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Taking steps to a more inclusive organisation

Written by: Barry McNeill
Published on: 1 Oct 2020

There are useful points in the calendar that act as a prompt, or better still a shove, to check progress against pivotal actions. This week, we have both National Inclusion Week and The MJ Awards (one of the key categories being ‘Innovation in Building Diversity & Inclusion’) to be that reference point in assessing whether organisational culture is keeping pace with change across society.

There is widespread recognition, on paper at least, that new voices and different perspectives will drive a generation of fresh ideas and innovation in response to new ways of living and working. The debate generated by Black Lives Matter and the consequences of COVID-19 has accelerated and amplified expectations around representation and inclusion.

‘Now is the time’ is a frequent rally cry. But the time to do what? What makes the difference between a systematic approach to building inclusive cultures and a superficial quick-fix approach? How do leaders ensure they create the former and not fall foul of the latter?

Organisations taking the easier route – doing what aesthetically looks right to signal to the outside world, and their own staff, that something is being done – can quickly appear tokenistic and skin deep with the old culture still thriving beneath the epidermis. Everyone is on the journey, but the conversation has to be more sophisticated and nuanced. Organisations need to take a more forensic and methodical approach; reviewing organisational procedural justice and, as business psychologist Professor Binna Kandola expounds, reaching into every part of their organisation to make it the best it can be.

For local government leaders, this starts with individual influence and responsibility; we all have, whether we acknowledge it or not, ‘micropower and privilege’ to influence behaviour and create psychologically safe spaces to encourage risk-taking. Leadership needs sustained energy and the right allocation of resources to keep nudging their organisations to maintain their focus and renew the mission to create better, fairer and more inclusive communities. For leaders this begins through shaping the organisational culture and its attitudes.

Willingness to take risks

If greater diversity equals increased innovation, then organisations should reassess their attitudes to risk. We know that innovation will be a critical success lever as the sector confronts further budget constraints, policy reforms, public health concerns and societal shifts. 

Innovation requires organisations and people to experiment, to play with new ideas, try things and ultimately let them fail or succeed. Whether this is being highly radical or more incremental innovation, experimentation necessitates a willingness to take risks; this is where so many organisations come unstuck, especially within complex, highly scrutinised and regulated environments. The enormity of ‘what could happen’ at an organisational level leads to significant downward pressure on the extent to which leaders are willing to experiment with risk. Likewise, at a more individual level, making mistakes and risk-taking threatens our personal credibility and professional identity, compounding this downward pressure and making the safe option appear far more favourable. If we then add in the complexity of individuals not feeling fully included in the culture, the stakes for individual risk-taking and putting your head above the parapet, suddenly become much higher.

Unravelling this vicious cycle is challenging, as often these are deeply rooted beliefs within individuals that are then reinforced through the cultural norms and stories embedded within organisational practice. At the heart of a new way are two key concepts: psychologist, Carol Dweck’s growth mindset, or the ability to process failure as ‘something that we haven’t solved yet’, and psychological safety.

Developing psychological safety

So, what exactly do we mean by psychological safety? Harvard Business School’s  Novartis Professor Amy Edmundson defines psychological safety as the ‘climate in which people are comfortable expressing and being themselves’ and numerous research studies, including the recent Project Aristotle at Google, have proven the importance of this in optimising team performance, preventing serious errors and innovation. A team that feels safe together is a team far more likely to reach, and indeed surpass, their business objectives. 

Psychological safety alone does not guarantee a more inclusive culture. Yet a mindset that focuses on creating a more inclusive culture, supports the development of psychological safety, as we each take the time to learn more about our own and others’ needs for inclusion and make it ok for others to express these. Beyond this, working with leaders and teams to coach and develop more open, inclusive practices creates greater opportunity and space for new voices to be heard, to shape and influence the agenda.

Managing difference

What is often not acknowledged is that diverse teams bring different opinions and that’s not always easy to manage. So, leadership and HR teams should consider whether they have the best resources to get the most from their team and whether management training and development might be needed. Without embracing difference and challenge or understanding how to expedite positive output and progress, leaders risk missing its benefit or, worse still, defaulting back to less inclusive structures, when things get tough.

Only when we have different minds working together can we address the complex problems we are all grappling with right now.  We have already seen some great evidence of this; in sponsoring and judging the Innovation in Diversity & Inclusion category for The MJ Awards we have reviewed some excellent work going on across the country and reading the entries have been both enlightening and humbling. The Awards showcase local government at its very best in terms of creativity and innovation.

We each collectively need to recognise our own privileges, participate constructively in the debate and together support each other on the journey. That’s why National Inclusion Week is important. So be the example and reach out, invite people to come together and create a space to talk, be brave and ask the uncomfortable questions; lets learn from each other. Mistakes will happen as we each try fresh ideas with new teams and existing ones, but that’s ok – we just can’t keep doing the same thing any longer. If anything, recent events have demonstrated that change can happen far quicker and far more inventively than any of us imagined. n

Barry McNeill is practice lead – leadership & OD and Nancy Scott is a Partner with GatenbySanderson’s local government practice