There is a famous story about a visit by President Kennedy to the NASA space center. When Kennedy noticed a man carrying a broom in one of the buildings, he asked: “What’s your job here?” The janitor replied: “I’m helping to put a man on the moon.”
This, perhaps, apocryphal story is often used by self-help gurus to demonstrate the power of a team that pulls together to achieve common aims. In such organizations, everyone matters, is valued and included.
But, of course, this kind of organizational empowerment starts with emotionally intelligent leadership from the top on down, says Angela Peacock, chair of the London-based People Development Team, which works with companies to help build diverse and inclusive cultures that drive business results.
“We came to this work because we started to see how senior leaders would make decisions and just how often a decision is actually hijacked by their unconscious minds, which can derail a well-intentioned corporate strategy,” she said.
She points to the example of a company that adopts a flexible working structure—good for new parents and corporate morale.
“You can put in all the flex work policies you like, but if you don’t have an inclusive environment, people are still not going to take advantage of it because they know darn well that unconsciously they are being judged on whether or not their jacket is on the back of their chair,” Peacock emphasized.
“We always start off with our clients by saying, ‘If you’re looking at your organizational strategy for the next two or three years, how can you create an environment where everyone who has the capability to excel is given the opportunity to do that. And how does that drive your strategy forward?'”
The underlying question is what will the company lose out on if it does not create a workplace “where people think they can challenge, where people can call out unprofessional behavior, as an example,” she went on to say.
Organizations need to address the unconscious fears they have about doing it the right way, or they’ll end up in a situation where they think they’re doing the right thing, but what they’re actually doing is gathering people around them who look like them, sound like them and think like them. In such an environment, there is no opportunity for challenge or dynamic change, Peacock added.
Change happens within corporate leadership when they maintain a “tangible dose of humility” and are willing to accept that changes are needed to create an inclusive environment that will drive the business forward.
Peacock pointed to the example of one of her company’s clients who invited her to speak at a corporate conference about diversity and inclusion.
She was told by one of the company’s partners: “We already do this stuff really, really well. We just want to make sure that everyone understands how the unconscious mind affects what they want to create in terms of a professional inclusive environment. You’ll be preaching to the converted.”
Peacock decided that a bit of role play might determine whether the company actually walked the talk.
She arrived at about 8 a.m. dressed as a cleaner and busied herself vacuuming “and rather annoyed quite a few people by getting under their feet.” At one point, one of the senior partners actually came up to her and said, “Has no one explained to you how much you’re annoying us?”
“Clearly, no one had,” she laughed, recalling the event.
As the team of about 150 people walked into the conference room to hear her presentation, she held the door in her guise as the cleaning woman “with my head down and my Hoover weighing heavy on my arm, looking quite humble,” she recalled.
“Not one person smiled at me. Not one person said thank you…as they all bustled through.”
Luckily, all of these events were being filmed.
“I then went off and did my hair and makeup and went into the conference room and spoke for two-and-a-half hours.”
At the end of her presentation, she showed the video of her working as a cleaning woman.
“With the video playing on the screen behind me, I said to them, ‘While you’re spouting all the right things about diversity and inclusion and professionalism, sometimes you need to think a little bit more than you do [about] who you consider to be less than you, who you consider worthy of your time, or a smile, or thanking.'”
Peacock said the audience continued to sit with blank faces and she had to point out that she and the cleaning woman in the video were one and the same.
“The message is that you can sit and smile and nod and make all the rules and policies that you like, but if you don’t really believe it will drive your business forward, and really don’t believe that you have something to put right, then you’re never going to achieve professionalism. It’s not achieved by pretending we’re perfect.”
It’s all about being humbler and a bit more vulnerable, which aren’t common leadership traits, she emphasized.
So, why is inclusion good for business?
Peacock said that a truly inclusive company fosters innovation because it attracts talent with the creative skills to develop new markets and with the vision to see and manage future disruptive technologies.
“Working in an inclusive environment, where everyone matters and is valued, also motivates employees and ultimately raises retention levels,” she said.
“And it’s just more fun to work there,” Peacock emphasized.
A version of this article first appeared in Insurance Journal’s sister publication, Carrier Management.
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