The Inclusive Leader: Honoring Perspectives and Owning Biases
When I am at speaking events, I often get questions like, “What about people who are just misunderstanding and unreasonably interpreting innocent behavior as harassment?” or, “How is your process going to help me know who is right and who is lying?” People (men and women) remind me that the accused are “innocent until proven guilty, so how do we balance that with supporting victims and not go too far?
On the other hand, you may have followed social media hashtags like #MeToo, #TimesUp, #BelieveHer, and #SayHerName, which are strongly advocating for a shift in how we listen to stories about violence against women. There is a dramatic polarization right now in culture in the United States between those who want to focus on evidence and proof and those who believe that much of the discrimination people face does not get recorded into evidence but is still devastating our country and holding huge amounts of our population back.
I do not believe that the two opinions are as inherently opposed to each other as they first appear, and there are ways to acknowledge and reconcile both. The question then becomes whether we want to reconcile them and find common ground or whether we would rather maintain opposing viewpoints.
Often, what we think we want is for everyone to suddenly realize our one perspective is right and change their minds to agree with us. That is not bad in and of itself, and obviously each of us thinks our perspective is right or we would change our minds (and be right again). It often seems like the only other options are indifference, which feels terrible, or pretending to agree with the other side, which seems fake and weak. Those are not good options, and so we become more and more entrenched in our own perspectives. They are not the only options, though.
As a business owner and employer, it is normal and can be effective for your business for you to hire people with beliefs and values that are vastly different from your own. This is because those people represent values and cultures beyond your own, which contributes to creative problem solving and helps expand your business. And so, in that type of business culture, you will run into values and temperaments that clash. I would offer to you that this does not mean anything has gone wrong. I would suggest that it means you have come to a normal part of the growth process in creating an inclusive workplace culture.
It is possible to validate and take responsibility for your own perspective while still listening to other people’s opinions and considering them as possible other options.
The reality is that there are neutral circumstances. Each of us has a thought about the neutral circumstance, which determines how we feel about the circumstance and how we respond to it. Our thought about the circumstance, not the circumstance itself, determines whether we will have an impact on the circumstance or not. We often make the mistake of believing those thoughts, feelings, and responses are fixed, part of our personality, and unchangeable. We start believing that our thoughts are “right” or “wrong” and that thoughts different from our own are a threat. This judgment of our perspective pushes us away from challenging opinions and toward confirmation of the beliefs we already have.
We often make the mistake of believing that positive thoughts are fake and negative thoughts are “real.” This negativity bias is something our brain has developed to notice threats and to protect us. This bias serves us incredibly well in situations of true physical danger and threats. But we are no longer living in caves, being hunted by wild animals. The proportion of the population who has faced active mountain lion attacks in the past year is quite minimal compared to even a hundred or two hundred years ago. Our negativity bias does not typically have the opportunity to serve its purpose in our lives. In most situations, especially workplace situations, negativity bias only undermines our health and ability to be productive – it does not actually keep us safe.
The reason I say this is that the extreme opinions on both sides of the debate of whether we should talk about harassment and discrimination are informed by this negativity bias. We see a man like Brett Kavanaugh, Al Franken, or Harvey Weinstein challenged in his position, and we think, “My husband, son, brother, or I could be challenged in the roles we have worked for.” We see a woman like Christine Blasey Ford, Leann Tweeden, or Rose McGowan tell her story, and we think, “My wife, daughter, sister, or I could be in physical danger from a man and it seems like there’s nothing we can do about it.” And because we don’t see anything we can do about the issue that seems like the biggest threat to us, our brains shut down and we become hopeless and defensive. People on both sides of the debate start to believe that even talking about harassment and discrimination is a threat.
The statistics and research reflect that men are still a leading cause of death to women in the United States. It also shows that police use of deadly force is dramatically disproportionate against black people than white people and white people are a major cause of death for black people. It is no surprise then that the hashtags #AllLivesMatter and #NotAllMen in response to those who tell their stories of harassment, discrimination, and violence sound like saying #MountainLionsMatter and #NotAllMountainLions to a victim of mountain lion attacks.
At the same time, the research and statistics do show that it is not a majority of men or a majority of white people committing active violence against women and black people. (Likewise, I want to mention, as a nod to the wildlife advocates out there, that an even larger majority of mountain lions have not attacked humans this year.) Many of us feel defensive that we have not committed acts of violence, and so we want to defend that we are “not bad.” We believe that those who have committed violence are “bad people” and those of us who have not can still be “good people,” and we don’t want to be lumped into the pile of bad apples and cut off from our community.
Now, I am not speaking to those who openly embrace the role of predator and believe that their job is to wipe out populations who are not like them. I am speaking to those who genuinely do not want to see violence happen, no matter whom they see as the instigator. We do not have to identify as “sexist,” “racist,” “ableist,” “homophobic,” “transphobic,” or “xenophobic” for example, or be that in our souls, in order to say something that contributes to discrimination. Many of us want to be inclusive leaders, but we also don’t want to be “PC police” or even get involved where we could hurt others with our ignorance.
For bosses, this can be a difficult tension and I have talked with employers who struggle with both sides. They do not want to see their employees victimized, but they are skeptical about whether an accused employee meant to harass or discriminate against anyone. Often it can be possible for both to be true – one person genuinely feels victimized and the other genuinely did think their behavior was normal. Standing in the middle of this contradiction can feel stressful, only in part because you have your own personal opinion about what “really” happened and who is at fault. A bigger part of the stress has to do with how to resolve the situation without losing employees or risking a lawsuit.
And, I’m sure you would be the first to admit that, like everyone else, you have your own biases, experiences, and areas of privilege. I know “privilege” can be a charged word, and so I want to take a moment to sit with that word. Many of us, when we hear the word “privilege,” think of a person laying on a couch eating bonbons and watching Real Housewives all day long. “Wouldn’t it be nice to be privileged?” we think, comparing that to our own struggles. But, also, it wouldn’t be nice – because when someone points out our privilege, many of us feel like we’ve been accused of being a mountain lion that has attacked a group of hikers. We aren’t violent and evil, we know, and so we can’t be privileged.
I want to ask you to think about privilege a little differently than that, and hopefully in a way that better serves you. Privilege happens when we are raised in a culture that values a characteristic we naturally possess over other versions of that characteristic. Those of us who hold privileges also usually have the privilege of not recognizing or being aware of our privilege. We feel “normal,” not favored. Then, most of us have other, non-privileged characteristics where we can see that other people are unfairly favored over us in society. Holding a privilege does not in itself mean you have done something unfair, it means you have a place of leverage and power that is magical. It is nothing to be ashamed of and it does not negate the other areas where you may be unfairly disadvantaged.
You have your own perspective, and you can’t know or even understand every other person’s perspective. It is not necessarily your job to do that. Like I said earlier, you have the opportunity to decide whether you want to reconcile two conflicting opinions and resolve any conflict. But if you, like me, value creating an inclusive culture, you first need to decide what that means for your workplace. I recommend adhering to the four pillars of cultural health: active diagnosis of problems, appropriate confidentiality, transparency, and power dynamics facilitation. I discuss these pillars in depth in my new book The Inclusive Leader's Guide to Healthy Workplace Culture and will be providing more information about them in future posts.
As a legal matter, it is important to know that it is illegal to retaliate against an employee because that employee reports harassment or discrimination, and there are other areas where it is illegal to retaliate against or fire an employee (if you want more information about that, it is important to talk with an attorney in your state about your individual situation). It is not illegal to discipline an employee because of an allegation of harassment or discrimination, any more than it would be illegal to discipline an employee for an allegation of theft or rudeness to a client. Employees who are accused of harassment or discrimination do not receive special protections simply because the allegation relates to harassment or discrimination. Government employees and unionized employees have a higher level of protection than this, but it is the general rule.
Most states have “at will” employment laws, or something close to that. That means that an employer can fire an employee for any reason, unless the reason is specifically prohibited by law. If an employee is protected by a union or in a state that offers more protection, it is important to know that as their employer. But, in general, protections for employees accused of misconduct are very minimal.
There are many good arguments that employees should receive more security and protection and that job security contributes to cultural health in a workplace and reduces harassment and discrimination, and so one factor in creating an inclusive culture is cultivating job security. Research out of Ohio University conducted by Leah Halper and Kimberly Rios in 2018, for example, asked men to answer questions around sexual harassment. They were asked to imagine themselves in a powerful employment position over a female employee and to indicate whether they would ask for sexual favors in exchange for job-related benefits. The respondents then answered questions about their own self-esteem and how important they perceived other people’s opinion. The study concluded that fear that others would perceive them as incompetent was a predictor of whether a man would sexually harass.
So, job and interpersonal security can be an indicator of whether a workplace will become harassing or discriminatory. Despite the evidence that job security contributes to workplace cultural health, if you do not want to engage in creating a culturally inclusive, safe, and healthy workplace, there is often the fallback option of disciplining employees for any allegation of misconduct.
In fact, some recommendations for employers subtly encourage exactly that type of rule. For example, companies are encouraged to have “company values,” and to separate any employee who does not adhere to these values. While there is nothing inherently wrong with having mission statements (or even company values) that help employees understand the core direction of the company, this can be a tricky cultural area. Even where different cultures discover that they ultimately have shared values of community and caring, almost every community expresses them in very different words and symbols. When I am talking about different cultures and communities, I do not mean only different races or ethnicities. This is as ubiquitous as thinking about how, when someone in New York tries to sell something to a person in Des Moines, there is a cultural divide. When someone from a small town in the US tries to work for a company in a large city, there is a major cultural shift. Our “company values” show our cultural biases, for better or for worse. When we are trying to create an inclusive company culture, that is often in contradiction with the idea of firing anyone who does not follow our company values.
We can’t see our own cognitive biases, stereotypes, or personal expectations. When we are writing our own company values and mission statement, it is supposed to come from the business owner’s vision and brain. The challenge then, if you do want to be an inclusive leader is to let yourself, as a business owner who has her own values and mission, listen to other cultures, other biases, and other opinions that are different from yours. The reason this is worth it is that when different cultures and opinions can come together and communicate, there is amazing magic and creativity. Companies that can represent a spectrum of perspectives can speak to clients and customers outside of the owner’s circle.
So, how do we reconcile differing perspectives that may arise in a diverse workplace? For example, like the two polarized perspectives I talked about at the beginning of this post? When one person posts #BelieveWomen and another person responds with #NotAllMen, how do you prevent your business from becoming a war zone and your employees from getting completely derailed from their actual jobs? When employees with socially disadvantaged characteristics are seeing employees with privilege as though they are the mountain lions I was talking about above, how do you create a safe environment that lets everyone work productively?
The answer is in understanding power dynamics and how our thinking contributes to imbalanced power dynamics at work. When you can teach your employees to effectively understand and shift power dynamics (and when you can understand them yourself), you can help employees create safety, appreciate that safety, and focus on the work they are in your business to do.
This is a selection from The Inclusive Leader's Guide to Healthy Workplace Culture. For a free copy of the book, visit www.HealthyWorkplaceCulture.com. Or you can purchase online via Amazon.