Inclusive leadership during the current pandemic

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What does inclusive leadership look and feel like during the current pandemic?

Jane Farrell is the Co-Founder of EW Group. She is a specialist in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, organisational change and cultural adaptability.

The current crisis is putting pressure on every aspect of society, but what does the pandemic mean for inclusive leadership? How can the organisations who are adjusting to the pandemic do so in a way that benefits diversity and inclusion – how can this be best driven by business leaders?

(If you are getting started, see our workplace guide on Inclusive leadership: what it is and how to provide it.)

Values aren’t changing during this period of crisis

How quickly everything has changed. For those who have lost loved ones or whose loved ones are working without PPE, their worlds have been turned upside down or are shot through with fear. And yet, as each week of the Covid-19 pandemic passes I am struck by how some things haven’t changed at all.

The inclusive leaders I work with have ensured that their values shine through now, just as they did a month ago. From ensuring that workers are enabled to work from home where possible, to taking the difficult decision to furlough workers to protect jobs and the organisation’s future, they are communicating their actions with care and sensitivity.

Some are topping up the 80% government-backed pay to 100%, particularly for lower paid workers, sometimes funding this through senior management pay cuts. Others are taking swift, decisive action to adapt their services and products for disabled people, or those who are particularly vulnerable at this extraordinary time.

I have witnessed senior leaders in education setting up food banks to support the families of their students, providing new and brilliant health and wellbeing packages for staff, getting on the telephone when one of their frontline staff had a big birthday, and ensuring their customers receive great communications in different languages and formats.

Other inclusive leaders I work with know that that one of their professional responsibilities is to create positive solutions – not necessarily perfect ones, but effective steps nonetheless – and to ensure that their actions take account of difference. They have thought through how advantage and disadvantage are operating now, in this extraordinary time. This has meant providing extra support for staff who have mental health issues, or customers who will value telephone calls to reassure that their care or products will be delivered; and if they can’t be, coming up with a way ahead.

Re-imagining the company, changing the culture, and paying the hairdresser

I was moved by one CEO I coach mentioning that, in and amongst her re-imagining of her entire company as business fell by 75% overnight, she felt so lucky to be able to pay her hairdresser for 12 months of future haircuts.

“It will make a difference to her and I can afford it.”

A small gesture, but one that showed kindness and generosity, and an understanding of how much the £600 she gave meant to her. It paid next month’s mortgage.

Great inclusive leaders are now, just as a month ago, thinking about what they can do, rather than what they can’t. That might mean re-designing their services, or it might, as someone described to me this week, be “such an opportunity to change our culture forever and I’m going to take it.”

“So much of what’s happening is awful, but this will change the way we work for the better for many, particularly women and disabled people. The idea that people must be physically present to be at work has proved difficult to shift since I joined the company a year ago. We are now proving day in and day out that of course it’s possible to manage, lead and inspire whether we are in the office or at our kitchen tables.

“I have already held a series of discussions with managers and trade unions about what we can glean that is positive from this crisis; we are already changing the policy and protocols right now. It has also proved to be a great way of engaging staff, building trust, offering alternative approaches to traditional ways of working, and giving them something to look forward to.

“We are encouraging those who can (who haven’t got two children under five to care for all day!) to consider learning and development via some great e-learning opportunities, and we are setting up online action learning sets to support teams to think through the here and now, as well as what might be needed in three months’ time.”

Some of our clients are taking the opportunity to carry out a forensic examination of their policies and processes to ensure they are at the cutting edge of equality, diversity and inclusion best practice. As one HR Director said, “It’s been something we have been meaning to do for years.”

Some clients are completely focused on getting PPE equipment for their care staff and cutting costs so that they can pay their staff’s salaries, but that too is what inclusive leaders do: take the required action, protect their staff, be aware of patterns of advantage and disadvantage, and mitigate where possible.

The focus on what can be done, whatever the circumstances, is one that inclusive leaders excel at. Many commentators focus on what cant be done, while inclusive leaders relentlessly focus on what is possible. I am very passionate about this. After 30 years of hearing many talk about equality, diversity and inclusion as though no progress has been made, or how it is impossible to achieve this or that, the best leaders aren’t resigned. They are fired up and determined to, inch by inch, make progress to address the impact of socio-economic disadvantage, via any and all means possible.

I’m not naïve. We are often called on to provide whole rafts of organisational development support when incidents of racism or sexism have been allowed to go unchecked. I have wept, privately, after hearing how people have been treated, sometimes for years, and raged against senior leaders for colluding with bullying and harassment. I then use that emotion to design interventions that will address wrongs. This means ensuring injustices will not happen in the future by working with senior teams to ensure they have the understanding and skills to create inclusive cultures, as well as equipping all their managers and staff to engage with the new organisational standards.

Experiences of COVID-19 contrast greatly

In and amongst the emergency measures and dramatic actions, for some there is almost a preternatural quiet, and space to reflect. Some leaders have talked about how disconcerting and stressful they find this. Others are beginning to appreciate the different pace and the feeling that there is actually more time to think about the future and what they want, as individuals and for their organisations. Of course, for some who also have elder care and/or childcare responsibilities while still going into work, or working from home, the workload has increased.

Inclusive leaders need to notice these contrasting experiences and take account of them in practical ways. This could mean communicating that they completely understand and accept some staff will need to leave that conference call abruptly to attend to a crying child, or urging some to take time away from the laptop to go for a walk.

Many clients have commented that virtual meetings and performance reviews are actually more tiring than the norm. We are doing many things in different ways without some of the cues many of us are used to in face-to-face meetings. We may have to listen even more carefully, but that might mean that we pause long enough to let someone finish their train of thought, and we may need to get used to the occasional – and perfectly ordinary – silences that ‘normal’ meetings don’t usually allow. It’s an opportunity to restructure our meetings, invite ideas for making them more interactive and inclusive, and almost invariably shorter!

For those organisations at the frontline, whose staff are providing health and social care, probation and policing, food delivery and more, there is a particular responsibility to recognise the strains, be connected to the changing situations and feelings, and do what is possible. Communicate more, thank people more, tell people what you are doing to support those staff who need more help and perhaps send video messages that encapsulate the critical roles that groups of staff are providing and how much their work is appreciated. Inclusive leaders focus on the possible, what can be done, and inspire others to do the same.

It’s crucial for teams to talk through their feelings

The best examples of inclusive leadership I have seen in the last three weeks have also involved leaders being able to talk about feelings – their own and others’. I have witnessed people talking about fear, stress and anxiety, and yet also about the generosity and kindnesses, passion and skill that they have seen. This balancing act isn’t always done perfectly but perfect isn’t what is required right now. Inclusive leaders let their staff know they care and understand, are authentic, and respect the work of staff at all levels.

Small gestures really matter even more now. One organisation is encouraging people to notice the gestures that others have made that have made a difference to them, describe them simply on a company website, and a selection of these remarks are then included in the now-weekly newsletter. Quotes from clients thanking staff are also included – simple, positive and powerful testimony, and a great way to make sure it is the porters as well as the doctors who are thanked.

Whether as providers or consumers, we observe how brands have and are responding. We will have noticed Mike Ashley claiming that keeping Sportsdirect stores open was essential, a position he soon retracted from. One of our clients recently had the experience of talking about the shortage of PPE for their front line staff on television. He was then contacted by 150 firms offering PPE but 120 were scams. So there are lots of examples of companies behaving badly, but fortunately many more of brands getting it right, and ensuring their ethical values shine through.

None of us will behave perfectly during all this, but we can ensure that we can look at ourselves in the mirror and say: “I am doing everything I can to live my values as an inclusive leader.”

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