A woman reached out to me recently for some advice. She has achieved success in a male-dominated industry, is in a senior position, enjoys her work, and her employer supports her development.
Still, she said that she felt lonely. She wished there were more women around her and also wanted to support more junior women in their success.
Her solution? She started an employee resource group for women leaders, using the Lean In Circle model.
She reached out to me because she wanted advice on how to facilitate the group in a way that would encourage participation and support all members.
Many organizations have employee resource groups (ERGs), employee interest groups, or affinity groups, to build connections and professional development.
Great Place to Work defines ERGs as “voluntary, employee-led groups whose aim is to foster a diverse, inclusive workplace aligned with the organizations they serve.” They also credit ERGs with:
- improving working conditions for marginalized and remote workers
- surfacing challenges
- building leaders
- creating a safe space for employees to discuss their experiences
ERGs are often organized around identity, such as:
- racial groups
- genders or gender identities
- sexual orientations
- ability status
Other groups — usually referred to as interest or affinity groups — may be organized around a particular interest, like environmentalism or crafting, or experiences, like those caring for elders or long-haul COVID-19 survivors.
One woman I spoke with had experienced infertility for years and kept her experience private. Still, it was difficult for her to hide the reasons for her many doctors’ appointments and the heartache she experienced at work.
Finally, she decided to open up about what she was going through and started an infertility support group at her office. To her surprise, the group was well-attended from the start and tight bonds formed quickly. Some of the group members became her closest friends at work and the information and resources they shared were helpful and empowering.
Instead of her pain being a source of shame and isolation, because of the group, she was able to build strong ties of friendship and support among co-workers.
If you would like to start an ERG, be sure that your organization’s leadership is aware and supportive of the idea.
It’s a good idea to present them with research, like this 2013 research by the Center for Effective Organizations, which shows that employee energy is higher among those who participate in ERGs and that participation in ERGs may lead to a more engaging and fulfilling work experience.
It may also be helpful to have a general sense of the legal issues surrounding ERGs, some of which are summarized by Practical Law Labor & Employment.
Once you have the support from your company’s leadership, you can advertise the group’s purpose widely — for example, through a company-wide email distribution list or messaging systems like Slack.
It’s important to include details on how to join. Though you may not know all those who might be interested, consider reaching out to co-workers you know may have interest and see if you can recruit a few members, to make sure that the first meetings have attendees.
In your initial meetup, it’s a good idea to:
- clearly define the goals of the group
- decide when and how it will meet
- go over how long meetings will last
Where possible, try to share topics and discussion questions ahead of time, so group members can think about them prior to the meeting. This can aid in the quality of the discussion (though we should also be open to allowing the conversation to go where it needs to go).
At the start of each meeting, it’s a good idea to remind people of the purpose of the group, the topic of the specific meeting, and go over any ground rules you may have established.
A few rules that can be helpful are:
- One person talks at a time.
- We respect the confidentiality of the information shared here, except for information that indicates harm of self or another.
- If discussing a specific experience, speak from the “I” perspective and avoid using the names of others.
- We critique ideas, not people.
- We listen to understand.
- We respect our own needs and take care of our mental health. It’s always OK to take a break. Turn off your camera or step outside the room anytime.
When facilitating a group, it’s important — especially in the beginning — to communicate that all voices are welcome and that while everyone is encouraged to participate, no one is forced to respond. Here are a few ways to do that:
It’s always nice to have an introductory question or icebreaker that everyone answers.
The goal is to get everyone comfortable speaking in the setting.
The question can be a simple, “Please introduce yourself and tell us what division you work in.”
Or it can be an easy question for which everyone will have an answer and for which there can be overlaps that create bonds. Such questions may be:
- “Where is someplace you’ve always wanted to go?”
- “What’s the best TV show you’ve watched this year?”
Still, it’s important to keep in mind that some questions that seem suitable for most people may be triggering or problematic for others. For instance, a question like “What’s your earliest childhood memory?” may bring back negative memories for someone who has experienced childhood trauma.
Ask specific questions
As you ask questions, it’s important to be clear about what you’re asking. It’s a good idea to avoid vague questions like, “What does everyone think about impostor syndrome?”
Instead, it may be more helpful to be specific and ask: “Can someone describe a time when they’ve experienced impostor syndrome?”
Still, not everyone may feel comfortable sharing their personal experience, so it can help to give people a choice of things on which to comment. For instance, you could say, “Can someone describe what impostor syndrome is, or tell about a time when they’ve experienced it?”
Give time for responses
Keep in mind that it’s OK to allow time for silence.
Particularly when meetings are held online, it can be uncomfortable to let silence linger, but people need time to think and then either unmute themselves (which always seems to take forever!) or type in the chat.
One thing to try is to get in the habit of counting to 30 after you ask a question. I often take a drink of water after I ask a question to force myself to stay quiet.
Acknowledge those who share
It’s important to acknowledge people who comment, as people need to feel seen when they participate.
As the leader of the group, it’s a good idea to:
- thank people for commenting (“Thanks for that, Megan.”)
- underscore their comments (“Such a great point about self-care, Riley.”)
- acknowledge their feelings (“What a frustrating situation. I’m so sorry.”)
To the extent possible, I try to acknowledge the comments of each person who speaks or participates in the chat. By doing this, you’re encouraging participation and also modeling listening and respect for one another’s comments.
Invite participation (without being pushy)
You may need to encourage participation, in particular by inviting in those who may be less forthcoming.
Some people — myself included — are unlikely to jump into a group conversation. Maybe they’re more introverted or take longer to formulate and express their thoughts. Whatever their reason: It’s OK.
Of course, we don’t want anyone to feel put on the spot, but it’s important to make space for those who may be less likely to dive in because they likely still have things to say.
I handle this by inviting participation. For instance, I might say, “I know we haven’t heard from Carol or James yet. Would either of you like to chime in?” Sometimes if it’s only one person, I’ll also say, “No pressure at all, but I wanted to create room for you if you’d like to add anything.”
Again, try to remember to give time for them to respond and respect if they decline your offer.
You could also suggest that people can follow up via chat or email if they think of something later on.
Control the flow
As a meeting facilitator, it’s also important to manage the conversation.
Try to be flexible to allow the discussion to flow, but if it seems that the conversation has meandered far from the purpose of the group and the topics at hand, you may need to rein it in with a gentle reminder about the topic or a pushback to the subject of the group.
For example, you may wish to say something like: “These shows are so good! Thanks for the recommendations. To get back to the topic of impostor syndrome…”
Sometimes there’s a particular person who tends to bring the conversation off-topic. I’ve generally found that those who do this are quite amenable to clear direction.
For instance, you could break in with, “Sorry to interrupt. I appreciate what you’re saying, but I do want to stay on the topic of impostor syndrome for this conversation. Do you have something you want to add on that?”
It’s also important to notice if one person is dominating the discussion. Ideally, you want to encourage people to share their thoughts, but also want to make sure that everyone is getting an opportunity to contribute.
For instance, you could say something like, “Nina, I see your hand, but want to make sure we’re getting comments from everyone. David? Jelahn? Anything you’d like to add?”
It’s possible that your group may include people who are in a direct chain of supervision. The fact that they have the affiliation around which the group is organized in common can be a source of bonding for them, but their working relationship may also make it difficult for each of them to open up completely in the group.
Consider breaking the group into smaller groups or pairs for discussion and separating those who work closely with one another.
It may be worthwhile to have an explicit ground rule that those who work in the same group or in a direct line of supervision are generally in different breakout groups, to set expectations and ease any concerns.
Where possible, try to end the meeting on a high note. Thank people for coming and participating, and remind them of why the group is coming together.
You can ask people to share a takeaway from the meeting or something they would like to do before the next meeting, or something they’re grateful for or excited about.
When people leave the meeting feeling good, they may feel more inclined to come back, participate, and support one another.
With thoughtful planning and management, ERGs can be a powerful way to:
- build bonds among co-workers
- share resources and support
- improve employee well-being
That’s what the woman who started a Lean In Circle at her office found as well. She reports that the first two meetings went well.
“All members are pretty talkative and forward-leaning, so the conversation moves very quickly,” she adds. “Overall, everyone wants to keep the circle going and we’ve agreed to meetings every 2 weeks.”
I’d say that’s a smashing success.