Who Do I Prioritize?


How do you prioritize the most vulnerable when its not clear who is the most vulnerable?


This is a great question because it highlights a level of complexity that most can’t or refuse to address…

Peopling Is hard, and making a commitment to prioritize the most vulnerable only adds to that complexity in terms of impact and potential for inflicting harm. That said, I always encourage folx to seek this harder path forward as a strategy for ensuring better long-term organizational outcomes.

For me, it ALWAYS begins at the beginning, which sounds cliché, but like most clichés, they’re rooted in truth. The issue most organizational leaders face when dealing with questions related to whose needs and interests to prioritize stems from a lack of preparation for these kinds of eventual situations.

Most push off developing the strategy, language, and policies until they’ve already caused harm, and that’s too late. This is where most in leadership find themselves in situations where they’ve violated the trust of the very individuals they seek to protect and damage any past efforts at welcoming and psychological safety. These are the risk and crisis management issues that no one seems prepared to tackle until something blows up and, by then, it’s too late.

When it comes to adopting an organizational intent to “prioritize the most vulnerable,” I am a big fan of OVER strategizing and OVER communicating.

It’s one thing to say that this is a priority and quite another to have a consistent, demonstrated behavior of doing so. So, at every level of operationalizing your organizational core values, there needs to be at least a conversation about the impact to ALL vulnerable stakeholders. It is ONLY through such intentional and strategic practice that you’re able to develop the knowledge and skills needed to effectively answer “how do you prioritize the most vulnerable when it’s not clear who is the most vulnerable?”

Given that most business leaders have not completed the work outlined above it then becomes important to take a pause so that these concerns can be addressed, ideally organization-wide.

Why? Because the decisions that are made will impact the “nature of order” of “how we do things around here.” Expect challenges to your effort from two distinct internal stakeholders: those with the unearned privilege of leveraging systems, institutions, and policies that benefit the few at the expense of the many and “the many” whose trust you’ve not earned because although things may be “bad,” “bad” is a known variable. Something that they’ve developed strategies to mitigate known harm.

The former group of individuals will deny the advantages they have due to a false narrative of having earned their place, and the latter just don’t want you experimenting on them while you figure shit out. This would be a great opportunity to gain needed practice in prioritizing the most vulnerable by clearly addressing the concerns of all through your actions.

This is accomplished by not seeking parity amongst individuals/group but by elevating them through the lens of “who have systems, institutions, and policies been DESIGNED for and against?” and behaving accordingly. This is not a time to adopt the “move fast, break things” ethos that dominates many businesses but rather a time to move slowly. It’s a time to take action, seek feedback, identify if harm was inflicted, and if so, how, seek to make amends, and iterate on lessons learned. Rinse and repeat.

Once you find yourself in a situation where you’re attempting to discern “who’s the most vulnerable”, please know that you’ve already caused harm. Your goal from this point on is to understand what happened and what are next steps in repairing the damage and moving forward in good faith.

Without knowing the specifics [race, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, gender, etc.] of the “intersecting marginalized identities” and assuming that organizational trust isn’t a factor, I will share my general approach to such matters.

Am I dealing with individuals, teams, or organization-wide? This matters because it will determine my approach: a mediated sit-down, a team meeting, or all hands on deck.

Am I able to develop qualitative, quantitative data, or both? Is this a new or longer standing issue? Has this come up before between these individuals or with others? If so, how was it addressed? Is there documentation from that previous situation/s that I can use?

The list is endless, but the goal is to identify as many objective data points as possible in order to minimize potential bias and incorrect assumptions because the more that can be documented, the more space you can make to adequately address the subjective matters.

Also, these conversations can’t just be sterile HR speak where CYA is the priority. People will people. People have conflicts; they don’t get along all the time, and that needs to be an ongoing consideration. My favorite approach is facilitation where given agreed-upon “rules” of basic behavior, we dive into whatever the conflict is in an effort that individuals develop the skills to navigate such situations independently in the future.

This may seem harsh, but I “rank” intersecting marginalized identities. By this I mean that given my study and understanding of historical, cultural, and current events there are folx that will ALWAYS be prioritized even when their behavior is problematic.

DISCLAIMER: This doesn’t mean that I enable them to intentionally, or otherwise, cause harm…it’s just that I get it. There are many marginalized communities that only still exist because of their “fight,” and I take that into account. This also works for me because I’ve usually taken an interest, without being intrusive or creepy, in understanding the professional lives of those around me and what barriers they may be experiencing in reaching their goals so that when contentious situations arise, I’m better positioned to understand the lens through which they may be approaching the situation. Having done this upfront “trust” work also makes correcting behavior, giving feedback, or getting someone to shift perspective less challenging.

I’d like to address this part of your question specifically: “have conflict in your company.” In my experience, far more often than not, organizational conflict arises as a direct result of leadership. It’s normally due to a lack of communication and protocols, inconsistent treatment of various stakeholders, particularly if reasoning is unclear, and an inability or unwillingness to deal with your own shit.

Too many folx in leadership behave as if taking on those specific roles and responsibilities means that they’re above learning or being called out, which creates an unhealthy paternalistic dynamic which folx, in time, come to resent and actively push against. So before I’d assign the conflict to the behavior of others, I’d first evaluate that, as someone in leadership, if I’ve done anything that contributed to the situation, and if I found that I’ve dropped the ball, I would own that and share it with others. I would be clear that I understand that due to this, that, or the other, my actions played a role, and I’d like to work together to resolve it.

This does a few things, but mainly, it’s honest, and in those moments, it helps to de-escalate, which is the goal (not being right). This even works if you can honestly say that you played no part by demonstrating to affected parties that you practice the “we get there together” mantra…that it’s not just words.

Submitter Demographic Information

What role are you in?: Leadership? [Develops vision/mission/core values]

What business sector are you in?: Information

Which 1 of the following domains does your question belong?: Retaining

Retaining Domain Areas: Giving and Receiving Feedback

Disclaimer: This column is intended for general informational and educational purposes only and is not a substitute for any financial, medical, legal, or other professional advice–or any advice regarding the reader’s specific situation. The reader is encouraged to consult with the appropriate professionals before taking any action, or making any decision, based on this column.

Neither Kim Crayton, nor anyone else who contributes to, works on, supports or is associated with this column in any way, is responsible or liable for the outcomes or consequences that may result from any action or omission by the reader. She makes no guarantee or warranty of any kind regarding any such outcomes or consequences or the accuracy, reliability, availability or completeness of any content of this column. The reader’s use of this column is solely at the reader’s risk, and the reader is solely responsible for their action or inaction.