In the last few blog posts, I have been discussing the concept of power, the need for balance and the benefits of diverse and inclusive cultures. These are concepts that have been part of the stories that have been in all media forums (for all the wrong reasons) over the past two or three months. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the cases we are reading about have occurred in the workplace with a very small minority behaving in ways that are no longer (and in a lot of cases have never been) acceptable. Let’s be really clear, sexual harassment and assault have never been acceptable in any workplace. While I have no doubt there is universal agreement that the unthinkable actions of these few are deplorable, it is also a timely reminder of our responsibilities as leaders.
Leaders need to take this opportunity to start (or continue) the conversations within their teams about what attitudes, behaviours and language are acceptable within their respective workplaces. We all need to be proactive and call out those attitudes and behaviours that do not meet the standards we have agreed to. We also need to challenge our own attitudes, behaviours and language to ensure we are not making someone else feel uncomfortable or unsafe.
I recently read an article, How to sustain real progress in the fight for gender equality that discussed ways we can all take a stance against unacceptable attitudes and behaviours. While the author, Janet Zaretsky, was primarily referring to gender equality, I believe the principles she discusses are not gender specific and can be useful to us all to work towards an environment where we are all valued for our own values, knowledge and skills. Janet’s four key principles are:
1. Mind Yourself: Each of us needs to check ourselves and think about our words and behaviours to ensure we do not say or do anything that will offend another person. Remember, your idea of a joke could be something that causes someone else to feel uncomfortable, so it is better to err on the side of sensitivity and consider the impact of your words and actions before it’s too late. After all, we are the leaders and, as such, we need to lead by example.
2. Say Something: If you witness someone else saying or doing something that you feel is inappropriate, speak up (even if it is someone in a position higher than you). The other person may not be aware their behaviour could be considered offensive, and if nothing is said, the behaviour continues. Poor behaviour left unchecked can soon become the norm and suddenly people are feeling uncomfortable and unsafe. So speak up.
3. Let Go: Many of us may have done or said things in the past that would not be acceptable today or we may have witnessed poor behaviours that we did not address at that time. None of us are perfect or guilt free. What is important is that we can forgive ourselves for those lapses and make a strong commitment to no more. No more acceptance of poor language, attitudes or behaviours. The world has changed and we intend to change with it.
4. Beware of Bias: We all have inbuilt biases. Some are ingrained and some are systemic. We need to acknowledge these biases and ensure we take steps to overcome them in our own thought processes and behaviours. For example, let’s not describe leaders by their gender, let’s describe them by their qualities and abilities. Let’s not think of each other through our gender, ethnicity, age or education. Let’s respect each other for the individual knowledge and skills that each of us brings to the team and celebrate that diversity.
The world that we live in is constantly changing and it is sometimes difficult to keep pace with those changes and expectations. What we do know is that people perform better in environments where they feel valued, safe and have an opportunity to participate. As leaders, we must seek to lead conversations to discuss and define the types of attitudes and behaviours that are acceptable in the workplace. It is not easy but it is essential. As Zamantungwa Khumalo, a celebrated African Leader, said at the World Economic Forum, ‘Responsive leadership is our ability to take action and actively play our part in shaping our community’. So get going, it is time to start shaping your environment.