The equality equation that doesn’t add up

There’s a theory that innovation springs from embracing and valuing our differences, so why do we sometimes behave as though diversity of thought and experience is an unwelcome visitor? The NHS Leadership Academy’s Tracie Jolliff explores the challenging equation between leadership and inclusion, and what we all need to do to get it to balance.

I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that mathematics is not one of my most desirable activities. In fact, maths is usually experienced by me as a means to an end, to be dealt with as quickly as possible so that living can be resumed. Having said that, I really do admire skill, and those to whom mathematics is not merely about numbers, but about pure magic.

I have looked on in fascination as our head of finance (a very savvy woman) has seen whole narratives unfolding through the numbers. She locates politics, the positions people are taking in relation to contentious issues, outcomes, and seemingly the direction of travel of those social tectonic plates – just by looking at the numbers. Her hit rate is remarkably high, so when she speaks, history has told me that I need to listen.

In team discussions, her contributions are usually deeply insightful, as she inhabits and explores conceptual territory that few others in the room have even imagined existed prior to her verbally illuminating this terrain. The difference she brings is both thought-provoking and at times challenging. When positively embraced (and that isn’t always the case), these offerings can be the sparks which lead to that next creative step on our collective leadership journey.

Uncomfortable truths

Although most of us are familiar with the theory that innovation springs from embracing and valuing our differences, in reality we can sometimes behave as though this diversity of thought and experience is an unwelcome visitor in the decision-making spaces that really matter.

An example of this is one I come across quite frequently, at the intersection between leadership and inclusion.

Much of the evidence tells us that all is not well with equality. Whether the reference is Snowy White Peaks, the Stonewall index or the copious staff surveys which speak of discrimination and bullying, we know that inequality is a systemic problem which needs to be addressed.

There would be zero credibility afforded to one who would dispute such overwhelming evidence, and when considering the facts, many of us would be rightly asking the question “how can we work together to change this?”

But despite our collective knowledge of these facts, something strange begins to unfold when a staff member (maybe a woman, a person with a disability or someone who is LGBT+ or BAME) speaks out and states that they are experiencing the very microaggressions, inequalities and behaviours that lead to the very systemic outcomes we have all agreed are to be ‘taken as read’ above.

Many of us will have witnessed what happens to those few brave souls who dare to put their heads above the parapet and speak out, naming their ‘lived experience’ and identifying the points of origin from which these experiences come. They are treated like the unwelcome visitor, often blamed for causing discomfort to others, making things up, being oversensitive, unnecessarily ‘rocking the boat,’ and are subsequently subjected to treatment which is even worse than what they’d originally complained about.

We call this treatment victimisation – it’s discrimination and bullying that happens when someone calls out discrimination or bullying, and it should not be tolerated. The strange feature about this all-too-familiar tale is that no one seems to want to own the fact that in a systemically biased system, the people who are part of such a system will be behaving in discriminatory ways, and that inevitably includes leadership.

Our tendency to deny the validity of these uncomfortable truths works only to maintain the status quo. Progress cannot be made towards equality while this illogical equation pervades: systemic inequality + structural barriers + numerous forms of micro inequities = “no individual or leader is biased, discriminates or bullies people here!”

This equation just doesn’t add up. It strikes me that the first step towards progressing equality is one of humility and honesty. Firstly, we must all learn how to accept those diverse narratives and lived experiences, no matter how unpalatable we find them.


Embedding the right values

If others say that our attitudes and behaviours are the point of origin for discrimination, that can be really hard for us to hear. We like to think of ourselves as having the right values and being on the side of social justice, and of course we intentionally and genuinely are. So how might we reframe such statements to usefully connect leadership behaviours and culture with people’s lived experience?

Hearing that our values and behaviours are not as aligned as we had hoped they were is not necessarily the same as hearing that we don’t have great values. It is simply stating that we are human, and therefore we often fail to meet the high standards that we set for ourselves.

Lived experience is important, as its work is to peel away the layers of our lack of awareness, supporting our understanding of what is really taking place and how we might use our leadership to make a difference.

In light of this, we can embrace the fact that we were not born knowing how to lead in anti-discriminatory ways. In fact, since birth, quite the opposite has been at work; we have learnt how to become biased, often without even realising that our personal bias is at work on a daily basis. But unconscious bias is not an exit from owning responsibility; we can only really claim ignorance until someone speaks out. After that, our continued inability to see becomes an act of our personal will.

Leadership is the biggest single influencer of workplace culture, so as leaders we must learn how to create a new logical equation. This begins by having crucial conversations like asking, “how are you experiencing my leadership of equality and inclusion?” These conversations welcome our differences. They also hold within them the transformative potential to change some of the negative equality outcomes that are a normalised part of our systemic story.

You never know, we might find that as we increasingly do this and continue to pay attention to lived experience – responding positively and appropriately to what is being said – discrimination starts to reduce.

The illogical equation I mentioned earlier may transform into something more like this: curious, insightful leadership + a willingness to have courageous and crucial conversations + valuing and embracing diversity + empowering those to whom equality matters the most = less discrimination, bullying and harassment and an engaged and productive workplace culture.




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