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"Let’s move beyond discomfort and overcome our barriers to inclusion"

"Leaders need to be able to notice when DEI jars with them, and be open to investigating where this stems from," said DEI consultant Nadia Nagamootoo

It might be time to get out of your comfort zone, to improve inclusion.

A man holds a door open for a woman and is told that she is perfectly capable of opening it herself. A white person is asked to recognise their privilege because of their skin colour – something they have no control over. A recruiting manager is told they need to have more women applicants before they can make a decision, despite their industry being heavily male-dominated.

I could go on with examples of when diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is emotionally triggering, or simply doesn’t make sense. During the workshops I facilitate, I sometimes notice a visceral reaction in leaders; one that signals frustration, annoyance and confusion, and generally shows up as defensiveness.

Read more: Are DEI initiatives driven by fear of doing the wrong thing? HR responds

They feel like they are being told they are sexist or racist, or that they’ve been given the impossible task of conjuring up diversity in a fairly homogeneous talent pool.

As a psychologist, I see what underpins their emotions of frustration and defensiveness. It’s usually fear, and a huge amount of discomfort. Let’s look at three of those fears.

Fears about privilege

We all have privilege of some kind. However, if leaders acknowledge their privilege, it means they have to accept that they have likely been given preferential treatment which has probably helped them get to the position they’re in today. This acknowledgement can make them question their worth: 'Am I as good as I think I am'?

Fear of change

Humans have a deep need for safety and security, so we often get thrown by any degree of change. With any change comes a sense of loss. Our brains automatically compare what we observe in the present with what we had in the past. A male leader might recall a time when he could compliment a female colleague on what she was wearing and it be taken in the way it was intended, as a compliment. Now, he may have to watch his language or be accused of being inappropriate and sexist.

Leaders may question: 'If DEI is successful, what does that mean for the future? Is that a future I want?'

Fear of complexity

Let’s face it, we love things being easy, simple and clear cut. Some leaders have a deeply held belief that treating people fairly means treating them exactly the same. The simplicity of this is highly desirable; it means that they can never be accused of favouritism because all members of the team had exactly the same opportunities.

However, being an inclusive leader means recognising that not everyone is starting from the same place, and that each member of your team needs something different. This is tough to enact for leaders who are desperately seeking the yellow brick road to fairness.

Given the current organisational focus on inclusion, they may also fear the consequences if they don’t navigate this complexity effectively. Cancel culture is rife.

As these fears and discomforts play out, it takes a sophisticated and self-aware leader to overcome such barriers to inclusion. First, leaders need to be able to notice when DEI jars with them, and be open to investigating where this stems from. They need to have the courage to look deeply at their values and beliefs, and be open to re-evaluating them, where necessary.

Leaders also need to walk through the world with curiosity, continuously seeking alternative truths to their own, and allowing new information to guide their leadership. It’s far from easy, but it is possible, if you are willing to lead beyond discomfort.

Nadia Nagamootoo is CEO of DEI consultancy Avenir


This article was published in the May/June 2024 edition of HR magazine. 

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