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How to address racism with positive leadership

1 Jul 2020 By Elizabeth Howlett

During the CIPD's most recent webinar on race, a leading D&I expert said the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests have given employers a ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’

Sometimes “it takes a tragedy to get us to wake up and think more deeply about challenges in the organisations we work for and the wider society we live in”. These were the words of Dev Modi, chartered business psychologist and head of inclusive leadership for EMEA at YSC consulting, speaking during the second of the CIPD’s three-part webinar series on race.

“HR can create impact and change in society, and we need to look at how we respond to issues faced by our employees with something practical and tangible,” added Modi. 

He suggested challenges arising from Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests were intertwined. The pandemic initially prompted many organisations to slash D&I budgets, but the BLM movement caused people to “wake up and see it [was] essential and important to redesign the way we work”. Modi said the coronavirus crisis had given us “a once in a lifetime opportunity to redesign organisations for the future, and have D&I at the heart of what that means to us”. 

He said: “It [BLM] has become a lens through which I believe we can evolve D&I beyond what we could have done over maybe a decade. It’s an important time for us to reinvent who we are as an HR function, as well as design organisations in the right way for the future.” 

During the course of the webinar, Modi outlined the challenges currently being faced as a result of coronavirus and BLM, and offered a range of practical steps to help HR and leaders use the current climate to “rise up” and create genuine, lasting change. 

The implications of BLM and the pandemic for organisations

  • A rise in bias, exclusion and distrust. Modi said that while one group of people had experienced a “wake up call” and realised they had been unaware of racism, another group might feel excluded from this conversation. He believed a “level of distrust [had] built up” that leaders may not be aware of because of lockdown. “You may not be aware of it [without] one-to-one corridor conversations which, before Covid, you could do easily and use ‘watercooler moments’ to surface differences,” said Modi, highlighting the importance of engaging with teams virtually. 
  • Reversal of progress on D&I objectives. “Because of the crisis, projects are on hold and budgets have been cut, but that’s changing as organisations begin to open their pockets to this,” said Modi, warning though that this could, if organisations weren’t careful, seem reactive and “like a knee-jerk response to the present situation”. He advised leaders to ask themselves how they might ensure this was a long-term initiative – one “integral to the purpose and mission of the organisation”. 
  • Reduced psychological safety. “We say bring your whole self to work, but what do we really mean by that?” Modi asked. “For some it will be bringing in experiences of being an ethnic minority or other aspects of who they are into the workplace. This narrative of you are either with us or against us is creating polarisation and a reduction in psychological safety.” Modi advised leaders to watch out for silence as the biggest sign of psychological safety being compromised: “If people are in a group, but silent and afraid to talk, it is a big sign you don’t have psychological safety, and that needs to be addressed.”
  • A cumulative impact on productivity, innovation and performance. “There are huge amounts of stress in the organisational system right now,” explained Modi. “People are dealing with the psychological impact of Covid-19 but also trying to understand and grapple with an unfair society, while massive blindspots are being [brought to their attention by] people in certain minority groups. That level of stress needs to be carefully managed. Leaders should find people outlets to have safe spaces to share what's going on with them.” 

To tackle these challenges, Modi suggested four core principles to work by:

  • Inclusion is core to great leadership and D&I should not be a standalone activity. D&I has existed in a silo, even apart from leadership development, for “too long”, according to Modi. He said HR needed to be central to organisations and should have “a voice at the executive level to create radical change”. He said: “Leaders should feel like this concept of inclusiveness, which is really the psychology and mindset of what drives an organisation and diversity to flourish, needs to be understood at leadership level.” He said this was not just for champions and advocates to take responsibility for, but everyone in the organisation, adding that he was seeing a shift towards that: “There is a trend towards competency frameworks, values and even purpose statements.”
  • It shouldn’t be about shaming and blaming. “There are some narratives where organisations are getting shamed in public for trying to do the right thing,” said Modi. “This may be because they were ill-advised by their internal comms or PR. We need to move from shame and blame to constructive feedback, and that will really help the shift to dialogue rather than [exacerbating] polarisation.” 
  • Context matters. Modi said for those working in global organisations, there must be an understanding that the needs of employees in other countries would be different. “We need to roll out initiatives and new ways of thinking that are not just the US or UK-centric world view,” he said. He added leaders should consider how they could make the present day situation a “catalyst for a more nuanced understanding of the challenges going on in the different regions of organisations”. 
  • Measurement and impact are key. Modi suggested leaders measure culture change using the psychology of inclusion rather than tallying up unconscious bias training session participants, for example. He asked: “How do we make sure that leading is measured not just in terms of the money you bring in, but also how you lead?” It was not just about results but “how you engage with your teams”, he added. 

Modi also outlined two vital steps for leaders during a crisis:

Be curious, creating clarity amid chaos and receptivity to new ways of doing things 

Modi said with the news currently “confusing and polarising”, a sense of curiosity about what “people are really thinking is required”. He explained individuals could keep their biases and beliefs to themselves if they didn’t feel safe enough to reveal them, which means such prejudices can’t be challenged.

“If you don’t share and enable people to surface their own points of view, you can't challenge them and push for a better way forward,” said Modi. “It’s important to find your voice in this debate and put yourself in a vulnerable position, and perhaps take a seat of humility.” 

He added that it was OK for leaders to admit they didn’t have all the answers, which was far preferable to taking a shallow and short-lived stance on a certain issue. For example, “suddenly caring about D&I but the company history and politics show no real connection to the issue”.  

Be courageous, leaning into fear, finding a voice and embracing vulnerability, humility and personal risk taking 

Modi said there was a “huge amount of fear” in organisations currently. He cited a recent exchange with a male white leader, who admitted he felt “stuck” because if he didn’t say anything he would get criticised and offend people, and if he did say something he risked causing offence. 

“People who hold different beliefs hold them quietly and strongly behind closed doors, and so people in the middle become frozen and stuck,” he explained. “People are very sensitive and feel they have more to lose by engaging in dialogue over staying silent. They stay silent over engaging, and therefore cannot challenge systematic biases.” 

This is the second in a three-part series on tackling racism in your organisation. The third webinar, ‘Where next?’, is at 5pm today (1 July). Register here

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