team.

How to recognize your team’s struggles

The impact of these experiences in under-served minorities in majority groups may surface in the workplace disguised in many cases as a lack of confidence, imposter syndrome, self-sabotage or low self-worth. From a positive angle, the impact of negative life experiences may appear as character-building, showing up as resilience, a heightened sense of vigilance, street savviness, tolerance, inner strength and courage.

With reference to leading and managing diverse teams, we can feel frozen because we cannot support or address challenges and unfairness we ourselves do not see or have never experienced. We may lack the courage to ask difficult and powerful questions and fear the potential to do more harm. Or we skirt around the real issue or ignore things altogether and hence end up inadvertently demotivating people, or worse case – losing high-caliber talent. The aim should be to avoid scenarios where people feel misunderstood and not seen or heard.

How do you effectively lead someone whose culture, sexual identity, religious belief, social class, ancestral history, language and family background are very different from yours?

At the heart of this is to acknowledge that being open, empathetic and curious about someone’s lived experience is the key that will unlock the many gated doors to psychological safety and creating a sense of belonging. Organizations need to acknowledge, be respectful and receptive to everyone’s sense of belonging, inclusion, equity, psychological safety, ability to thrive and the willingness and permission to be authentic. We all have our personal story related to these areas. However, if you’re from an under-represented minority group there is also a very high chance this complexity will be deeper and more complex.

Appreciate different lived experiences

You need to understand, acknowledge and accept the interplay of the complex systems your people belong to and the hidden loyalties towards those systems. Just because someone doesn’t mention their loyalty to their cultural system or the family they belong to doesn’t mean that their loyalty isn’t alive and kicking.

As leaders, as well as developing our skills of leading someone who is very different from us and particularly someone from an under-represented group, we need to do our own work on our lived experience and identity – on our own sense of belonging, inclusion, equity, thriving, psychological safety and authenticity. We need to reflect on how we get in our own way when it comes to leading and developing a diverse team, whose experiences will be very different from ours.

A minority in a majority space

Awareness of lived experience and how this plays out is just the start. The next step is to take action by supporting, empowering and developing all talent in a way that is equitable, inclusive and fair. Reverse mentoring schemes are a practical intervention and a great way of understanding the lived experience of someone who is a minority in a majority space. However, they can only be successful if these initiatives are well-planned and the training is delivered by facilitators who understand the complexities of minorities in majority spaces and the challenges of systemic inertia.

Both mentor and mentee need bespoke training and support throughout the program. Mentees need to understand the role of systems, what is meant by lived experience. They need to be trained to approach the reverse mentoring program with a curious and open mindset and let go of believing and thinking they have all the answers. Mentees also need to bring a project they need support on to make sure the mentoring sessions have a focus and don’t just become a nice cup of tea and a chat.

Mentors who are about to step up and mentor someone who is senior from a majority group as well as mentoring skills training also need support to build their confidence. Acknowledge they are the experts in their personal lived experience and that their experience could make a difference to the organization. They will likely need emotional and practical support in challenging the views of someone who is in a position of power. As mentors share their lived experience, not only can the reality of this be daunting, but it can also be triggering too. It is advisable that mentors are offered coaching and support throughout the program.

The importance of diverse coaches

However, there is another side to offering coaching to those who are a minority in a majority space. For many, their coaching experience would be far deeper and transformational if they had a shared identity with the coach, especially in the early to mid stages of their career. Stepping into discovering who we are in work and life in our 20s to mid-30s can feel overwhelming, confusing, isolating, stressful and emotionally exhausting.

Organizations need to offer diversity in coaches and coaching too. Especially in the early years of someone’s career, they need to have the option to choose to be coached by someone who they can personally connect with – a professional experienced coach with whom they don’t have to explain every nuance or edit anything out. Whether this is social class, neurodivergent, gender, sexuality, cultural, religious or disability, is dependent on the needs, goals and the choice of the coachee.

Organizations need a smorgasbord of a diverse pool of coaches to choose from. For someone from an underrepresented group, this is crucial, especially early on in their adult lives. For early to midcareers, as they are discovering their strengths, building confidence and getting into their stride, this can be a challenging time. It’s at these moments in their lives that their imposter syndrome may be most alive or they may feel they have to wear a mask to fit in and get on in work and life.

Coaching by its nature is inclusive, and any hint of elitism or conscious bias actively goes against its very ethos. However, an uncomfortable truth about today’s coaching profession is the disturbing lack of diversity among professional coaches, especially in organizations, and executive coaches. It is time for organizations and the profession to hold a mirror up to their own practices and explore ways of resolving this issue and nested barriers.

Coaching through a wider lens

Coaching is a critical tool for supporting someone whose lived experience is different. A diverse pool of coaches isn’t just a nice to have, it is a necessity. Openness to support for emotional wellbeing and health varies among different populations. The coaching profession needs diversity to serve a diverse population.

For both companies and individuals who want to understand the lived experience of their people and see their diverse talent flourish, coaching through a wider lens on belonging, equity, diversity and inclusion is the answer.

Coaching the lived experience focuses on the present and the coach is always steering the client towards balance, fulfillment and in the flow of their life. Generally, the coachee is looking to achieve new life goals, and/or personal and professional development. The focus is on the present and the future.

By integrating coaching with the lived experience and the past, this allows the coachee to relax into the present. This isn’t about running from the past, or fighting or endorsing it. It’s simply acknowledging the multi-layered lived experience. When the lived experience is acknowledged the coachee will feel more grounded. They are able to connect with their own inner wisdom, which in itself is an empowering and revelatory process.

As important as it is to start with understanding the lived experience of our team, this needs to be followed up by taking action.

Top three benefits of coaching

  1. Structuring mutually satisfactory relationships

Internal coaches trained with a wider lens offer a systemic means of engaging with senior leaders as individuals, developing more ways for understanding the lived experience

  1. Retention of talent

Coaching is more than self-awareness, it integrates personal development (lived experience) and organizational needs. Coaching programs with a wider systemic lens reach key groups of executives and offer a disciplined way for organizations to deepen relationships with all employees while increasing their effectiveness. The most valuable coaching fosters cultural change for the benefit of the entire organization and the retention of talent

  1. Coaching has a multiplier effect

In unlocking potential, its benefits are far-reaching beyond the coach and coachee

The author

Salma Shah is an accredited coach, the founder of coach training and leadership development platform Mastering Your Power, and the author of Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging in Coaching: A Practical Guide.

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