The Institute for Corporate Productivity’s
(i4cp) study of how nearly 70 different leadership behaviors changed (or
haven’t) as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic found that a single one clearly
stood out as a next practice—defined as a practice, process, or
behavior that analysis shows has high positive correlation with market
performance, but that few organizations are currently using. This unique
leadership behavior is: “Establishes productive
relationships with individuals from under-represented groups.”
only was this behavior highly correlated with overall organizational market
performance, it also correlated to better performance against industry/competitors.
According to the 673 HR and learning professional queried in our survey, it
also contributed to higher employee engagement and sustaining a healthy
culture. This presents profound implications for the many organizations that pledged
to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion in the last year.
The death of George Floyd put a spotlight on the harsh
reality of systematic racism in society and organizations; video evidence of what
happened is undeniable. In the aftermath, many major corporations made public statements
that their organizations value diversity, would work to address systematic
inequity and build more inclusive environments. This helped launch or ramp up DE&I
initiatives in these organization that set more stringent targets for hiring
and promotions of underrepresented groups and initiated policies and programs
that address biases in the workplace.
But we’ve seen this movie before—a lot of dialogue but not
much action. The next practice of leaders establishing productive
relationships with individuals from under-represented groups addresses one of
the reasons for the lack of progress in the past.
Truly valuing diversity and being inclusive has always been a
contact sport. Most of us, however, are more comfortable forming relationships
with people who seem familiar to us. As a result, we cocoon within our cultural
comfort zone and seldom stray outside of that bubble. We unconsciously resist
forming productive relationships with people we perceive as having different customs,
preferences, ideas, perceptions, concerns, and experiences.
So, how can leaders overcome this human instinct, get out of their
cultural comfort zone, and begin to build productive relationships with individuals
from under-represented groups?
- Work to
creates a sense of community, connection, and belonging among the workforce. Look for opportunities inside and outside the
workplace to bring diverse groups together to work on common projects. One way
to encourage this that is supported by previous i4cp research is having
executives and leaders participate in ERGs/BRGs they don’t self-identify with.
Showing up as an ally and being part of those groups’ missions goes a long way
toward breaking down cultural barriers.
- Show empathy
and compassion to others. Everyone has
differing life experiences but what we all have in common as individuals is wanting
to be treated with respect and dignity. Unconscious bias education is one way
to become more aware of one’s blind spots and unacknowledged privilege, but
empathy and understanding is best developed through active listening (below)
and adopting a mindset that defaults to assuming positive intent. This may also
involve challenging exclusionary institutional practices and processes within
the organization when needed.
- Stay highly
attuned to the opinions and feelings of the workforce. Different groups may have different reactions to
communications and/or will feel awkward in different situations. Be open to these
feelings and create a trusting environment where people can share their
feelings. Conducting regular brief employee sentiment surveys and looking at results
by demographic cohort and incorporating principles of inclusive design are great ways to start. Also, vetting communications
or other rollouts with a diverse test audience (such as an ERG/BRG or other
diverse group) is always recommended.
active listening and seek to understand others’ points of view and concerns. Active
listening techniques can help you truly understand what people are saying in
conversations and meetings:
- Build trust and
- Ask specific
- Use brief verbal
positive relationships under difficult circumstances. Not everything goes smoothly every day and there will
be bumps on the journey to building a productive relationship. Move beyond minor
setbacks quickly, get comfortable being uncomfortable, and focus on the future
while learning from past mistakes.
Because 2020 was such an
extraordinary year, i4cp’s
Leadership Redefined study was designed to determine which
leadership behaviors became more important compared to prior years.
The practice of leaders establishing productive relationships with individuals
from under-represented groups may not have been the most universally embraced
behavior during that tumultuous period, but it did have a major impact among
the companies emphasizing it. And when it comes to DE&I impact in the
future, encouraging this next practice among leaders is something
that all organizations—and society at large—can benefit from in the long run.
About Leadership Redefined
multiple crises of 2020 have significantly altered what it means to be a
successful leader. In our Leadership Redefined study, we examine the leadership behaviors that both increased and decreased in
importance—and what this means for leadership in the years to come. Through a
series of data analyses, case studies, infographics, and tools, this study will
help shine a light on behaviors organizations should emphasize when hiring,
developing, and promoting the leaders who will guide their organizations into
Jay Jamrog is a co-founder
of the Institute for Corporate Productivity and Chief Futurist