Dear Friends and Colleagues,

2021 – Goodbye and good…….

Well, everybody we have spoken to is pretty glad that 2021 is over! Although – not to be too Hallmark card about it – it has been amazing to watch the ingenuity, adaptability and often the sheer generosity and kindness of people during the pandemic. Long may that continue. 

New Year

We were going to wish you Happy New Year because, since it’s the most used calendar across the world, it’s statistically more than likely that you’ll follow the Gregorian one and will have celebrated on December 31st. However, it turns out there are some 29 different new year’s days around the world. They not only fall on different dates but entail a variety of celebrations – most of which don’t involve fireworks, too much alcohol and resolutions that you’ll never keep. 
The Chinese calendar, for instance, follows a lunar cycle and so can take place any time between Jan 21st and Feb 20th. The Ethiopian celebration comes around on Sept 11th every year. Aborigines celebrate on October 30th and Cambodians and Sri Lankans in April on the 13th. 
The Balinese traditionally welcome the new year by spending the entire day in absolute silence; the Burmese celebrate it with a three-day-long water festival; on the third day of Diwali, which for some also coincides with new year celebrations, observers say special prayers and scatter lit candles and small clay lamps throughout the house; and the Thais have a custom of pouring water on the elders of society in order to receive blessings for the new year.
So wherever you are and when the time comes, Happy New Year!

The Book

The Power of Difference was published on December 3rd. It flowed in many important ways from what we’ve learned through the work we have done with so many of you, so it has been fascinating to see and hear emerging themes being highlighted by clients, readers and a whole range of people on social and other media as they have joined the conversation. We thought we’d send you some thoughts on each of these different themes over the next few weeks
Buy it here if you want to get a copy

Theme 1 – A Crisis of Dialogue

The top anxiety we are hearing about is that there is a serious crisis of dialogue at work. There’s a difference between being sensitive about how you say something and not saying what you think at all for fear of retribution or being isolated. When it comes to issues like race, sex, sexual orientation, gender etc, the extremes have created an atmosphere in which most of us are now frightened to express our natural curiosity about other people. 

Colleagues are self-censoring

YouGov did a poll before Christmas. A worrying 40% of people at work said “they would hold their views back for fear of judgement or negative views”.

There are reasons why at work it may be a good discipline not to enter into political or controversial territory. But beware. It has dangerous implications. The fear of speaking up on wider social issues matters because it spills over to create a general culture of inhibition. When expressing what you think, is punished rather than encouraged, collaboration is damaged, businesses and organisations are prevented from finding the best solutions, innovation is hindered and markets are missed. It creates the opposite of what Professor Amy C Edmondson, in her (terrific) book The Fearless Organisation, calls ‘psychological safety’, which she defines as “a climate in which raising a dissenting view is expected and welcomed” (my italics). Where making a mistake doesn’t “lead to scorn or ridicule”. Where, as she says quoting the MIT professors of organisational development, Edgar Schein and Warren Bennis, “people feel secure and capable of changing…are free to focus on collective goals and problem prevention rather than on self-protection”.
(”The Fearless Organisation”

Safe Spaces?

Spaces need to be safe for disagreement not from it. A successful culture at work is all about creating the atmosphere where you feel you can speak up. Imagine, for instance, if you’re discouraged from saying to your manager or colleagues about racism or sexism that you feel you are experiencing. I recall only too vividly a woman we worked with, who was Black and a middle manager, distressingly recounting how her Director simply wouldn’t listen to her on the only-too-subtle but damaging ways she felt she was being sidelined by other members of the team. Imagine being unsure about how your religious beliefs about homosexuality would go down with your gay manager (another actual example) and potentially affect your promotion. I can tell you that both of these people were significantly disengaged from work and from colleagues because they felt unable to express themselves. As do many who have both progressive and conservative points of view. 
When speaking up, saying what you think or feel, is punished rather than encouraged, curiosity about each other is unexplored which results in collaboration being damaged, businesses and organisations being prevented from finding the best solutions, innovation being hindered and markets potentially missed.

It’s not IF we disagree it’s HOW

This is not to give free reign to every racist, sexist and homophobe. But it is to recognise that when people are offended or upset by difference it is usually by a lack of intention. We are human, we will disagree. Conflict is not an occasional part of that, it’s core to our lives. We will get things wrong about other people. We will upset each other. The question at work is not whether we have disagreements, will be offended or get hurt. It’s how we deal with it that matters. To be able to work with someone you don’t have to agree with everything they think. There is a difference between how we disagree and what we disagree about. 

Why this matters at work

Punishing people for their views just because you disagree stops us learning. Because we learn more from our mistakes. We learn from what we do not know, not what is already in our experience. Failing to embrace this has created a real irony at work at the moment. Instead of enabling us to slip up and stumble to get to the right conclusions together, progressive thinking and actions that supposedly support diversity and inclusion at work have instead become tools of conformity. HR is acting as an enforcer of single sets of rules, excluding differences of opinion and thus causing managers and team-mates to walk on eggshells. Colleagues are frightened about being penalised for saying the ‘wrong’ thing and, at its most extreme, they are being bullied into silence or sacked. This can’t be where we want to be. It certainly isn’t real diversity and true inclusion which are by definition about difference. This approach simply won’t help us to face the challenges of fast-changing markets, transforming consumer demand and how to make innovative partnerships for our organisations. 

I hope, some of this comes over in the interview I did for the Sunday Times (below). 

I enlarge on it in the book and suggest practical tools you can use to create openness and safety for disagreement.
I also recorded a very short video raising these issues which you could use as a talking point with your teams. 
Next time:
Why people at work are losing confidence in Unconscious Bias training

1  The video

2          The Sunday Times interview:  (skip the headline – they always need a news hook!!)

(there’s a paywall…sorry)