Top tips to lead and coach employees with very different life experiences

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When coaching or leading someone whose life experiences are very different from ours we may get drawn to playing it safe and feel unsure about asking powerful and challenging questions.

Or we may completely miss the mark and left wondering what has gone wrong. From the perspective of someone who is a minority in a majority space it is important to consider the following:

  • Allow extra time to build trust in the relationship and be patient. Be curious and open to the fact that deep down this person probably isn’t feeling 100% psychologically safe. Instead, always be working towards building psychologically safety.
  • Don’t rush into asking too many personal questions. Be prepared to lead on sharing something about yourself to create the connection. However, don’t assume that the sharing will be reciprocated totally or straightaway. Especially, if there is a lack of psychological safety or if historically there is a fear that being too open could backfire and be used against them.
  • The emotional scripts around belonging and inclusion have many layers of visible and invisible complexities for all of us and specifically for those of us from under-represented groups. To be seen and heard is transformational and healing.
  • As a coach, manager or leader it is our privilege if our client or team member feels safe and trusting enough to share what is truly happening for them. Understanding the context of someone from a wider systemic lens allows us to be more effective as coaches and leaders.
  • Saying ‘yes’ to everything, taking on too much and coming across as overly resilient and tough can be a red flag. Ask yourself the question is this ‘healthy resilience’ or ‘dysfunctional resilience’. Healthy resilience is having the ability to bounce back with boundaries in place, feeling psychologically safe and self-assured. Dysfunctional resilience is when someone is in survival mode and although outwardly they keep going. Under the surface they are feeling disempowered, vulnerable and running on empty.
  • Who you are as a leader and coach and how you show up has a huge impact in creating psychological safety and a safe space for someone to be seen and their lived experience to be heard.
  • It is important to show empathy and compassion, however, by feeling sorry or taking the ‘poor you’ position for someone whose life experiences that may to you seem unfortunate. This can come across as condescending and patronising. It also creates an imbalance of power of the ‘rescuer’, saving the ‘victim’.

Finally, each one of us is unique and it is important to be curious and open. How many people do you know whose lives are very different from yours? Understand your own limiting beliefs, biases and assumptions about others. The work has to start with self-reflection and our own history of places and groups where we have felt excluded and psychologically unsafe. What did you need at the time and what you learn about yourself? How can you take this learning to coach or lead someone whose lived experience is very different from yours.

About the author

Salma Shah is an Accredited Coach, the founder of coaching and leadership development platform Mastering Your Power, and author of Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging in Coaching: A Practical Guide (Kogan Page).  

Salma Shah
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