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How to Decenter Ourselves to Center Our Employees

In any given week, there are a number of conversations and decisions where leaders have an opportunity to more intentionally center the employees they serve. And by centering the least represented group, a company’s broader programming is more inclusive for everyone.

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Jan 17, 2024
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Last updated on Oct 25, 2022

Decentering (dēˈsen(t)əriNG; noun) Displacement from a central position, especially of the individual human subject from a primary place or central role. (Oxford Language Dictionary) 


Have you seen A Strange Loop, the 2022 Tony award winner for “best new musical”? If not, I recommend seeing it before it closes in early 2023. It was so good that I saw it twice! It’s a story about “a fat, Black gay” man named Usher who is trying to write a musical (also called A Strange Loop), about a “fat Black gay” man trying to write a musical. Ironic - I know. 



There are many extraordinary things about A Strange Loop, the all Black cast, the rawness, precision and vulnerability of the writing and acting, etc. However, what I found most extraordinary was that Usher was unapologetically centered - his life, his thoughts, his experiences, his story. As I watched, I realized that this was the first time I had seen someone with so many marginalized identities – Black, gay, etc. – star in a leading role on Broadway, and it was his personhood, not his marginalized identities, that took center stage. We watched Usher navigate complicated sexual experiences, disappointment from his parents, and (multiple) attempts to write musicals with substance and integrity. While the audience at A Strange Loop was largely white, there was something universal about Usher’s experience, as everyone must contend with their highly opinionated inner critics. For an hour and forty minutes, audience members centered someone else’s story, and left the theater feeling all the emotions that arise when you are fully immersed in someone else’s world. 


Similarly, when leaders are willing to decenter themselves at work, they become more empathetic to the employee experience, and ultimately, learn to design programs, policies and experiences with everyone in mind. Read on for three strategies about how decentering can help leaders champion a more inclusive workplace. 



Start with Yourself


In any given week, there are a number of conversations and decisions where leaders have an opportunity to more intentionally center the employees they serve. One way leaders can put this into practice is by spending 5-10 minutes at the beginning (and end) of each week reflecting on the following questions:

  • Did I create space for employees to share how their experiences outside of the office informed their experiences at the office? What did this look like in practice?
  • How often did I think about how a new program and/or policy would impact one or more underrepresented groups?
  • When and how did I speak up for voices who aren’t in the room? When and why did I stay silent?
  • Where and when did I observe our leaders decentering themselves? What was the impact of this behavior?
  • What are our company “norms” and are they reflective of the employee base we have today?

Center Someone Else’s Story


Stories are powerful and the neuroscience behind storytelling and its ability to influence others emotions and actions is compelling. In the NPR article, How Stories Connect And Persuade Us: Unleashing The Brain Power Of Narrative, there is research that suggests that stories can literally help people get on the same page as peoples’ brain waves actually start to synchronize with those of the storyteller.

There are countless platforms for employees to share their stories - whether that be a Monday morning icebreaker, a company-wide all hands or an Ask Me Anything. The opportunity for leaders is to better understand the breadth and depth of whose stories are being told, whose stories are missing from the dialogue and how we can amplify those voices. If every leader took 10 minutes at the end of each week to reflect on this, the stories told at work might more accurately represent the diversity of the workforce.

Design (and Re-Design) for the Least Represented Group

When leaders make a conscious decision to design with the least represented groups in mind, they have the potential to create solutions that work for the widest employee base. In addition to the least represented group, leaders should also be mindful of groups with the lowest levels of engagement (via engagement survey results). The National Equity Project has a model of addressing equity challenges called liberatory design, which is an approach to addressing equity challenges in complex systems. The three drivers of liberatory design are: 


See: see and understand the territory you’re navigating, 

Engage: engage others to make meaning of your current situation and; 

Act: Take action to address your equity challenge - and learn from that action.

Let’s say there is an opportunity to redesign a company’s leadership development program to ensure it appropriately addresses the experiences of a specific employee group. Using these three drivers along with the principle of designing for the least represented group, it might look something like the following:

  • See: The company has struggled with low engagement scores for Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) employees for the past three years and while the company has made progress for Black and Latinx employees, AAPI scores haven’t budged.
  • Engage: Assemble a small group of six to eight leadership development participants (including at least three to four AAPI employees), to get their input on what content they could add to help future leadership development participants better understand the various dimensions of the AAPI experience.
  • Act: Pilot the module centering case studies from AAPI employees’ lived experiences. Determine what elements of the new module might apply to other ethnic or racial groups and consider expanding to these groups in a future iteration of the program. Track engagement scores for these populations over time to gauge progress. 


By centering the least represented group, a company’s broader leadership programming is more inclusive for everyone. This is what it looks like to design with everyone in mind. 


Where Do We Go From Here?


During A Strange Loop post production conversation, a cast member mentioned that there is a group of younger theatergoers for which A Strange Loop will be their first musical. For these individuals, there will be nothing extraordinary about Usher’s skin color, weight or sexual orientation, simply his willingness to vulnerably tell his story. In a similar vein, I hope leaders can consciously build workplaces that make space for all employees’ stories and experiences, and in doing so, can reimagine whose stories are centered and are ultimately heard. 

If you are looking to build a more inclusive leadership culture through executive coaching and leadership development, connect with Anavah Leadership to learn more.

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