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Unlocking the door

19 December 2018 by Stephen Frost

Unlocking the door

Diversity and inclusion are major factors that boards need to consider in order for employees to reach their full potential

Coming out is the process or event of someone revealing something personal about themselves. It is most frequently attributed to people ‘coming out’ as gay in a largely straight (heterosexual) world. It could also apply to people revealing something of their mental health or a hidden disability such as cancer or HIV status. The whole notion of ‘coming out’ rests on the assumption of a dominant ‘norm’ (for example straight, white, Western) and people declaring difference to that norm.

Whilst coming out can seem minority-focused and counter-cultural, it actually has the potential to strengthen majority culture. This is primarily because the majority group has to adapt a little bit to include the minority. That process of adaptation is a necessary prerequisite for survival.

Ask most minorities and you will find that we have been adapting our whole lives. It’s how you survive. Gays play it straight. Women display stereotypically male attributes to climb the corporate ladder. Jews and Muslims celebrate Christmas, at least by obligation in the supermarket, but many people in majority groups have never really needed to adapt. The default assumption is white and male. The status quo is English and received pronunciation.

Adapting to change

The world is in an interesting place right now and adaptation is increasingly required. This is no truer than for boards governing organisations. Take the example of technological change and information overload. The amount of information we are expected to process is doubling roughly every two years.
Our cognitive capacity to process that information is not. So, we have to adapt. We could work even harder, pay people more money, or increase supervision and oversight. However, a free method is to include more diversity. If you include people with different perspectives, they will cover your blind spots, calibrate your thinking and help you make better decisions.

Two decades of research demonstrates that diversity can increase productivity, increase resilience and mitigate risk. Diversity is correlated with higher performance. Coming out is an act of transparency. It builds trust, increases diversity and challenges conformity. It therefore falls squarely into the realm of good governance.

Coming out

The movement for equal treatment of LGBT+ folks in the workplace has come a long way in a short span of time. Indeed, it was only 49 years ago that the Stonewall riots took place in New York, an episode of incredible violence against gay and trans people at the hands of police. Now, while being LGBT+ may not be universally accepted, it is generally so in many countries. In the UK, Canada, the USA, and other places it is now illegal to discriminate against someone based on their sexual orientation, and same-sex couples can now enjoy the same legal rights of marriage that opposite-sex couples have.

“Many of the most famous examples of corporate failure were linked to a lack of diversity and an unwillingness to challenge norms”

The good news is that LGBT+ people are increasingly ‘out’. This is good for us personally, as we can be ourselves. It is also good for society generally as it allows a fuller contribution by fellow citizens, as well as perhaps decreasing demands for mental health services to boot, but this is analogous to good governance. People perform better when they can be themselves.

Psychological safety

A way of landing this in the literature is to introduce the concept of psychological safety. People will only be themselves when they feel safe to disclose. While progress at a policy level has been significant, there are still cultural and unconscious biases against LGBT+ people in all sorts of situations, including at work. LGBT+ employees are often paid less, siloed into particular jobs and departments, and experience a high rate of microaggressions. All of this is in addition to the fact that many people still don’t accept LGBT+ equality.

It makes sense, then, that many LGBT+ people don’t want to come out at work. There is a definite and rational fear of discrimination – whether intentional or not – and given the current political climate across the globe, with the rise of populist conservatism (for example, Brazil, USA, Germany) and the religious right (such as Poland, Hungary, Uganda, Philippines), it has become even more risky for people to come out at work.

However, just as with ‘coming out’, psychological safety doesn’t only apply to LGBT+ people. Kenji Yoshino has demonstrated through his work that ‘covering’ is a concept most of us partake in. Straight white men ‘cover’ in order to fit in. Of course, it’s easier for majorities who have less adaptation to do but it is still inauthentic. I recall a boss who hated golf but learnt to play because that was where all the key decisions were made.

Business case

You might wonder, why does this matter at all? If a person’s sexuality has nothing to do with their job, why should it matter that they don’t feel comfortable coming out at work? Yet, we know that people perform their best when they are included at work – when they can be themselves and bring their whole selves to work. When we have a diverse group around the table making decisions or trying to solve problems, it helps to have a variety of perspectives. However, if a person feels that the very aspect of themselves that is different, that gives them a different perspective or approach to the problem, isn’t something they can express then you are not leveraging that diversity to its fullest potential.

Many of the most famous examples of corporate failure were linked to a lack of diversity and an unwillingness to challenge norms. Think about Lehman Brothers, where cognitive diversity was not appreciated by the two brothers in charge. Think about Kodak, Swissair and Nokia. Think about the botched Bay of Pigs invasion or the Challenger shuttle disaster. Diversity is free and in infinite supply - you just have to include it.

Methods of cultural change

As a leader, then, it is your responsibility to make sure everyone feels safe being their complete selves, including where LGBT+ people can come out at work. This is important not just because it is ethical, but also because it is just good business sense.

“ Reducing the intention/action gap then becomes a personal leadership quest. Again, this is directly linked to good governance”

There are many aspects to consider about your workplace environment that you can design specifically to be more inclusive of LGBT+ employees. For instance, having an LGBT+ employee resource group (ERG) can be a great way to link people who might be experiencing similar difficulties together. Many organisations have groups like these, but what is perhaps more important is that this ERG is consulted by different departments or offered the opportunity to deliver workshops to different teams, on LGBT+ inclusion or best practices on LGBT+ non-discrimination.

As another example, when discriminatory comments, jokes, or behaviour are observed, ensuring that offenders are held accountable is key. Accountability for bad behaviour has been found to be highly correlated with whether or not marginalised groups feel included, and clear accountability mechanisms and protocols showcase an organisation’s commitment to inclusion.

Inclusive leadership programme

Unlike most diversity programmes, which are aimed at minorities, in this case it’s the majority who need to adapt. If minorities keep conforming to majority culture then none of the benefits of diversity are realised. If majorities grow and adapt to include minority perspectives then they can harness the true value of diversity. We have tried to embed this in the organisations we work with and one of the most successful change programmes has been our inclusive leadership programme.

We use data to hold up a mirror to the board. Framing actual data from the organisation they are responsible for in a particular way can be game-changing. For example, despite all the good diversity work KPMG was involved with, holding up a pie chart to the board showing one black partner out of 612 was arresting.

Then we reframe diversity as a leadership issue. You can’t expect benefits when you expect the minority to adapt to the norm. We make the personal and organisational business case as to why it’s in the self-enlightened interest of boards to lead on this issue. If they do the heavy lifting, it’s easier for others to come out. So rather than giving the diversity and inclusion work to a junior member of the HR team and wondering why nothing changes, make it a Board responsibility. The hardest work requires the most powerful to lead.

Then we explore cognitive dissonance, the difference between intention and action. We can actually quantify this through one-to-one sessions. Reducing the intention/action gap then becomes a personal leadership quest. Again, this is directly linked to good governance. I have had the privilege of working with some amazing business leaders who, it turns out privately, have significant flaws. It is better to address those flaws through including diversity than deny them through covering.

Finally, we focus on actions. It’s what you do that matters. Culture is what you do. Governance is a series of behaviours and good governance is consistent good behaviour. I recall a brilliant executive who said all the right words on diversity and even championed the LGBT+ network in his firm, but his meeting style was awful. It was a free-flowing celebration of who could shout quickest and loudest. You were ‘expected to contribute’ but whether you could was another matter. We helped him to practice rotating the chair, listening more than talking, and implementing more structured agendas to allow the quiet voices more air time.

There are multiple things a board can do to help people come out. Not just because it is a moral imperative, but because it is also a good governance imperative. Honesty, transparency, trust, diversity and inclusion are all hallmarks of successful leadership and governance styles, and in turbulent times, they are increasingly valuable resources to have at our disposal. What’s perhaps insufficiently acknowledged is something so seemingly personal as coming out can be facilitated by something so seemingly abstract as good governance. All boards have the potential to help people come out and increase diversity. 

Stephen Frost is the founder of Frost Included

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