Speaking Up with Danielle Leong

In Episode 16, Danielle Leong (@tsunamino on Twitter) shares how to speak up to set culture as a manager, how to create safe teams, how to recognize teammates for the work they do, and more.


JENNIFER: Welcome to Storytime with Managers, a podcast by Cohere.

I’m Jennifer Tu, and I’m here with Danielle Leong to talk about what to do when something inappropriate occurs on your team. Danielle, can you tell us a little about yourself?

DANIELLE: Sure. I am an engineering manager. I currently am at GitHub and I run two different teams. One of them is the community and safety team. So we build tools to help community maintainers build the healthy communities that they want to see and also close a lot of abuse factors that happen on the Internet. And the second team that I have is a little bit in stealth mode, so I can’t actually talk about that one yet. I also run a consulting firm known as Consensual Software to help other companies build the safer products that they want to provide their users. And I also have another job where I run a photography studio, mainly taking headshots and portraits for anybody who needs a conference headshot or if you’re looking to do something a little bit more creative.

JENNIFER: Wow, that’s really cool. I saw some of your headshots on your website and they look really, really good.

DANIELLE: Oh, thank you.

JENNIFER: So, Danielle, earlier this year, you were at CTO Summit and speaking there, right?

DANIELLE: Yes, I was.

JENNIFER: I think you were talking about what to do when something inappropriate happens on your team. And I was wondering if you could kind of share what some general categories or some examples of what an inappropriate action might be.

DANIELLE: Sure. So there’s a couple of different categories that you can put this kind of ranging from severity in terms of impact. Something that would be a very obvious thing that you would need to fix right away is sexual harassment, somebody inappropriate touches another person, like physical violence, that kind of stuff. That is pretty cut and dry in terms of this is an HR violation. We need to make sure that everybody is safe and discipline is pretty straightforward from that. But then there’s also a lot of things that are a lot more subtle. So a lot of these things are called microaggressions. And so these are things that are not necessarily crossing the line. But as they add up, it becomes a lot harder for somebody who is on the receiving end to really have a good quality of life when they are working within your company, within your team, or even just existing day to day. So, I think the microaggressions are something that is a lot harder to address and it’s a lot harder to really recognize when they do happen. But once you do understand that they are happening and that they do have a negative impact on people, that’s when you really need to be able to step up as a manager and to make sure that those types of things don’t happen anymore.

JENNIFER: Can you tell us a little bit about what a microaggression might look like or how you might look for ones that aren’t exactly that and what to do when you find one?

DANIELLE: Sure. So microaggressions usually happen along the lines of maybe somebody’s race or somebody’s gender or gender identity or sexuality or religion or ability or disability. So basically, the farther away you are from being a cisgender straight white male, the more times that you have something that could happen to you, where it makes you question, is it because I have these other identities or is it because of a personal reason? And so, you’re never really quite sure about that. So, for example, women typically are talked over in meetings by men. This is most likely not intentional, but it does happen a lot. And it does mean that women’s voices aren’t typically heard in a meeting. There’s actually a really great example of this from the Obama administration, where a lot of the women in the meetings would repeat something that somebody else said, that another woman had said, in order to amplify the message that the first woman had said. And so I find that this does happen a lot in male dominated spaces, particularly tech.

And so, I’ve actually had examples of this happen on my own team where I’ve noticed it happen where I have a female engineer. She had a really great idea. She said it out loud in a meeting that we all had and a male counterpart that she had actually repeated the exact same thing right afterwards. And so because I am aware that these things happen, I was able to catch it right away. And I said, “Hey, isn’t that exactly what that other person just said?” And the male counterpart said, “Oh, you’re right. I’m sorry.” And then we just continued to move on throughout our day. So really, the most important thing here is to make sure that you catch it right away. You say something immediately and then you move on afterwards. So just making sure that it’s not tolerated on your team and doing any kind of follow up, if necessary.

JENNIFER: Do you have kind of a top three top end things you’re looking for of microaggression you’re trying to keep an eye out for?

DANIELLE: A lot of the times, I like to make sure that people get credit for the things that they’re working on. So that would be the number one thing. If you came up with an idea and it’s a great idea, then you should absolutely get credit for it. And so this happens both in meetings, in person, as well as in writing, too. So I like to make sure that if you came up with an idea, then you should get credit for it. And no matter what, we should all know who came up with the original idea. If it is a collaborative effort, then we should absolutely make sure that the entire team and whoever worked on it should be properly celebrated for that. So that would be the main one. You said there were any other categories that I’m looking for?

JENNIFER: Yeah. Because you mentioned that you were on the lookout for this kind of a microaggression. So I’m wondering if there are other kinds of microaggressions that are very common that, as managers, we should be keeping an eye out for.

DANIELLE: Yeah. I would also say that it’s important to make sure that supporting roles aren’t looked over because software is a team sport and you can’t always have a team of rock stars who are all doing their own important thing. You also need to have the people that hold the teams together and to make sure that everything works very smoothly.

And so, another microaggression is called emotional labor. And so this is, again, something that tends to be gendered. So usually, people who don’t identify as men tend to fall into this category. But this is making sure that people are feeling welcome on the team, that people feel like they belong on the team. If somebody is having a bad day, oftentimes somebody who does a lot of emotional labor will kind of check in on that person and make sure that they’re okay and kind of just do like a lot of the little household items that are typically viewed as a more feminine trait within a team, making sure that people aren’t being overlooked for doing that kind of activity. Because emotional labor is labor and it can take a lot of energy and effort, so you should make sure that you are noticing these things and making sure that people are being compensated accordingly.

JENNIFER: Cool. That’s a good one to keep an eye on, since that’s something that makes our jobs as managers a lot easier.

DANIELLE: Yes. Absolutely. There’s always these little touches. For example, I have somebody on my team who always checks in on people and say, “Have you taken enough time off?” And they have done this to me on a regular basis because I work a lot and I definitely don’t always remember to take care of myself. But I always appreciate when someone says, “Hey, Danielle, when was the last time that you took time off?” Then I go, “Oh, actually, I probably should do that. Thank you for making sure that the rest of the team is being looked after because I need to take some time off.”

JENNIFER: That’s really great. So it sounds like there is a lot of potential for many different kinds of microaggressions. And I’m wondering, what can you do as a manager to prepare for a microaggression you’re not expecting to happen? What do you think about in order to act appropriately when it happens in front of you?

DANIELLE: I’d say the most important thing is really educating yourself. And then the second most important thing is being willing to learn. So, for example, a lot of black women tend to have people reach out and touch their hair. And this is incredibly inappropriate because you shouldn’t touch people without their consent. And a lot of people are unaware that black women tend to go through this on a daily basis because their hair texture is different than what you would see typically in video, which is like a lot straighter. And so one of the things that I learned as an Asian-American is that I didn’t know enough about this particular topic. I had seen it on Twitter. A lot of black women saying like, “Oh, somebody touched my hair again. Somebody did this and it was terrible.” And I wondered, “What am I missing in order to understand what this is?” And so, I started doing a lot of research in black women hair care because I was woefully uneducated about this entire topic. And so, understanding like the different types of products, the different types of techniques in order to do this, the history behind black women hair care and how it is deemed “unprofessional” when this is somebody’s natural hair texture. And then feeling like you don’t have control over your own body. And there’s a lot of history, and I am not even close to being an expert on this, but this is a lot of things that I learned because I didn’t understand this microaggression.

And so, first of all, educating yourself on this topic and really looking into why would somebody say something like this when I don’t have enough context, if it means that you just need to get some more context around it. And so, educating yourself. And then also understanding that there’s always room to grow and to learn. So, somebody calls you out for being inappropriate or for not seeing something the way that they are saying it, then that means it’s a learning opportunity to understand, “Hey, this is a gap in my current knowledge. Let me go Google this and see if there is some kind of resources that I can learn about myself and understand my own biases and see how I can improve myself there.”

JENNIFER: What do you do when you’re in that learning process? Let’s say someone touched a black woman’s hair in front of you and you didn’t know that that’s a thing. And then later you heard, “Hey, that felt really uncomfortable. I don’t like being touched,” because that’s not appropriate in the workplace. What do you do then? Do you try to retroactively go back and fix it? Do you learn and never do that again? Or is there something else you should be doing?

DANIELLE: Are you saying that I am the one who touched the person’s hair or I witnessed this?

JENNIFER: Let’s say that you witnessed it happening. And so, you’re a manager, you see it happening. Let’s make it easy and just say they’re both your direct reports.

DANIELLE: Got it. In that case, I would follow up with the person who was affected by it. And then I would ask, would they be comfortable for me to step in? Because it does depend on a person’s preferences. Some people don’t like it if you do intervene. But if you do know that person well enough and you do understand that it is a very uncomfortable situation for them to be in, then that’s something that you can step in right away and say like, “Hey, just so you know, this is inappropriate. And here are some resources for you to learn about it.” But sometimes, people are uncomfortable with other people stepping in. And so, you don’t want to be a savior all of the time if it is an inappropriate situation. So again, it does depend on the severity of these types of events. If they are both my direct reports and I see it and I understand that that is a microaggression, then I will speak up and I will say, “Hey, this is not appropriate. Don’t do this again. Here are some other resources.” But I would check in on the person who is being affected first and say, “I notice this thing. Is this something you would like me to address? Because I absolutely can. Or what is your preference in moving forward with this?”

JENNIFER: I really like how that gives agency to the person who was affected by that. That’s a one I’m going to have to remember. Always give agency back to the person who was affected.


JENNIFER: What about the person who committed the microaggression? Do you need to do anything other than, let’s say, in general for microaggressions and you see it happening in real time and you call it out in real time, do you need to do anything beyond say, “Hey, we don’t do that here.” Or are there more actions that you should be taking beyond that?

DANIELLE: Again, it does depend on the severity of these types of events. But generally, I keep notes on a lot of the things that happen on my teams and I will keep a note of it and keep an eye on it and make sure that it doesn’t happen again. If it does happen again, then that is something that I would put down in something that’s a little bit more formal and say like, “If this continues to happen, then it will be a bigger problem. And I will need to talk to somebody else about this.” But hopefully, if it’s just something that is a point of ignorance or some gap in somebody’s knowledge, hopefully, we can just move on from this. We have all learned from it and it won’t happen again. But if it does happen again, then there is something that you actually need to keep record of. And if it continues to be a problem, then it will cause morale issues on the team and therefore you won’t have a healthy team and that needs to be dealt with eventually.

JENNIFER: All right. How do you know when to bring in your own manager or when to go to HR?

DANIELLE: I’d say that if it is a severe enough problem or it’s a reoccurring issue, then that is something that I would mention.

JENNIFER: How do you know if something is severe enough?

DANIELLE: If it is something that somebody is doing maliciously, then I would say that that is pretty severe. If it is a continuation of a habit that I view as destructive, then that is also an issue. A lot of the times, it does depend on the intent of the person. So if it is, again, a gap in somebody’s knowledge and it is something that has been overlooked in the past and has never been corrected, if somebody has never received feedback, then I don’t expect them to know everything and be able to know what is something that they don’t know. So if I have educated them and said, “This is not appropriate,” and they continue to do it despite knowing that it is inappropriate, then I would say that is an issue.

JENNIFER: That’s a really good framing of whether or not, and I’m thinking about whether or not your report is aligned with what you, as a manager, are looking for in their performance. Because if you gave them feedback like, “Hey, you need to stop merging into the primary branch without having any kind of pull request feedback,” and they keep doing that, then it’s kind of the same thing as repeating microaggressions over and over again.

DANIELLE: Right. There is a difference between not knowing that something is a preference or a rule on this team. And then there is knowing it and choosing to ignore it. So, I generally look at intent for something, for behaviors. If somebody knows that something is not appropriate and they continue to do it regardless, as you said, merging a branch straight into the primary branch without getting any kind of code review, then you need to make sure that there are some benchmarks and things that are set up in order to safeguard the other parts of the team. So, for example, you can lock master on GitHub and say, “This is a protected branch and you must have a code review from this code reviewer’s team in order to merge this branch.” Same thing with team dynamics as well. Things that you can do are set goals and set benchmarks and say, “I want to make sure that when I check in on the other members of the team for the next month or so, that this behavior doesn’t happen again.” Or, “I would like you to read these two books that have to do with a topic that you didn’t know about before. I’d like you to read it and then report back to me within this specific amount of time.” And if any of these kinds of things are broken, then I will escalate this to somebody else.

JENNIFER: That’s a good rule of thumb. Thank you.

DANIELLE: Yeah, absolutely.

JENNIFER: Speaking of books, do you have any resources, books, or talks or any other kind of resources for someone who wants to learn more about microaggressions and what to do as a manager when they encounter one?

DANIELLE: I think the only one that really comes to mind is Lara Hogan new book. I actually don’t remember the title of that off the top of my head. But Lara Hogan has a really great book about, I think it’s resilient management and it does talk about the different ways that you can have a discussion with people about their feedback. And I think that adding interpersonal issues along with technical issues are incredibly important when you are managing a technical team, because you need to have both in order to have a healthy team.

JENNIFER: All right. Sounds great. I’ll make sure that goes into the show notes. Danielle, any final words or thoughts you want to share with our listeners?

DANIELLE: Always be learning about the people on your team and the things that they might be going through, because there is a lot of gaps I know that I have in my own knowledge about people of different experiences. And it’s incredibly important to understand what the people on your team are going through in order to make sure that they are putting in their best selves at work. And so, if that means following somebody that you normally wouldn’t follow on Twitter or reading a book that somebody has recommended on your team that you normally wouldn’t pick up, I think that that is incredibly important. And it shows that you, as a manager, really care about somebody’s entire self. And so, being able to do that means that people can trust a little bit more and be able to come forward if something does happen and know that you’re going to be there. And so that is part of being somebody who’s a little bit more empathetic and understanding that people go through a lot of stuff on a daily basis and that will really help with trust.

JENNIFER: That’s awesome. Thank you so much. If people want to reach out and keep talking with you about this, what’s a good way for them to get in touch?

DANIELLE: The best way is Twitter. My handle is @tsunamino. If you take tsunami and domino and smash them together. You can also just Google me. It’s probably a lot easier than trying to figure out how to spell that. But Twitter is probably the best way to find me. Feel free to reach out to me anytime about Consensual Software, about engineering management. Or even if you want to get your headshot done, I definitely am still taking reservations throughout the rest of the year.

JENNIFER: Sounds great. Thanks so much.

DANIELLE: All right. Thank you.

JENNIFER: Thanks for listening to Storytime with Managers by Cohere. I’m Jennifer Tu. Our theme music is by Kevin MacLeod and we are edited by Mandy Moore and the DevReps crew.

If you like this episode, please think about leaving us a review on your favorite podcast listening platform. This can make a really big difference in helping other people find and start listening to Storytime with Managers. Thanks so much.

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