So your job is to create diversity and inclusion in the workplace – but there’s quite a few big personalities in your way. You know the ones, quick witted, expert interrupters, loud, expensive suits. They are also sure not to be overtly discriminatory. Legislation and greater awareness has certainly reduced the prevalence of hate speech, bullying and harassment. But as a Senior Executive who also happened to be a woman once said to me “back in the 70’s and 80’s the sexism was on the table, it wasn’t hidden at all but nowadays it’s still there, it’s just under the table.” So imagine a time when you are delivering an idea or some knowledge around an equity issue and Mark pipes up (or could be David) and they covertly derail your conversation. It may be a line like “But we only employ the best people for the job, it would be reverse discrimination to prioritise women. And of course nobody wants a token position, the team wouldn’t accept someone appointed that way.” Or it might be something like “I’m not sure you’ve really thought that through, if we let Amir do that then it will just open the floodgates – everyone will want to go home early.”
Sound familiar? So what do you do when you find yourself in that type of situation? How do you hold your ground and continue with the conversation without becoming the thorn in everyone’s side? Or do you just be that thorn – sticking right into their ribs until you create change?
Well I say no to the thorn, even though the thorn is actually what comes naturally to me. Years ago I walked into an Executive meeting that was ten men and one woman. I was there to talk Gender Equity and it was known that my mission was to increase the number of women at that table. The Chair of the meeting set the tone from the beginning – “Ok Bree, sorry I don’t know much about you or what you are here for so I’ll let you take it away”. I was on the agenda, he knew. Halfway through my presentation one of the men in the room got quite agitated and started finger pointing. I immediately took it personally and things got heated, not screaming match heated but I had not responded in a thoughtful, considered way – I had gotten mad.
There’s a parenting approach called Collaborative and Proactive Solutions (CPS) and it relies on parents undertaking a lens change. Instead of seeing their challenging child as a naughty kid trying to break all the rules, they view the child as someone who is trying their best but is lacking the skills to behave in an acceptable manner. I think this lens change is so powerful in Diversity and Inclusion. Many of the people who put up roadblocks have spent their life learning one way, learning that the system as it stands rewards them for continuing to reinforce it’s walls. Learning that in Australia everybody gets a fair go and that equality has been achieved through legislation and policy changes. Learning nothing about biases or privilege, never having an experience where a barrier exists purely because of an aspect of their identity. Never acquiring the learnt skill of Inclusive Leadership.
If you choose not to believe that the people who present barriers, say the wrong things or resist change are misogynistic, racist, ableist (insert other hateful attribute here) then you can yourself view this situation with a different lens. They just don’t have the skills, knowledge or understanding to know how hurtful or harmful their approach is. If you have a lens change in this fashion then you approach the situation in a much more helpful and ultimately more successful way. You spend more time understanding what their beliefs are based on, you are more patient and able to take the time to educate and raise awareness and you are more likely to work with them in solving the problem. You are also much more likely to find out what their drivers or motivators are – and this information you can exploit. You can’t change everyone’s mind, but with this approach you have the chance to enlighten some.
Managers who are involved in problem solving on Diversity and Inclusion issues are much more likely to be successful and supportive of the implementation of that program. And we know that people who have their defences up cannot learn.
So to create meaningful change, to challenge homophobia, sexism, racism, ableism, ageism we have to keep our cool – we have to work with the detractors to educate and come up with solutions together. But it’s not easy and I still falter. When someone really pushes my buttons and particularly if I sense there is no lens that is going to make that person look any kinder, then it becomes very tricky to keep calm. These days I hold it in, that’s professionalism but afterwards it can be very hard to unwind. It’s a balance, it’s one of the most difficult things to do because this stuff is emotive and for most of us who do this work we have lived experience of exclusion, so it can be triggering on all kinds of levels. But keep trying, because this work is desperately needed, because someone needs to be able to hold space in those conversations and walk people towards change and equity – is that person you?
I’d love to hear your techniques for keeping your cool! And if you are interested in joining a group of like minded people to further build your skill sets in addressing bad behaviour, language or backlash join my Diversity and Inclusion network where we discuss these issues and more once a month – sign up now.
15 October 2021
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