“He who is different from me does not impoverish me – he enriches me” – Antoine de St-Exupery
Reports from the big management consultancies show diverse organisations to be more profitable and effective. Along with that, … we have seen all too clearly the flawed system where George Floyd was killed by the police in the US. Similar deaths have occurred in the UK and other countries where strong racist bias shows up in policing. Education systems are reported to be failing young people of colour..
The Me Too movement has given new energy to the push for change ..Women are slow to move to the top of organisations even if we have been working on this for decades. Many women in senior jobs have become a sort of honorary man (yes, still) because working practices remain so rigid. Patterns of employment are so ingrained in FTSE 500 companies that it is also super rare to see a person of colour on the Board. The Covid pandemic has adversely impacted many women who have been front line workers or working from home, overloaded with caring responsibilities alongside their jobs. People over 50 drop off the radar of recruiters in spite of the experience and skills they bring. Inequalities stack up in many places. The list is long and we have read all about it in the news. I wrote about it in my August 2020 blog.
So, people are talking about their wish to make their workplaces more inclusive and their workforce more diverse. Many organisations are reviewing old-fashioned ways of managing. D+I is not a ‘glue-on easy-fix’. Diversity and inclusion should be the work of everyone and in everyone’s work. It is excellent management. It is excellent product development. It is fantastic service, flexible to meet all needs. It is a learning organisation. It’s hard to do.
Leadership is key. And leaders are at all levels in organisations not just at the top. An openness to wanting change and to understanding that there are many versions of good policing or good service or good education, depending on our viewpoint, is essential. Leaders need to be prepared to make space for different conversations and to be very uncomfortable listening to others’ experience. We need to be prepared for complexity and imperfection as we aim for something better. We need to converse with employees and clients who may be in a position where they are not at all powerful and may not find it easy to speak their minds.
Leaders need to be prepared to turn everything on its head, look at it from a completely different viewpoint and, if necessary, induce some chaos to make change happen. The patterns of power in some organisations have often not shifted for years and people sitting in those seats of power don’t even realise how they shut down the motivation, energy and creativity of their people by carrying on as usual. They do not have access to some of the best brains for their organisations because they don’t know how to recruit them. I suspect many organisations are not attractive to potential employees – they can look like an alien world for those on the outside of them.
Recently I listened in to Steve McQueen talking about his film making (12 years a Slave, Hunger, Small Axe) and his insistence on people of colour making up a percentage of every part of the process of the making of his films in a very white film industry – that is how change starts to happen. Getting on with it right now.
Leading inclusively is not easy to do. I have been in teams in France and the UK where at least half the team were gay men. In those teams they were able to be themselves at work – to express themselves freely and to feel safe to do so – and I supported that fully, knowing that they had experienced discrimination in other settings. We were working together in environments where we talked openly about making our work life and services more inclusive. Sometimes, however in one team, it felt as if there was no room for the women in the team to be able to speak and contribute. (This feels uncomfortable to write ) One man was a misogynist and no one challenged him including me. It was frustrating as we were working to embrace the differences in the group. It’s difficult to get the balance of truly valuing all of the team right and the atmosphere of respect and valuing of difference OK for everyone.
Another time a team I headed up had a practice of celebrating birthdays as a way of celebrating the different members of our team. We were very pleased to recruit a disabled graduate into our team and to offer them a flexible working pattern. I was really surprised though when they announced they did not want any birthday celebration for themselves or to take part in others’ celebrations because of their religion. So, something intended to unite people in a moment of fun and celebration, wasn’t that, for one member of the team, at all. Our good intentions can be completely wrong for some people. We cannot assume anything – we need to ask people about their preferences.
Sometimes one employee’s needs contradict those of their colleague. One person may need maximum flexibility for their working hours to accommodate their children and it impacts on another employee who is trying to fix a regular project meeting to move work forward. Resentment may even emerge about perceived commitment to the shared work because we fall back on old models of presenteeism – in reality flexible working practices breed hard work and employee loyalty though it may be harder to set up those team meetings to move forward together.
These are examples from many times I have felt uncomfortable as a leader trying to open up ways of working to embrace everyone’s talents and contributions. It can be a lonely and difficult experience questioning ourselves about what we have done right and what hasn’t worked. It can feel very exposing to make that discussion happen in a team meeting. I don’t know the exact answers – there are no perfect ones. Being a good inclusive leader is elusive – you get one bit right and another part slips out of line. So, openness to learning and a willingness to really listen to people’s needs so they can perform at their best, and to respond to that, is a way forward.
The exploration of difference, and the needs that flow from difference, are a source of growth, conflict and improvement. There are multiple ways of doing things as there are multiple clients or customers. It takes a lot longer but has more impact: on individuals feeling valued in the system and on the clients who recognise their needs are being addressed at last.
For many years I have tried to open up my thinking to new viewpoints and new experiences of life through the books I read, the people I meet and talk to, the music I listen to, the art I look at, the films I watch, the places I go … My plan has been to never stop learning about different people and to get used to that feeling of discomfort as I am finding out. It makes life rich and interesting.
I coach leaders working on these issues. I provide a safe space for exploring how to be as a leader in a given context. I have accompanied them in opening up these uncomfortable conversations in their workplaces and encouraged them to keep going. Get in touch if you are interested in doing the same.
photos from my travels before COVID 19
#inclusion #leadership #diversity #learningorganisation #leadershipchallenge #we are all leaders #change #improvement #fairness #equity #valuing difference