Diversity, or discrimination depending on how you look at it, is a hot topic right now. Some days it feels like you can’t look sideways at someone without the risk of being labelled a racist, sexist, misogynist, bigot, xenophobe, or other label from the myriad of discriminatory issues associated with managing diversity poorly. But its one thing to be able to identify when issues like these are actually occurring, it’s quite another to be able to deal with it in the moment. Like most skills we learn throughout our lives, being able to manage diversity and/or discrimination in the workplace is a skill that can be learned, and as leaders we have an important role to play.
We can all usually recognise and identify when discrimination occurs. For example, a male employee refers to a female employee in derogatory term, or an employee makes a comment about the colour of another employee’s skin, or perhaps it’s as subtle as a colleague not considering certain employees for promotions. Yet studies show that 72% of people, when faced with a situation that requires them to speak up, will fail to so. Instead they will ignore the behaviour, preferring instead to talk about it at length afterwards with their colleagues. I believe the reason why is that employees often don’t know what to do in these types of situations, knowing they should do something, but not actually knowing “how” to do it or how to do it confidently.
Leaders play a pivotal role in enabling employees to define practically what this kind of leadership looks like, so when faced with circumstances requiring action, employees are familiar with what they need to do and equipped with the skills. It’s like learning any skill. If you are only told about driving a car would it be fair to expect that you can go onto a road and be prepared for all that you can experience when in control of a vehicle? It isn’t until you are out on the road amongst the traffic, thinking, looking, experiencing and reacting to all that is around you, that you can then be prepared to successfully drive a car. It takes practice, and so does managing diversity. Knowing how to deal with issues is just as important as knowing how to identify them.
Equipping our people
In the 1960’s the civil rights movement in America used exposure therapy to help students to peacefully protest against black segregation in Nashville. Workshops on the philosophy, tactics and techniques of non-violent protests were held by students prior to their demonstration so they could manage their fear and the responses from members of the community once the protests began.
By identifying the possible reactions they may encounter and then practicing how they could respond to them helped the students to manage their fears and practice responses in a calm and respectful manner. Throughout the demonstration the students were able to hold their ground while they experienced sometimes violent reactions from the public and authorities. Three weeks after the commencement of their protest, they were successful in having black customers served at lunch counters across Nashville.
Like these students we can identify many scenario’s that people may encounter that will require them to call out behaviours that don’t align to how we want to manage diversity. Using exposure therapy for these scenarios, such as role playing with a trusted colleague, scripting out your own responses or working with workplace simulation organisations are a great way to build skills and confidence. When the situation arises, your people will be more practiced at managing themselves and others through having equipped their memory to recall the responses to be able to use them.
As leaders we have the opportunity to train and coach employees to learn and practice how to effectively manage situations that support the acceptance and understanding of the diverse workplace we are working towards. This gives employees the confidence to be able to step into and be more empowered when faced with difficult situations within their teams and across their organisations. As leaders we must always be looking for ways to help our people manage these situations confidently and with the right skills. Only then will we be able to truly manage diversity and see our people and organisation reach their full potential.
Written by Wendy Born. Have you read?
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