By Eric Peterson | May 22, 2020
Since I joined Cook Ross six and a half years ago – and indeed, throughout my 20-year career – I’ve spoken to a lot of business leaders about Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility (IDEA). Most of them are eager to hear what I have to say. I’m sure there are still many leaders out there who are resistant to my message, but they’re usually not the ones who call us for the particular service we offer. When I begin talking about the business imperative for IDEA, the view that the combination of a diverse workforce and an inclusive culture will yield greater organizational success, this perspective is typically accepted without argument. It’s no longer controversial to suggest that a collection of talented people who represent different backgrounds and walks of life, working together in a system that sees and values each of them for who they really are, can be beneficial to an organization’s bottom line. For the most part, if they didn’t already believe that, they wouldn’t have called.I believe the work is not only necessary right now; in fact, it’s never been more vital. I believe the work is not only possible, it’s expected. Click To Tweet
Resistance will often arise around the questions about whether Diversity & Inclusion is absolutely necessary – and, to a greater extent, whether increasing inclusion and diversity is possible. The COVID-19 pandemic has only served to exacerbate those doubts. Businesses that make it to the other side of the current crisis might do so barely, and it will happen only by instituting massive amounts of change in a very short time. Right now, organizations are thinking about surviving, not thriving. It’s very tempting to suggest that while concepts like IDEA might have been valuable last year, when they could provide the final “cutting edge” that an organization needed to succeed in a prosperous, competitive marketplace. Perhaps we have other, more pressing concerns in this moment. And how can we possibly think about building community, trust, or empathy during an age of physical distancing, anyway? Conventional wisdom suggests we should hunker down and weather the storm, and worry about softer stuff when the sun comes out again.
I’d like to offer an alternative point of view. I believe the work is not only necessary right now; in fact, it’s never been more vital. I believe the work is not only possible, it’s expected.
Now, “possible” doesn’t mean “easy.” Working toward the values of IDEA doesn’t come naturally; it takes effort, and planning. But an organization in survival mode, reacting to external threats, simply cannot institute massive amounts of change in a very short time. Only organizations that are nimble, flexible, and innovative can do that. And innovation has rarely been borne of fear. Organizations that consistently innovate have reserves of trust, respect, empathy, and courage. These traits can only surface when Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, & Accessibility is the first item on your agenda, not the last. At Cook Ross, we believe that Inclusive Leadership is the defining dynamic that will separate those companies and agencies that survive this (indeed, any) crisis and those that can only succeed when times are good.
You can probably recall a truly inclusive leader from your past – a manager, or perhaps a coach or teacher, who made you feel not only seen and heard, but valued and essential to a team’s success. It’s not by coincidence that not only were you happiest when working on that team, but also doing your best work. Your memories of that leader might be a little clouded by the tinge of joy you still feel when you recall your time with them; it’s possible you’ve placed them on a mountaintop somewhere and painted a halo around their head. But make no mistake – they were human, just like you. And you can be that leader, if you choose to be.Organizations that consistently innovate have reserves of trust, respect, empathy, and courage. These traits can only surface when Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, & Accessibility is the first item on your agenda, not the last. Click To Tweet
The Cook Ross model of Inclusive Leadership is made up of three core characteristics. The behaviors that emanate from these characteristics are wide and varied, but at their core, all great leaders operate from these three.
The first of these is CONNECTION. Inclusive leaders are empathetic and curious about the perspectives of others, and skilled at connecting with other people, especially across lines of difference.
Empathy is an elusive characteristic to pin down for most people; thus, there’s a prevailing myth that it’s simply something that nice people have and coarse people don’t. Empathy as a skill is defined by nursing scholar Teresa Wiseman as four separate abilities: accepting the existence of perspectives that are not our own, staying out of judgment, recognizing emotion in other people, and communicating that understanding. Nearly everyone has the capacity for empathy; in fact, it often happens automatically. If you’ve ever unexpectedly found yourself crying at the movies, there was something in that film that triggered an empathic response. More importantly, you can choose to respond with empathy; just because empathy involves emotion does not mean that you can’t make a proactive, cognitive choice to engage your empathy when responding with people. Being in a position of leadership can make this slightly more difficult; research indicates that exercising power and authority can weaken the brain’s mirror neuron system, making you less responsive to external stimuli. However, this just means that empathy is less likely to be automatic. It is still entirely possible to engage the four abilities of empathy in an intentional way.
Empathy allows you to truly see those around you, particularly those who are very different from you. It’s easy to create strong relationships through commonality; many of your closest friendships were probably formed that way. You can always begin to form connections with your colleagues by focusing on the work; it’s something two people who share a workplace always have in common. Other commonalities that are discovered along the way can easily serve to enrich that connection. It takes more effort (but can be argued, is also more rewarding) to create links across difference: to truly understand someone whose life experiences do not mirror your own. This requires humility, to understand that your personal life experiences are in no way universal; curiosity, a genuine interest in the lives of others; and the ability to listen, even when what you hear at first seems foreign or unreliable.Inclusive leaders are empathetic and curious about the perspectives of others, and skilled at connecting with other people, especially across lines of difference. Click To Tweet
The second core concept of Inclusive Leadership is ACTIVATION. Inclusive leaders activate diverse viewpoints for decision-making and increased innovation. When a leader fosters an environment that not only allows, but encourages and rewards dissent and different points of view, even during times of great stress, that team will begin to innovate.
Creativity and innovation simply cannot exist when fear is ever-present. This is because people gripped by fear and stress are, in a sense, feeling too much empathy. Their need to survive sends their mirror neuron systems into overdrive, and not only are they receptive to external stimuli, they can internalize it – especially when that stimuli comes from someone in power. Their leader’s enthusiasm for a new idea is barely perceived before they themselves feel that same level of enthusiasm. Even worse, a leader’s quick dismissal of a truly original idea is embraced by the entire team before the idea can be properly vetted and considered. Debate is squashed, not because of an overtly narcissistic or dictatorial boss, but because no one thinks it’s necessary; everyone just agrees. These are not the dynamics of a team that can act nimbly in a crisis.
You can avoid the perils of groupthink, even in times of great stress, by empowering those around you. Your own fear and stress might tempt you to grip the reins of control even tighter. You should resist this urge. By being intentional with your words and actions, you can provide your team with more agency, more control over their processes, their environments, and ultimately the decisions that the team will make together.When a leader fosters an environment that not only allows, but encourages and rewards dissent and different points of view, even during times of great stress, that team will begin to innovate. Click To Tweet
Finally, Inclusive Leadership requires BRAVERY. Inclusive leaders take risks, challenge the status quo, and bravely step up in difficult situations when they see that the core values of the organization are not being carried out.
In truth, it’s easy to stick to your core values when things are going well. Generosity is almost effortless in times of abundance, and compassion comes naturally when you’re truly happy. Making decisions that align with your values isn’t difficult when life is good. Like a nautical map that doesn’t get much use on sunny days but becomes a vital resource when visibility is low, your values can help guide your behavior when your choices aren’t easy or obvious. Therefore, now is the time when organizations and leaders will be most tempted to stray from their values, and more likely to justify those choices. It’s understandable, to a degree – and it’s certainly predictable from a psychological point of view. It’s also more important than ever to advocate for those values. This, after all, is the reason they were created in the first place.
In these times, making decisions that align with your values requires bravery. If you notice that a decision made by your company or agency is creating a disproportionate burden on one segment of your staff, in a way that conflicts with the values of that organization, you must speak up. Let’s say a request is made that every staff member turn on their camera during a remote team meeting. It seems simple enough to those in charge, but perhaps there’s a staff member with limited computer bandwidth who can’t hear clearly when so much energy is being used to beam their image to the rest of the team. Perhaps there’s another employee who is nervous about displaying their modest home to everyone else on the team, especially when the team leader has positioned themselves in a stately environment, in front of tall bookshelves and framed photos on a mantelpiece. An employee in this position isn’t likely to offer up the valuable, out-of-the-box idea that might have otherwise occurred to them, focused as they are on their own embarrassment. If these employees cannot advocate for themselves, you must advocate for them. But speaking up can be met with resistance, either passive (you are ignored) or active (you are silenced or somehow removed). It’s natural to resist doing the right thing, when your fear is telling you to do anything but. It’s important to remember that fear is a necessary ingredient for bravery – and that fear is a wonderful protector, but a terrible innovator.Inclusive leaders take risks, challenge the status quo, and bravely step up in difficult situations when they see that the core values of the organization are not being carried out. Click To Tweet
By combining these three characteristics: CONNECTION with individuals, ACTIVATION within teams, and BRAVERY throughout the organization, you can help your organization chart a path forward, both when skies are clear and when they’re dark and murky. Inclusive Leadership is not an item for your checklist that can be attended to when essential business has been done; rather, it is the how (not a what) that drives everything on that checklist. If ever there was a time for organizations – and specifically you, as a leader – to focus on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, & Accessibility, that time is now.
 Wiseman, T. (1996). A concept analysis of empathy. Journal of advanced nursing, 23(6), 1162- 1167.