This certainly feels like a time like no other. A few colleagues and I were discussing the topic of inclusive leadership a few weeks ago, triggered by the fact that Pride month was on the horizon. We found ourselves talking about what it means, and why it continues to be important in driving progress on so many levels – organisationally, societally, individually. The topic took on an extra resonance because, of course, we were having the conversation remotely, via one of the many Zoom meetings that all of our diaries are now dominated by. It got us thinking – as we continue down the path of many of us having to work remotely, now more than ever is the time for leaders to be purposefully inclusive. Pride month is a good catalyst to sharpen the focus, but in these unprecedented times of isolation and exclusion, success will come to organizations where people feel included. This truth is heightened by a powerful conflation of factors such as the reaction to racial injustice in the US now reverberating globally, underscoring the need for action.
It has long been said that innovation is critical for growth. Right now, many organisations are focused on surviving before thriving. As the world changes around them, organisations must change too. Leaders need new ideas to help chart the way forward and fresh perspectives to help solve problems that didn’t previously exist. This may actually be counter-intuitive – during times of uncertainty, leaders, like anyone else, risk succumbing to the natural human tendency to retreat inwards. But looking outwards and surrounding yourself with those who think differently to you is fundamental to innovating and unlocking opportunity. This evidence supports this – in RRA’s most recent D&I survey of leaders around the world, those from organisations that focused the most on diversity and inclusion were 30% more likely to report positive innovation than those less advanced.
Of course, bringing diversity into an organisation is only part of the answer. Arguably an even bigger part is creating the conditions where people feel able and willing to contribute, i.e. fostering inclusion. Unfortunately, the data show there is some way to go. Research from the Human Rights Campaign indicates that almost half of LGBTQ+ employees are not out at work, with just under a third reporting feeling unhappy or depressed. When employees feel they can’t be themselves at work, organisations are almost certainly missing the opportunity to fully harness what they have to offer. And the pressure is on — a survey conducted by the Institute for Corporate Productivity several weeks into lockdown found 27% of organisations had already put all or most D&I initiatives on hold because of their response to the pandemic. So now, as we celebrate Pride month, it’s time for leaders to really focus on leading inclusively on an individual level.
But how? Authenticity is key. Whilst we may be physically separated, we are all seeing more of what’s behind each other’s ‘work masks’ whether we like it or not. Leaders need to think about how they demonstrate their authenticity – how are they sharing some of their home lives, dressed down, creating that ‘intimacy’ that fosters trust. Could they more proactively reach out to people who might feel like they are on the margins, open up conversations for all employees on difficult topics of difference, or challenge their organisation to find creative ways to deliver D&I programmes virtually? None of this represents a panacea, and nor is it a case of one-size-fits-all. Not everyone will be 100% comfortable sharing everything that’s behind the ‘work mask’ in return, and leaders need to be understanding and respectful of that.
Looking ahead, we mustn’t let things slip backwards. When the time comes for us to return to the office, whenever that is, it will be the leaders who extend inclusivity who will take its benefits into the future. Those who’ve taken the time during lockdown to understand how someone is feeling or those who’ve consciously checked that everyone has contributed in a virtual conversation, and then bring these habits back with them, are those who will see the value from a more motivated, engaged workforce. This applies to all levels - whether a leader of 1 or 1,000 - the same principles apply. So as we celebrate Pride month in a more isolated fashion than before, take a moment to have a think about what you are doing to create an inclusive environment for all your colleagues. The benefits will last long beyond lockdown if you get it right.