The End of Pretending

We have had to stop doing lots of things in the past few months. Pretending is one of them.

Pretending that individual acts cannot have enormous impact.

Pretending that if we don’t address mental health and diversity at work, others will, and that if we wait long enough, the pain will go away. And that we have good reasons for building and sustaining companies that exclude or mistreat others.

In a business environment constantly seeking innovation, hiring creative, diverse employees who think differently has been shown to improve financial returns — especially when their leadership reflected diversity. But being committed to diversity-visible, invisible, political, and neurological-is hard. It requires mindful attention and priority. Diversity thrives when we are deliberately open to changing opinions and challenging assumptions. It fails when we think we have it figured out and cease to invest in continually striving to be better.

Many of us are examining the vast gulf between our stated values and our actions. As managers we might have had the wish to do something about both mental health and racism. For various reasons (social stigma, busy work/home life, political implications, or friction within the organization) it felt insurmountable. We convinced ourselves that solutions are really out of our hands. This protected our sense of self — particularly that we are a good human being — and it helped avoid the potential negative externalities (e.g. stress, backlash, criticism) that might come along with taking action with uncertainty.

Whether the push toward more open discussion of mental health and diversity at work brings more creativity, tolerance and mutual support or more fragmentation and tension depends on our ability to provide psychological safety to others around us-and to benefit from it ourselves. Especially in a time of crisis, managers risk losing trust if they are not transparent about the challenges of implementing specific workplace services and practices. And employees can be led to think that management is not serious about-or worse, actively undermining-the efforts towards D&I and greater support of mental health.

To truly make a difference, leaders must be honest about the challenges of managing a more diverse workplace, acknowledge fears, and foster a supportive culture for mental health and difficult conversations at work. We can only accept to be comfortable with the uncomfortable if we feel secure and respected. When we are scared or feel guilty, we tend to close down and revert to what we know. We seek solace in our groups- imagined, political, and real. We become defensive or reductive.

That is why diversity does not stick without inclusion. The data shows that an inclusive work environment is indispensable for organizational success. There, every single person has a voice and individuals are free to present differently at work, individuals are not just assimilated but rather deliberately integrated into the organizational fabric.

Inclusion means that managers are aware of their own attitudinal and emotional states — and catch themselves responding mostly to external stressors that affect those to whom they relate. If they do not work to understand the needs, priorities and motivations of their staff, because they don’t understand the history, culture and environment of reports from marginalized communities, they will not succeed in an increasingly diverse workplace.[i]

This is particular important because despite how homogeneous some organizations appear to remain, the modern workplace exhibits much greater gender, ethnic, generational, national and cultural diversity than it did 10 years ago. When it comes to mental health and neurodiversity, there is similar reason to be cautiously optimistic. Individuals who in the past may not have been able to complete secondary school and college, let alone enter the white-collar workforce, now have more possibilities thanks to better management of mental illness, medication, and necessary accommodations.

However, as many organizations have discovered, having a diverse employee base does not automatically mean biases will go away. Employees tend to be more cooperative with peers more similar to themselves. Research suggests that members of minority groups can experience more stress at work and endure closer scrutiny by supervisors, and called out more often for mistakes or poor performance, even if they are performing like everyone else.

Managers who seek to increase diversity have to navigate the transition to heterogeneity carefully to ensure employees remain engaged and individually satisfied. This is especially true when minority candidates are promoted into leadership positions. Also, some neurodiverse talent may require unusual accommodations in order to perform, which could be perceived as unfair by others.[ii]

Success means that every single person in the organization will be heard and cared for. The main way to do this is to encourage trusted conversations, ideally in person. But also provide different communication channels to report acts of racism, sexual harassment or mismanagement. Companies such as Whispli offer a secure, anonymous and safe inbox accessible from various interfaces as well as a virtual hotline. Callers can alter their voice and re-record messages before submitting them and evidence via a safe inbox.

Another way is to help equip employees with better skills to relate to others in a diverse workplace in a positive manner. Providing behavioral health support for all employees, especially those for whom diversity is a source of stress, can help. As can D&I training, but it should go deeper. Employees and managers must to do the hard work to address issues in a way that helps others learn. This might mean not resorting to immediately giving up on an employee, colleague or friend who diverges or excludes, for example, in the hope that some of the behavior might be situational, and not necessarily personality-based or dispositional.

As long as we pretend that others will address the issues of racist and mental health issues at work, we silence our own potential for good. We eschew the responsibility of bystanders. That first responsibility is to educate ourselves.

[i] Quoted by Carin-Isabel Knoop and John A. Quelch, Compassionate Management of Mental Health in the Modern Workplace, Springer (2018), p. 111.

[ii] Robert D. Austin and Gary P. Pisano, “Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage,” Harvard Business Review, May-June Issue, https://hbr.org/2017/05/neurodiversity-as-a-competitive-advantage?utm_campaign=hbr&utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social, accessed April 2017.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.

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