This article of mine appeared in the Irish Examiner in November 2021
Leaders must be role models to embed change in the working environment
In a recent interview I was asked a question about my early childhood, which brought me back to one of my most vivid memories of that time, one that underpins what brought me to coaching in the first place and discovering the link coaching has to the overarching principles of diversity and inclusion.
As a young child I lived for several years in Kaduna, a city in north-west Nigeria.
One day I was on an errand with my dad that brought us to a dusty shop. A curious item on a shelf caught my attention and I started to play with it. It was a statue of three little monkeys sitting in a row, side by side. One monkey had its paws over its ears, one its paws over its eyes and the other its paws over its mouth.
My dad asked me: ‘Maura, do you know what those little monkeys mean?’ I shook my head, and his explanation stayed with me forever: he said they each meant something important that we all needed to hold onto: ‘Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil’.
This principle of being non-judgemental as a coach and in terms of diversity and inclusion is sacrosanct.
The practice comes down to being discerning and accepting others’ opinions and perspectives, ensuring we don’t reflect our own biases in our responses. We consider what is said, understanding and exploring the person’s intentions rather than imposing our meaning onto their words.
For change to happen, leaders must be role models. For change to happen, leaders must be role models.
In the context of diversity and inclusion, by bringing a non-judgemental approach we create a dynamic where all people feel valued, respected, and understood.
As a coach or a leader, we can therefore create that inclusivity while still challenging and encouraging the person to think, analyse, and solve problems. This is the central role of the discerning, non-judgemental coach, manager, or leader.
To be consistent in playing this role, leaders should ask open questions and use statements such as ‘Tell me more about’ or ‘I am curious to understand further’. Invite your team members to explore and find solutions for themselves.
In this way, people feel that what they have to say is heard and relevant.
Though apparently simple on paper, these are powerful techniques.
Being non-judgemental is one of the foundational pillars of leadership to build a sustainable culture of diversity and inclusion.
In the world of business, people often seek to fix and rescue people.
We cannot change people; however, we can work with them to change their mental models. When we engage with others using a collaborative and inclusive approach and adopt a mindset that they are capable and competent people who have the answers within themselves, leaders and managers become the catalysts in supporting them to find their own solutions.
By actively role-modelling this approach, leaders cultivate a growth mindset where every setback and challenge is seen as a learning and growth opportunity. Leaders help identify belief systems, or assumptions and biases that hold others back.
A further key outcome in developing this culture of inclusivity is that it creates a dynamic of trust and psychological safety within teams.
In a psychologically safe environment, individuals and team members feel accepted, respected and can share opinions without fear of negative consequences.
When a person feels excluded, they may feel that their sense of belonging and status is threatened. When this happens, the brain releases the stress hormone cortisol, nature’s built-in alarm system.
This can impact on creativity, productivity and the ability to react and think clearly. It can trigger in a person a series of negative internal narratives that are counterproductive.
In 2008, David Rock, in a paper ‘SCARF: A Brain-Based Model for Collaborating With and Influencing Others’ described five key areas that can influence our behaviour. The acronym SCARF stands for:
- Status: Your status in an organisation — feeling relevant and included — is important. The desire to be part of a tribe is a basic part of what it is to be human.
- Certainty: We want to try to predict the future, to know what is happening and why. We will survive more easily if we know what to expect from our environment.
- Autonomy: This is our sense of control over events. We have a need to be able to choose for ourselves what we want and what we do. If others try to control us, we react and push back.
- Relatedness: This is defined as how safe we feel with others. We need to belong to a tribe and make sure we do not risk losing that connection. Humans cannot survive long on their own.
- Fairness: How fair do we feel the exchanges between people are? We monitor for fairness pertaining to ourselves but also for fairness to others.
When we feel included and part of the tribe, our brain releases ‘feel good’ chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine, which in turn leads to feelings of wellbeing, motivation and positive moods.
Everyone reacts differently, so as leaders we need to be aware of the diverse needs of the people we work with. If we can adopt a discerning and non-judgemental mindset where we use open questions and seek to understand others’ perspectives, we will be one step closer to building a functional and inclusive environment where people feel valued and relevant.
- Maura Dolan is an associate faculty member at the IMI across multiple programmes. She is a leadership coach with more than 18 years’ experience working with C-suite level senior executives and teams. She recently authored the book The Collaborative Nature of Coaching: Basics Skills for Managers, Leaders, Life & Executive Coaches