A few of my clients got in touch recently to seek advice on improving diversity and tackling racism (mainly systemic racism) within their organisations. Now, I need to make it very clear that I am personally not a racism specialist. I do work with racism a lot and with other severe biases. I am aware of systemic challenges our organisations face, but as a privileged white woman, I am learning myself. However, there is an essential aspect of our organisations as systems that we can look at to improve people’s ability to report racism, learn about it and shift even most profound systemic challenges: it’s safety and wellbeing.
The idea is very well introduced by Simon Sinek in his book “Leaders Eat Last” as the concept of Cycle of Safety. The core idea here is that to form sustainable, innovative and more productive organisations, leaders need to create a culture of safety. Some of my clients find it quite surprising when I ask them: do you have complaints about diversity? Are your employees feeling safe to speak up about racism? And if I hear that this is not the case, I tend to point out that there might be a problem. You see, in a well functioning, safe organisation, anyone should feel safe to speak up – but we all know that often that’s not the case. That frequently the leaders prefer to hear THEIR truths, not honest opinions of their staff. Thus, the leader’s image of the organisation is very different than that of their employees. It is counterproductive and very dangerous to the integrity of the Business. Creating a safe working environment is relatively easy, but it means as leaders, we need to start modelling trust, honesty, integrity and care:
“Inside a Cycle of Safety, when people trust and share their successes and failures, what they know and what they don’t know, the result is innovation. It’s just natural.”
“When we feel like we belong to the group and trust the people with whom we work, we naturally cooperate to face outside challenges and threats. When we do not have a sense of belonging, however, then we are forced to invest time and energy to protect ourselves from each other. And in so doing, we inadvertently make ourselves more vulnerable to the outside heads and challenges”.
“Integrity is not about being honest when we agree with each other; it is about being honest when we disagree or, even more important, when we make mistakes or missteps.” S. Sinek
Think about it for a moment – how could you become a leader you wish you had yourself? How can you create an environment in which every single person can trust you and feel safe enough to know that you have not your own, but their wellbeing at heart? Actually, our modern view on leadership as a status symbol with perks but not many responsibilities for staff wellbeing is faulty. Initially, leaders of societies were chosen to lead them not for perks, but simply because they were the strongest, wisest and most capable to protect their tribes. Their primary role was to keep others safe and well. And the only way to know what are the needs of your tribe, your organisation is to have the ability to be open to suggestions, listen actively and respond with care.
“Trust is not simply a matter of shared opinions. Trust is a biological reaction to the belief that someone has our wellbeing at heart. Leaders are the ones who are willing to give up something of their own for us. Their time, their energy, their money, maybe even their food on their plate.”
“Leadership is not a rank worn on a collar. It is a responsibility that hinges almost entirely on character. Leadership is about integrity, honesty and accountability. Leadership comes from telling us not what we want to hear, but rather what we need to hear. To be a true leader, to engender deep trust and loyalty starts with telling the truth.” S. Sinek
Somehow, especially in our modern times, leadership became personal, centred more around ego than the actual purpose of the role. And of course, if we form our organisations around our ego and our own expectations (including a wide range of our personal biases), our organisations will fail on diversity – no matter how hard we try to avoid it. If you are a leader and are convinced that your organisation is YOUR version of the company, not the one of all staff, you do need to ask yourself a serious question: what is the purpose of your role? How are you planning to cultivate a company which is capable of change, innovation and growth if all your decisions are made based on one person’s worldview, skills and experiences?
“The only thing our leaders need to do is remember whom they serve and it will be our honour and pleasure to serve them back”.
“All the perks, all the benefits and advantages you may get for the rank or position you hold, they aren’t meant for you. They are meant for the role you fill.”
“Business is a human enterprise. It may even be why we call a business “company” – because it is a collection of people in the company of other people. It’s the company that matters”. S. Sinek
It is easy to blame staff for shortfalls of the organisation, but as leaders, we need to look really closely at the space we are creating for the people working for us:
“What too many leaders of organisations fail to appreciate is that it’s not the people that are the problem. The people are fine. Rather, it’s the environment in which the people operate that is the problem. Get that right, and things just go”. S. Sinek
So today, when my clients ask me how to start tackling systemic challenges – including racism – I list a few simple questions:
- Even if you think everything is OK, how can you know for sure what is really going on in your organisation?
- Apart from the obvious ways to measure racism and diversity (amount of diversity in company leadership, staff turnover and diversity across current employees etc), how can you know for certain that your company is not enforcing systemic racism – who is actually saying that is is not the case (you, leaders, everyone – internally, externally?)
- How do you measure the level of safety and diversity – for example, reports on racism from within or outside of your organisation, anonymous or independent surveys, anonymous feedback channels? How often do you ask openly: do you think we are racist?
- Do you educate yourself and your staff on racism and diversity? How unbiased is your training?
- What can you do to keep your staff safe enough to speak up when feeling discriminated against? Do they actually do it?
- How do you protect those who are critical about diversity and open about your mistakes and failures?
- How do you generally approach people who disagree with you?
- How do you keep your leader ego in check?
- How open are you to admit that you might be wrong or might not see what needs to change?
- Who is it that you serve – your own goals, your vision or your position – the job of keeping your staff safe?
This list was helpful for my clients who asked for help, so I feel it might be helpful to share publicly too. Let me know what else is missing from this list?
As a leader myself, I ask myself those questions daily and look for means to keep my own ego at bay. Power is tricky, it rewires our brains and makes us greedy. So I set in place mechanisms to keep myself in check (Advisory Board, supervisors, personal mentors) and tools to allow my clients and partners to feebly speak up (through modelling, anonymous forms and feedback forms at all stages of our work). I agree with Sinek that to lead is to serve and to keep people safe. That, to me, is a starting point and a centre of my moral compass. That is why my past clients come back to me for more work, trust me and recommend me to their networks. This approach pays off, helps me sleep at night and helps me change for better. I hope some of those thoughts will help you too.