One of the most common biases that many people hold (conscious or unconscious) is that one individual can’t make a difference. However, earlier this week 7.8 million ‘individuals’ achieved something very powerful. Speaking up is only the first step. Our political leaders now need to listen to the people that they represent, do the right thing and vote in parliament to get Australia’s same sex marriage laws passed.
Without trivialising the injustice and discrimination that the LGBTQI community experience, I believe business leaders can learn a very important lesson from the debacle that is Australia’s marriage equality plebiscite. I see this type of scenario play out time and time again in organisations. Individuals speak up and share insights with leaders about things that are unjust, that are detrimental to team morale, that cost the company excessive amounts of money and are against company values, unethical and sometimes even illegal. This often takes place as those individuals are promoted to senior management and director level roles. As they move from being the big kid at the little kids table to the young adult at the adults table, they take the opportunity to share the insights, thoughts and feelings that they saw and heard when they were sitting with the ‘kids’.
What always strikes me as odd is that the motives and accuracy of this person, who leaders trusted and respected enough to promote into a senior position, is suddenly put into question with comments such as, “well we’ve never heard that”, “no one has said anything to us” or “it’s hard for us to do anything because it seems that you’re the only one who has been hearing these things”. So let me get this straight, these individuals get a significant promotion that they’ve likely worked ridiculously hard to achieve and all of a sudden they start embellishing on truths, misinterpreting what they’ve heard, exaggerating or just plain making things up…really? I mean really?
What happens next is that many of these individuals start to hear that voice that says, “one individual can’t change anything”. They then have a choice to assimilate into the senior leadership teams’ complacency regarding detrimental team dynamics or they vote with their feet and leave. However, neither of these things solve the problem.
So, let’s play out the scenario where these individuals are embellishing, exaggerating or misinterpreting what is going on in the team. What would be the harm if you as a senior leader decided not to question this, but instead ask for (and act on) three things that could be done to improve morale? Ok so there may be a small financial outlay. But if you believe that the individual is wrong and your team is (for example) 75% engaged, what’s the harm in initiating some activities that move you to 80% or 90%? On the flip side, the potential cost of ignoring these individuals is lost productivity, absenteeism and turnover. All of which are extremely costly to your organisation.
There are a multitude of reasons why senior leaders behave this way. Some are simply jaded and think that this is just another fresh eyed new director who wants to change the world, others get defensive as they feel that they are being accused of wrong doing, some still don’t value team engagement and morale as a valid and worthy business metric, and others put it in the ‘too hard’ basket because it requires cultural and behavioural change, which is hard and takes time to achieve.
We must do better than this. Individuals have been speaking out about the unjust laws in our country for many years, but have been ignored by our elected leaders. Just as our politicians’ personal beliefs have gotten in the way of social justice, so too the personal beliefs of senior leaders are inhibiting the ability of their team members to experience an engaging, fulfilling and productive work environment. Senior leaders need to put aside their personal beliefs and biases, and listen to those around them. Don’t put your organisation through the equivalent of a $122 million plebiscite just to find out what that one individual in your team is already telling you.
You may be aware of the #metoo campaign that has gone viral on social media. While my Facebook, Instagram and Twitter feeds are full of messages regarding, not just sexual harassment but gender disparity more generally, I have been a little surprised (and disappointed) by the lack of response by the business community on LinkedIn.
I understand that this is a taboo subject that is difficult and uncomfortable to navigate. However, these are not just horrific stories of abuse from one or two Hollywood movie producers. After all, we can always push aside these stories as being about 'those people' and not us, relinquishing all control and accountability for change. We need to look closer at the subtle and not-so-subtle issues that we confront each day. For example, earlier this year on Shark Tank Australia, after a near flawless pitch by clinical dietitian Kate Save, Naomi Simson commented on her intelligence and what a great ambassador she was for her product. However, all Andrew Banks could add was a cringeworthy "and the dress is pretty good, too". Just last week, Lisa Wilkinson left Channel 9 over a pay dispute in which she reportedly earned a mere ~55% of co-host Karl Stefanovic's $2m salary package, and this week, we saw Scott Cam call Shaynna Blaze a "b#$*!" for what he considered tough scoring on The Block. Again, this is not just the media industry. While they are highlighted to us as they are transmitted to our phones, computer screens and televisions, this takes place every day in workplaces all over the world, and unless and until we start to talk about it, it will not go away.
What does the problem look like?
Despite being outlawed for over 25 years, sexual harassment remains a problem in Australia. Every year, sexual harassment in the workplace is one of the most common complaints received by the Australian Human Rights Commission. In 2009 – 2010, 21% of all complaints to the Commission were under the Sex Discrimination Act, and 88% of those complaints related to sex discrimination in the workplace. Given the low rates of reporting, I think we can assume that this is also an under-representation of the true figures.
This is not a 'feminist rant' and it is definitely not about 'picking on men', but we can't ignore the statistics that sexual harassment disproportionately affects women, with 1 in 5 experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace at some time. While 1 in 20 men also report experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace, male victims are also more likely to have been assaulted by another male. In addition to this, we know all too well the statistics regarding the under representation of women in c-suite positions, with women in Australia holding approx. 6% of ASX Top 200 CEO roles and 15% of CEO positions overall, 14% of chair positions, 24% of directorships and 27% of key management roles. It is also estimated that approx. 25% of organisations have no females in key management roles at all.
Cultural perception and bias
While the sexual harassment of women in the workplace is exacerbated by a number of factors, at its core is gender inequality, which stems from our underlying beliefs and biases, both conscious and unconscious. Harvard Business Review recently released a study utilising sensors and analysing email data to understand whether men and women behave differently in the office environment, ultimately resulting in fewer women 'reaching the top'. They found that there were no material differences in behaviour - men and women had the same number of interactions with people generally, as well as with senior leaders and allocated their time similarly. There were no differences in the types of projects they worked on, time spent online vs. concentrated work and face-to-face interaction, or in performance appraisal ratings. They concluded that the difference is due to perceptions and biases about women, and not a result of their actual behaviour.
It's easy to say that you have a zero tolerance policy, but what do you have zero tolerance for exactly? Overt and obvious behaviours, are rarely reported and addressing the issue after it has occurred may be too late. We receive over 11 million bits of information each day and can only consciously process around 40. This means that 99.99% of what your mind processes is unconscious. We need our unconscious to step in, just imagine how exhausted you would be if you didn't have these constructs. As such, eliminating biases is not an option. What we need to do is improve our awareness of our biases and develop strategies to update these stereotypes in order to see lasting behaviour change.
While I can’t eradicate sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the workplace, I am a big fan of ‘doing what you can with what you’ve got’, and what I’ve got is a wealth of knowledge regarding organisational culture and human behaviour. Setting policies and procedures regarding diversity and educating your people on how to implement them is not enough. To understand why we have only scratched the surface in 25 years, we need to understand and confront the biases, stereotypes and perceptions about women in the workplace that can, and do, ultimately result in discrimination and harassment.
As such, I am putting my money where my mouth is and offering one free workshop to 10 organisations that would like to start a dialogue on this issue in their workplace. If you are in Melbourne, I can facilitate these sessions face-to-face. If not, I will happily facilitate these sessions online. I have created a one hour ‘Cultural Perception and Bias’ workshop that will help your team:
What do you need to do?
In my experience, women disproportionately volunteer to attend these types of sessions. So all I ask from you is a commitment to ensuring that at least 50% of session participants are male. If you are unable to fill this quota for any reason, I will ask for a donation to the White Ribbon Foundation. If you are interested in participating, please contact The Coaching Panel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sexual harassment and gender discrimination are barriers to women participating fully in paid work. It can undermine their equal participation in your organisation, reduce the quality of their working life and impose costs on the business. Promoting gender equality by addressing biases and stereotypes can help to improve not only the wellbeing of women, but the health of your entire organisation.
Psychometric assessment has been the basis for talent identification and leadership development since the early 2000s. So, for around 17 years now we have developed leadership competencies, assessed people against them, told them where they need to improve and tried to develop them in these spaces. However, it would seem that this approach is not working, with a recent HBR article stating that more than 40% of individuals in HiPo programs, aren't actually high potential.
In addition to not successfully identifying the ‘right’ people, leaders (particularly Executives) don’t enjoy this process and often question the artificial nature of assessment centre activities. So, even if the feedback they receive is accurate, it is largely dismissed due to the lack of face validity in the assessment process. Leaders need a compelling reason to change their behaviour. The fact that one assessment and development report tells them to adapt their style is not likely to result in change if they are otherwise successful in their career.
This is not to say that all assessment is a waste of time. Having some baseline measure and way of tracking progress is important, but this can be achieved through 360-degree surveys and KPIs. Approaches that also include behavioural observation and review of key documentation such as email correspondence, combined with real time evidence-based feedback can also provide leaders with a more compelling reason to adapt their behaviour when required.
Many people find the constant focus on deficits demoralising, with increased tension and competition amongst peers as we compare them by asking them to display the same competencies at a similar level of capability. Wouldn’t it be better if we looked at the organisations’ vision and strategy, the skills and behaviours required to achieve this, and the collective capability of leaders to deliver a successful outcome? Spending time and money trying to make leaders all things to all people just doesn’t make sense. Do all leaders really need to be innovative as many competency frameworks would suggest? What’s wrong with a leader whose talent is getting programs of work delivered on time, under budget, with an inspired and engaged team? It seems that in our desire to identify and develop talented leaders, we have lost the ability to appreciate the nuances that made these people unique, interesting and successful in the first place.
Amy McWilliam is the Managing Director of The Coaching Panel. She is a registered psychologist, with extensive experience in talent management and organisational psychology. Having worked in Australia, Canada, Singapore and London, she balances strategic thinking and academic rigour, with tangible commercial application.