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Calling in and calling out

How can managers and leaders disrupt some of the inequities and injustices that show up in the workplace? Find out more in this article.
© The King’s Fund

In this step we are going to consider how managers and leaders can disrupt some of the inequities and injustices we explored in Week 2.

Many of the inequities present in our organisations are institutional and structural in origin and nature. But more often than not they also require people to enact them, so for managers and leaders there is always an opportunity to both notice them and act. Doing nothing and staying silent in contexts of injustice is not a neutral act, it simply confirms for all staff  that you are comfortable with the existence of those inequities, or that particular behaviour or outcome.

‘If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.’
Desmond Tutu

What’s the difference?

One helpful way of approaching your response to injustice of any kind and drawing attention to the harm it causes is the idea of ‘calling out’ and ‘calling in’.

  • Calling out means bringing public attention to an individual, group or organisation’s harmful words or behaviour. It is overt and about direct challenge.
  • Calling in means drawing attention to an individual, group or organisation’s harmful words or behaviour through enquiry in order to build greater understanding.
Calling out sounds like Calling in sounds like
‘I can’t let that go, it’s not an appropriate thing to say.’ ‘I’m curious, what did you intend by what you said?’
‘I’m curious, what did you intend by what you said?’ ‘I’m curious, what did you intend by what you said?’
‘I don’t find that funny. Tell me why that’s funny to you.’ ‘How might someone else see this differently? Is it possible that someone else might misinterpret your words/actions?’
‘That’s not our culture here. Those aren’t our values.’ ‘That’s not our culture here. Those aren’t our values.’
‘I need you to know how your comment just landed on me.’ ‘Do you think that this could be problematic?’
‘Do you think that this could be problematic?’ ‘Do you think that this could be problematic?’

When to use it

The table above summarises how different the two approaches sound in practice. The trick however is knowing when to use which, though it’s important to remember that calling in and calling out are not mutually exclusive strategies. Depending on the situation, calling out could precede calling someone in for a follow-up conversation that is more exploratory, reflective and restorative.

Some things to consider when calling-in or out include:

  • Your relationship to the person you are challenging – do you have influence, do they ‘outrank’ you in the organisational hierarchy, etc.
  • Whether you feel safe to make the challenge (this is especially important if you are the recipient of the injustice).
  • The openness to learning that the person you are challenging has demonstrated by their past actions.
  • The urgency of the situation and whether your intervention will prevent further harm from being caused.


Sometimes you might be the one who is being challenged, and these are moments when the extent of your emotional self awareness will become apparent. Your response will be a powerful modelling of behaviour either way, and the table below summarises some ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ to help you clarify which are positive responses that communicate good intent.

Do Don’t
Pause: take a breath. Ground yourself to really hear what is being said. Get defensive,
Listen: with the intent of learning and seeing things from their point of view. Beat yourself up or get stuck in feelings of guilt, embarrassment or shame. This is the moment for self-compassion.
Acknowledge: take responsibility for the impact of your words or actions. Make the person calling you in or out be your emotional caretaker, especially if they are the recipient of the harm. (All that does is centre your needs and add to their emotional labour.)
Reflect: process your thoughts and emotions. You could also talk it over with someone, so long as they will not just ‘take your side’ to make you feel better. Remember you’re not a bad person and you can survive being challenged. All of us are learning and growing as people and this is just an important moment for learning.
Repair: change your behaviour going forward and invite those around you to hold you accountable for learning and doing better.  

Share a memory you have of a time (in any part of your life) when you felt moved to ‘call out’ or ‘call in’ something you thought was unjust. What happened? How did it feel?

© The King’s Fund
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