COVID-19 is not a great leveller: that task is up to inclusive leaders
Jane Farrell is Co-Founder of EW Group. She is a specialist in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, organisational change and cultural adaptability.
As BBC Journalist Emily Maitlis said in her now-famous Newsnight address earlier this month, COVID-19 is not a great leveller. Yes, anyone can catch it, but talk of the crisis as an equally experienced one is a bit like saying “I don’t notice whether people are black or white, male or female or rich or poor because people are people”.
I understand the sentiment, but it just won’t do. Inclusive leaders know that it is an extrinsic part of their day to day work to notice who gets what – whether that’s in terms of acting up positions, career-enhancing taps on the shoulder, or disciplinary action.
The pandemic’s effects are being unequally felt
Inequalities are compounded at these times. Each country and continent has its own specific patterns and effects, but the groups that are disadvantaged are usually the same; in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK, we already know that some communities are being affected more than others.
We know that women make up 77% of high-risk workers, 80% of unpaid carers and 69% of low earners. We know that ten years on from The Marmot Review, and just before the pandemic unfolded, socioeconomic factors were still having a huge impact on health disparities. Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities are being disproportionately impacted by the virus and women are being subjected to even greater levels of domestic violence. Those with mental health conditions are experiencing depression and anxiety on a far greater scale than usual, and for some, their income has fallen off a cliff, without the cushion of savings or help from family or friends to help them out.
We must do battle with expressions such as ‘we are all in this together’, ‘it’s a great leveller’ and ‘it doesn’t discriminate’ as these phrases are often used to mask inequalities. Instead, we must think through how to take appropriate account of difference.
In this extraordinary time, and in more ordinary times, the key question for organisations is what can be done, now and in the future, to creatively disrupt the ways in which advantage and disadvantage operate.
It requires inclusive leaders to intentionally notice difference, and then commit to practical action that mitigates the negative effects for individuals and groups who receive less help or are treated less well. Whether that is constantly applying pressure on the availability of PPE equipment for frontline staff or designing a new telephone support process for vulnerable customers, diversity and inclusion is always considered.
Leaders need to be bold, smart and determined in their response to COVID-19
Recently I was moved by a client who wrote to their staff saying, “I completely understand that you may need to leave some virtual meetings due to caring responsibilities. I am in awe of what you are able to do alongside your unpaid work at home, there is no need to apologise”, and by another who took swift, supportive action when a front line member of staff showed signs of stress.
During this coronavirus crisis, and in more usual times, I see leaders with energy and passion, and a steely determination to positively disrupt. This can range from managing aggressive opposition to anything that redresses the balance of privilege and advantage, to the sort of ‘whataboutery’ which is often seen when a leader suggests a particular focus on employing more disabled people or Black, Asian and minority ethnic people at senior levels (“what about non-disabled people?” or “what about white people?”, for example).
Leaders need to be ready for these responses, have a sharp analysis of their basis, and feel very comfortable and secure in working through and past them. I coach brilliant people who value the opportunity to rehearse conversations with colleagues who say ‘’it’s all gone too far” or “it’s all about political correctness”.
I often ask these leaders, “Beyond irritation or exasperation, why do you think your colleagues say these things?”. Asking such questions helps them think through how to help and support people to understand why diversity is critical to the organisation, create practical and skills-based methods of building their staff’s capacity to understand what is required of them, and to devise strategies to get staff to feel and understand how they can be great at diversity and inclusion.
Everyone can be helped to see how diversity and inclusion is relevant to themselves, their friends, family, community and organisation. In my experience, people can go from an “it’s all gone too far” mentality to being strong advocates for diversity and inclusion in about three hours of expert training!
Company data should account for diversity and inclusion
One of the best CEOs I work with requires all the data in her company to be ‘cut’ in terms of socio-economics, disability, sexual orientation, neurodiversity and much more.
She has commissioned a forensic analysis of recruitment and selection, performance management processes, and the customer base so that she knows who her company is and isn’t serving. By making diversity and inclusion such a key focus, she and her leadership team can all articulate the business benefits of diversity and inclusion, and the need for strong values and ethics.
All these measures are immensely beneficial when addressing crises such as coronavirus, allowing faster, more effective action to keep staff safe and happy, and to ensure that equality and diversity agendas don’t get forgotten in the rush to stabilise business.
Inclusive leaders understand their staff and reduce barriers to success
Great inclusive leaders know who in their team left school at 16 and who has three degrees, since this knowledge will affect discussions about learning and development opportunities. This is still important during COVID-19, when many companies use the quiet period to ramp up training and development.
By understanding how diverse the make-up of teams can be, leaders can ensure that talent management programmes and promotion opportunities don’t require a degree unless it’s critical – obviously if I am having brain surgery I’d like the surgeon to have a few key qualifications!
All too often, a degree is listed as a criterion without proper thought. If the aim is attracting the best talent, there may well be someone brilliant who has a great amount of skills and experience, but without having that particular qualification. The back stories of countless entrepreneurs are testament to this.
Leaders must understand the experiences of their staff
We are living through an extraordinary time that is devastating, disruptive and difficult for so many people. Inclusive leaders keep in touch with the different lived experiences of their staff and customers or patients or students, at this time and always, and work out what they can say and do to make a positive difference.
I have just started coaching someone embarking on their first CEO role – what a time to become a new CEO! He is so talented and very open to learning, and in and amongst all things strategic he asked, “so what is the right terminology – equality, diversity, or inclusion?”.
The last 30 years of debate on this flashed before me, books outlining why this or that term is much better and different, but I answered, “I will go through that with you very briefly, but what’s far more important is to focus on is how you develop the skills to recognise how advantage and disadvantage is working, and then take action to disrupt that”. Right now, this is what leaders need to do to help employees and customers through the crisis.
Now more than ever, it’s crucial that leaders redouble their efforts to make their workplaces more equal, inclusive and diverse, addressing imbalances as part of their coronavirus response. Learn more about inclusive leadership and how to effectively address diversity and inclusion or get in touch.