The past few months have been unlike any other from a diversity and inclusion perspective. In order to cultivate a workplace culture where talent can thrive, it’s more important than ever for leaders to adapt, to show kindness and, where they see instances of inequality, to be brave in challenging for answers. On Thursday 25th June, Investigo Senior Director Angharad Kenward hosted a D&I webinar discussing compassionate and inclusive leadership. Our panel featured Dan Robertson, Director at VERCIDA Consulting, Zahoor Ahmad, Diversity and Inclusion Lead at Swinton Insurance, Adrian Binfield, Director of HR at BT and Ravi Khanna, Director of People Experience at Metropolitan Thames Valley Housing.
Psychopaths and zombies – Dan Robertson, Director VERCIDA Consulting
As well as being popular themes for horror movies, the concepts of psychopathy and zombification are equally applicable to styles of leadership. Dan argued that leadership traditionally takes an individualistic style which assumes the leader knows best, the focus being on command and control. This mode of leadership is rife with psychopathic and zombie-like behaviour.
Psychopathic leaders are selfish and self-interested, lacking empathy. Zombie leaders are “influenced by dead ideas on what motivates employees, overly conforming to organisational norms and turning a blind eye on bad behaviours.”
In a changing world where diversity has become a global concern, leaders need to adopt a new, inclusive style encompassing seven key areas:
- Fairness and respect – measuring understanding, bias and belonging
- Collaboration – measuring teaming and courage, and promoting social bonds
- Emotional quotient (EQ) and cultural intelligence – measuring empathy, curiosity and open-mindedness
- Empowerment and growth – measuring stewardship, sponsorship and adaptability
- Promoting psychological safety – measuring humility and courage
- Insight – measuring awareness of self and others through curiosity and perspective taking
- Trust building – measuring honesty, openness, transparency and integrity.
Landmarks – Zahoor Ahmad, Diversity and Inclusion Lead, Swinton Insurance
Every so often, there are social indicators affecting people’s views on race, argued Zahoor. He cited the Race Relations (Amendment) Act in the US in 2000 and the 9-11 attacks, with the subsequent rise of Islamophobia. “As we move forward across 20 years, we see the rise of populism,” he said.
Zahoor has attended seminars on a number of high-profile race-related events, including Stephen Lawrence and most recently, the Black Lives Matter campaign. “The question I get most often is about statues. Some of it’s a bit of a red herring. Not all statues are created equal. We need to understand exactly what some of those representations are, the hierarchy of inequalities that some of them represent, from micro-aggressions to genocide.”
These considerations need to be properly thought out. Zahoor drew comparisons with the ‘Me Too’ campaign, which gathered pace in a similar way. While such campaigns undoubtedly draw much-needed attention to causes that require urgent action, Zahoor raised a concern that “The media doesn’t contextualise. It throws everything in there, muddies the water and takes away from what’s actually happened. It’s important to take a step back and properly contextualise what’s happened.”
The shifting leadership paradigm and the importance of dialogue – Adrian Binfield, Director of HR, BT
“The point around context is so important,” added Adrian. Recent events have “added an extra level of anxiety” following the logistical challenge of leading the COVID response at BT, which involved immediately moving 50,000 colleagues to home working. “It’s been an interesting and challenging time over the last few months. Our focus is on doing the right things for our customers, community and colleagues.”
He added, “The initial stage of the pandemic played strongly to the existing paradigm for leadership – strong, execution-focused leadership and governance.” But demand from colleagues in the early weeks “brought about a shift in leaders to focus on wellbeing, reassurance and support. We get a window into everyone’s life on Zoom calls. The separation between home and work has gone. This has created more personal and intimate relations at work which at first many leaders struggled to come to terms with. They’re human beings now. They previously had personas for work and outside of work. We’ve seen a big shift to a much warmer and more consultative style of leadership. There’s more attention and genuine concern for individuals. Now it’s a genuine enquiry into what’s going on for people. It’s a thing I would love to bottle.”
Of course, the social challenges in the wake of the Black Lives Matter campaign have also been considerable. “Minneapolis has brought the spotlight on leaders like never before,” he said. “Colleagues especially from a BAME background are looking at us as leaders and saying, ‘Who are we? What do we stand for? How are we acting?’ Looking to us for reassurance and guidance. I don’t think BT would have been as well-prepared to respond to that challenge pre-COVID. It would have been a more transactional response rather than listening more and having honest and open communications.”
As BT looks to understand the issue, dialogue with colleagues of a black background has been crucial. The company recently held a session giving colleagues the opportunity to share their experiences. “It was a different thing for the exco to hear,” said Adrian. “It was an opportunity for colleagues to say, ‘this is what we’re asking from you as leaders to do as a result.’” A recording of the event was posted on Workplace. “That transparency is really key to role model what we’re expecting of leaders,” said Adrian. “Leaders with a clear purpose, who are genuine and authoritative and have a real desire to do the right thing. Leaders prepared to hear tough messages that what we’ve been doing as a business is not good enough.”
Adrian made the distinction between empathy and compassion, feeling that empathy alone is not enough. It’s “a more passive thing – ‘I understand and see how things are for you.’ Compassion is more about taking action.”
Communication and compassion – Ravi Khanna, Director of People Experience, Metropolitan Thames Valley Housing
“It’s about humility,” said Ravi. “We pretend to know everything. I’ve been in leadership consultation and D&I for 10 years. I thought I knew quite a lot but the events of the last few months have shown how little I know and how much more there is to learn. I suspect I’m not alone in that.”
With around 2,000 staff, the company has been encouraging managers to talk to their teams about how they’re managing while working from home. There’s a balance between being empathetic and being flexible when there are targets to meet. “It was a difficult equation to balance and it still is,” Ravi reflected.
Recent events in Minneapolis have further complicated that equation. “The murder of George Floyd caught the organisation unawares and the organisation responded poorly,” said Ravi. One black colleague described their feelings about the company’s response with the comment, “our silence was deafening.”
“I dropped everything I was doing and have focused on that almost exclusively ever since,” added Ravi. The company conducted a Zoom call to better understand how its people – and most pertinently, its black colleagues – felt about the issue. “It was a very open conversation. There was a lot of dissatisfaction, anger and resentment towards the organisation as well as the challenges we’re facing in society at large.” At this point, Ravi made a crucial distinction that hasn’t always been recognised in reporting on the issue. “Black colleagues said it’s not an issue for BAME colleagues, it’s an issue for black colleagues. The two are very different. The mindset of lumping everyone who’s not white in the category of BAME is just nonsense. It creates challenges, issues and prejudices between people from different communities being lumped together. It’s a different conversation about a problem created over hundreds of years. The idea that we can find a simple solution to it now is pretty unrealistic. We need the qualities of humility, compassion and empathy, to make time for people, ask how they are.”
Then, it’s about providing concrete solutions. “How as organisations and leaders do we respond to that? Conversations and soundbites are just as well, but what action can we take? What do we do as leaders? There’s a responsibility on all of us, whether we’re leaders or not, to educate ourselves. How inclusive a leader do you want to be? Part of that is to understand the history and culture of others. What we’re doing, saying or not that we don’t realise is having an impact.”
Drawing a line
There was a question about how to handle colleagues who are detrimental to conversations about equality. While there will be “people posting comments on what the company is doing through a desire to engage in conversation,” there will be “others overstepping the mark,” said Adrian. In such cases, it’s about companies “Reminding people of the rules and parameters of respect, what we’re prepared to tolerate, zero-tolerance on things that would be offensive to others. You need constant dialogue with those individuals to understand why they have that view and create an environment where people can have conversations, learn more and have access to support tools to allow leaders to drive this forward.”
One of the attendees had experienced discrimination from her team on the grounds of ethnicity and gender. “It’s what you permit and what you promote,” said Zahoor. “There’s no easy way other than to challenge, not to normalise that type of behaviour. It’s harassment of women in the workplace. There’s a slow normalisation and escalation of that behaviour – language, inappropriate touching. Try to remove that type of behaviour at its lowest possible level to prevent it from becoming something that requires disciplinary action. People will have different views, the context will be different, but ultimately you need to be challenging it.”
Positive action or positive discrimination?
With Microsoft looking to change its demographic, one of the attendees posed the question of whether positive discrimination is something to consider. “Ultimately, what are we trying to do here?” said Dan. “We’re trying to have organisations that are diverse and inclusive, reflecting the reality of life. Organisational decision-making is not fair, definitely not on race. We know there’s disproportionality. I’m not a fan of a positive discrimination or quotas, but I am definitely a fan of positive action, under the principle of ‘what gets measured, gets done’. The basic deal is, if you don’t have targeted activities, you won’t get any targeted results. If the evidence is that black and other minority communities are excluded from the workplace, why not do something to address that?”
The challenges of implementing a D&I programme
“There are two challenges,” said Ravi. “The first is, to what degree do you have the buy-in of the senior team? Are they really committed to the agenda and willing to follow through in their own actions and hold others to account? The second thing is, having conversations about how different people see the diversity and inclusion agenda differently. It’s different across generations. When I converse with black and Asian colleagues in their mid-20s, they have a very different view to people at my level. Be inclusive around inclusivity. Try and represent and understand and speak to the needs of all the different people in the organisation, otherwise if you focus on some of our views, you’re going against the spirit.”
“We’ve began to challenge some of that,” said Zahoor. “We’ve started to develop D&I in different locations. When we create a shared narrative and share it and have a direction of travel, it will result in the erosion of privilege. As we begin levelling the playing field, people previously disadvantaged will be on an even footing with others. The challenge is now there. It’s good for business. However, there’s still a gap. It doesn’t mean we’ll immediately get effective challenge and competition due to years of privilege among certain groups,” he added, citing the privilege associated with being educated at the likes of Eton and Oxbridge.
There’s a perception that company boards often recruit in their own image, that when they want to appoint a new CEO, senior leadership will turn to people they already know.
Businesses need to look at which agencies they’re using, challenging their approach to diversity and inclusion. It’s also important to provide subconscious bias training doing to refine recruitment processes and make them as fair as possible.
“The business case for diversity? I’m over it. It’s really a decoy to what’s going on,” said Dan. “The real business case for D&I is that if you don’t do this, you probably won’t be around for very long. You’ll become irrelevant as an organisation in a world that is increasing concerned with diversity issues, both in terms of talent and customer insight. The whole globe is talking about issues not just of race, but of diversity. Any organisational leaders that don’t respond to that now will become irrelevant. They’ll struggle to hire the best talent they need to create cultures of belonging that lead to creativity and innovation. If you start with profit, you’re starting in the wrong place. Start with how you’re looking after people internally and externally, and the profit will follow”.
Could part of the answer come in the form of blind CVs? While this might start to address the problem, the odds start stacking up against applicants from minority groups as the recruitment process progresses. “The evidence says that at the sifting stage, it actually works,” said Dan. “It’s a positive step. But it’s more complex at the interview stage as you meet people. There’s no screen, so the opportunity for bias to creep in is there. It’s not an answer to everything but it has its place.”
There was an argument that the problem runs deeper – that loaded or biased recruitment processes are merely a reflection of wider social divisions. An attendee from the financial sector pointed out that a lot of people in her industry have a very similar social background, which can come through in processes such as graduate recruitment. “By virtue of their background, certain candidates have the teaching, training and support that allows them to perform better at interviews. They’re actively filtered and trained to do well in that environment,” she said.
She added, “Social division is more pronounced when you look at the stats for black colleagues, who live mostly in deprived areas. The challenge is how to bring these people into organisations. Talent doesn’t equate to having a first class degree from a certain university. There are other lenses than anonymising names and locations,” she argued.
“If we value diversity of any type,” continued another attendee, “this should be in the assessment criteria when we recruit. I’ve always heard ‘they’ll fit in here – they’re like us.’ Maybe not fitting in is what we should recruit on. Rather than trying to make things normalised, we want people who are going to think differently and see the world differently.” Following a recent recruitment process where all the candidates could have done the job, she decided to pick one who “would upset things a bit.”
Closing thoughts: defining inclusive leadership
Dan: “Do we want positive disruptors in our organisation or do we want to do the same thing? I’d hire people who are different from me. Why? They add skills and insight to the team, and that keeps us innovating and relevant to our clients”.
Adrian: “Start with whether you want to have a fixed or a growth mindset. If it’s growth, it’s how you learn from others, get different perspectives. If it’s fixed, it’s reinforcing what you already think.”
Zahoor: “Curiosity in context. I heard a radio report that 60% of private schools have online tutorials every day, but in the public education system, it’s about 6%. Remain curious about the long term impact on people’s abilities to effectively navigate through the post-COVID world.”
Ravi: “I’ve heard people say, ‘If we hire people with the right skills, what’s the problem?’ Everyone has biases, many of which they’re unaware of. You look at their teams and they’re full of white men. We need to understand it’s not a level playing field. Are we willing to look at our own biases? If not, nothing’s going to change.”
Many thanks to our panellists for a fascinating discussion. If you’d like to talk to us about devising and cultivating an inclusive workplace culture for your business, pleasecontact us.