Setting the Table for Inclusion: Five Things Leaders Can Do to Interrupt Toxic Behaviors

An ambassador shares a few lessons learned about creating norms of inclusion and respect in the workplace.


The most pivotal moment of my career occurred at your average State Department morning meeting several years ago. Newly arrived in Washington from the field, I was navigating a new job that had me leading on a bigger and more intimidating stage than the intimate conference rooms I had inhabited overseas.

When it was my turn to speak, I barely made it through the first sentence of my briefing when the principal interrupted me with a question. While I was answering the question, they interrupted again and asked my colleague next to me to clarify something I had said. Others around the table began jumping in to add input, with some repeating exactly what I thought I had just said.

It was all I could do to wrest my brief back and get to the end of it, by which time the principal had lost interest and clearly wanted to move on. I was crestfallen and managed to make it to my office, closing the door before angry tears began rolling down my face. Then emails began hitting my inbox; friends who were present at the meeting were asking if I was okay.

No, I was not okay. What had happened? What had gone wrong with my brief that invited that behavior? What was it about our organizational culture that allowed this to happen? I thought about curtailing. I thought about resigning. I thought about writing the principal a strongly worded email or asking someone more senior to do that. In the end, I did none of those things. But I did vow to seek answers to these questions. I also resolved that I would never let something like this happen to me again, or to anyone else at a meeting where I was present.

It's Not Just About “Executive Presence”

In the time since this transpired, I had the opportunity to participate in an executive education opportunity offered by the State Department. As a leadership fellow with the International Women’s Forum, I focused on “executive presence” at State and undertook to better understand how our organizational culture shapes perceptions of competency and what it takes to look, sound, and behave like a leader at the department. Working with Executive Women at State, we organized a series of workshops attended by more than a thousand participants who reviewed how acting with confidence and demonstrating good judgment and preparedness—both for a meeting’s audience and its substance—positively affect outcomes and everyone’s ability to contribute. This topic really resonated with people, and we all benefited from discussing how to lean into executive presence at State.

Yet, it was clear from audience feedback that the experience of many—honestly expressing their views if they did not align with those of their leadership, showing up to work as their authentic selves, or otherwise challenging the status quo—was a risky endeavor best avoided. Given promotion statistics and experiences on the job, audience members questioned whether employees who don’t fit the mold in one way or another were fairly assessed and perceived as deserving of promotion to the highest ranks—even if they prepared fully and succeeded in strengthening their executive presence.

I have to believe this circumstance is shaped in part by bullying behaviors that disproportionately target people perceived as other, different, and less worthy of sitting at the table.

Set Operational Norms of Respect

If we’re ever really going to end the behaviors that employees continue to report as a major concern, leaders have a responsibility to “set the table” and create operational norms of respect, humility, inclusion, and empathy. Even when we are busy. Even when the issues are urgent. This is not something leaders must do to be “nice”; it’s something we do because it helps draw out good ideas, retain the best people, and protect those among our teams who may be more vulnerable to toxic behavior.

I count among my greatest mentors those bosses who understood this and brought out the best in me. I shamelessly borrow from their playbooks as I continue to develop my own competency in this area of norm creation and pay their investment forward. I also rely on verbal and nonverbal feedback from my team and mentees to gut-check how I’m doing at setting that table.

In my current assignment, I have the honor of serving as ambassador to Oman. I have been entrusted by the president and the Secretary of State to lead and care for a fantastic team dedicated to advancing our national interests here. I am determined to foster an embassy workspace and culture where inclusion, candor, and mutual respect are the norm, and where we all flourish by denying bullying behavior the tacit permission it requires to persist.

Lessons Learned

Here are a few leadership lessons learned that I share in the spirit of the resolution I made at my desk years ago:

Be self-aware. Take the time to consider and convey what successful communication looks like at meetings you lead. Often, we hit the ground running and don’t make the time to set up our teams for success in working with us. Convey clear expectations so everyone on your team understands how you prefer to receive information and how you expect them to communicate with you and one another. In our hierarchical organization, the norms you establish will trickle across and down.

Set an example. Be the change you want to see. Really listen to people and what they are trying to say, and put yourself in their shoes. Imagine where they are coming from and how intimidating or difficult it might be for them to brief in an unfamiliar environment. This is a core tenet of servant leadership: Never interrupt when people are attempting to make a point. Also, when someone briefs you, thank them. Indicate that you have listened and absorbed what was just said. This goes double if they have initiated a difficult conversation, challenged your beliefs, or provided honest feedback—all gifts of trust that are increasingly rare and valuable as you enter positions of greater authority.

Context matters; none of our interaction with staff happens in a vacuum. It’s important to explain the reasoning for your decisions and trust that your staff will understand, whether they are related to policy, budget, or personnel. In a vacuum, absent firsthand data from you, people will make assumptions about your intentions. It is vital that senior leaders keep their finger on the pulse and hold their middle managers accountable for table setting, because members of your team will assume that tolerance for bullying or toxic behaviors they experience from peers or direct supervisors may on some level channel your tacit acceptance.

Give constructive and specific feedback and do it privately ... Ninety-nice percent of the time, a public situation is not the place to give negative feedback to an employee. But if we have feedback to give, I believe we are on the hook to deliver it, as uncomfortable as it might be. A mentor once pulled me aside after a meeting to give me feedback on a briefing I had delivered and ways in which I could strengthen my presentation. I am forever grateful to that person.

... except when you are interrupting bullying behavior. The one exception to the previous point is bullying, which needs to be interrupted publicly sometimes to reinforce the norm against that behavior. This responsibility is on everyone. There is no precise formula for doing this. I am not suggesting we need to go around policing each other. However, I do wish that someone had jumped in when everyone was piling on at the meeting I mentioned above. While multiple people approached me privately afterward, it would have meant a lot more if someone had intervened to back me up in the moment. For the target of bullying behavior, there is no substitute for someone naming or interrupting what is happening as it unfolds.

Lead from wherever you sit. I often use conversations on executive presence to point out moments where a member of the team shifted the course of a meeting with more senior colleagues (including some at the very top of the State Department) through timely, thoughtfully delivered, pitch-perfect questions, ideas, challenges, or suggestions. Those brave souls are my heroes. Can it be frightening? Absolutely. Can you prepare in advance to help ease the stress of engaging with peers or leaders you know in advance will be difficult and intimidating? Absolutely. I encourage everyone to run your points past trusted listeners, build alliances in advance of meetings, and listen for good ideas that are being lost in the ether and seek to reinforce them.

Every so often, I look up and reread Secretary Blinken’s April 2022 remarks on diversity, equality, inclusion, and accountability. Doing so reinspires me to work toward the broad cultural transformation the Secretary called for in that speech. I believe we can all build workspaces of which we are proud, using whatever span of control each of us can exert. Obviously, accountability for senior leaders is a key component in addressing a culture of bullying behavior. That said, enduring change will come only from the collective efforts of a critical mass of Foreign Service, Civil Service, EFM, contractor, and locally employed staff who model and carry forward new norms of behavior into our hundreds of offices, missions, and consulates worldwide. This is a challenge we can all embrace to change our organization for the better.

Ana Escrogima joined the State Department as a Foreign Service officer in 2003 and is currently the U.S. ambassador to Oman. She has also served overseas as principal officer at U.S. Consulate Montreal, and in Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Iraq, the UAE, and Syria. She served as a Rusk Fellow at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and is the 2020 recipient of the Arnold L. Raphel Memorial Award for her work supporting entry-level officers in diversity and inclusion efforts. She was the Pickering and Rangel Fellows Association president in 2010, the year it was founded. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent those of the Department of State or the U.S. government.


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