What it means to be me
To create rich, diverse and dynamic organisations we must take time to reflect on who we really are
“I wish I could share all the love that’s in my heart Remove all the bars that keep us apart I wish you could know what it means to be me Then you’d see and agree That every man should be free”
I wish I knew how it would feel to be free - Nina Simone
In the early days of the upsurge of the Black Lives Matter movement in the UK after George Floyd’s murder, there was – and still is – a clamouring for action. We felt and voiced it too. But we have wondered since then whether rushing to action, however well-intentioned or motivated, is the right thing to do. Is this a way of not dwelling on the discomfort of the mess we find ourselves in, but rather rushing to think we are ‘fixing’ things to make us feel better but perhaps leading only to superficial change?
This isn’t to say that we should do nothing – quite the contrary. We should be doing a lot; but learning, reflecting and understanding who ‘we’ are is also action. We need to take care to steward change well. If we want what we plant to flourish, we need to do that groundwork, so that shoots have a chance to ‘take’ in a way that feels solid, resilient and able to withstand any shocks.
For those organisations that feel stuck, here’s our prescription on some things you could and should be considering in respect of culture.
1. Take leadership of equality, diversity and inclusion (ED&I)
This means doing the work. What have you done to educate yourselves, what have you read/watched/delved into further? If you are a team, who have you found to help you have a different conversation with yourselves, to challenge your thinking or complacency or stuckness?
If you start up conversations with staff from underrepresented groups to figure out what to do and yet haven’t taken time to identify what is already known about these subjects, what are they likely to think and feel about you and your commitment? What strategic status and value has been attached to ED&I considerations?
2. Address the matter of culture
In the past, we’ve seen too many examples of organisations that think a solitary appointment in a board or a leadership team has somehow ‘sorted’ their approach. Prioritising the need for diverse teams and leadership is welcome but getting in is only half the battle. Access is not inclusion. Appointed members from underrepresented groups may continue to feel like an outsider if the organisational culture does not embrace and value them.
Diversity gives individuals from different backgrounds (e.g. religion, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic background, race, disability and age etc.) space in the room but leaves limited or no capacity for their thoughts and way of life. Without inclusion there is a risk of discrimination, unethical practices and perceived tokenism and superficiality, even in the most well-intentioned organisations.
In addition, the absence of inclusion could hinder business performance and limit opportunities to yield better outcomes, such as: more profit; growth; fulfilling the organisation’s core purpose; gaining a competitive advantage; fostering innovation; increasing staff productivity, job satisfaction and employee retention.
“Without inclusion there is a risk of discrimination, unethical practices and perceived tokenism and superficiality, even in the most well-intentioned organisations”
3. Commit to learning: know what you mean, mean what you do
A) Some of this learning is about your colleagues, your teams, your employees. Inclusion takes diversity further by establishing a cultural difference. A truly inclusive and positive culture requires a continuous commitment to creating an environment where individuals of all backgrounds have a sense of belonging and are welcomed, recognised, respected and expected.
Individuals should be encouraged to feel safe and comfortable to be their whole authentic self and freely express themselves without fear of retribution, humiliation, or jeopardising their position, relationships or reputation. Invest time in building constructive working stakeholder relationships across the organisation (including senior and junior staff) and getting to know them, their needs and backgrounds.
B) Think about how inspiring leadership is relational. If you think you can lead your organisation without properly understanding how people feel working there – whether they feel the culture is open, transparent, inclusive – then there’s a chance you’re not leading well. Make sure that there are ways of understanding your culture quantitatively and qualitatively.
The fact that so many organisations have been recently uncovering elements of bullying and racism suggests that leaders haven’t sought the right assurance about their cultures to date. Don’t just think about people’s accountability to you, but reflect on the power dynamics in organisations and how you can be accountable to others. Explore and actively listen to how the organisation’s culture and internal processes impact stakeholders’ daily experiences within the organisation while demonstrating compassion.
Ensure effective mechanisms for people to speak up. And don’t forget to focus on outcomes for others – are the golden opportunities shared? What is in place to help individuals make the best use of their talents and contribute effectively?
C) Accept that your learning is continuous. This is a lifelong process. If you have fear or anxiety or don’t know where to start, talk to peers and you’ll find that everyone is learning. Inaction and passivity allow inequality to prevail.
The stories that are framed and told about organisations owe a lot to who the authors are. If leaders want their organisational narratives and cultures to be rich, diverse and dynamic, as we’ve underlined in this piece, a first part of the journey is a search for truth: learning how much there is still to do and to learn – and to take some time to find out ‘what it means to be me’.