I’ll never forget the conversation I had a couple of years ago with the head of HR at a large retailer. We were reviewing the agenda for a gender diversity workshop with the organisation’s Leadership Team and he shared a concern that he and some of his male colleagues had discussed amongst themselves. “We feel like we’re walking on eggshells when we have conversations about gender. We’re not sure what we should say, we’re worried about saying the wrong thing, we don’t want to offend the women in the room.”
This conversation has been a beacon for me ever since: in my work on gender diversity and inclusion, I want to make sure firstly that both men and women just show up to these conversations, and then that the conversations that take place are positive, constructive and change-focused. Our conversations then help everyone.
It isn’t that men don’t want to be part of the conversation, it’s just that it’s not as clear how to have the conversation.
I start the conversations that I lead by focusing on three principles. I firmly believe that they make a big difference to the discussion. In particular, they affect how much vulnerability people are prepared to show. When we’re talking about beliefs about people, our potential decision biases and how they might affect others, a good dose of vulnerability is a prerequisite.
So how do I work to get that vulnerability? By focusing explicitly on generating a safe foundation for such a conversation. The three principles are key to that.
My three key principles for constructive conversations are:
- Candour – It’s important to say what you mean, to express your views with openness and to accept the right for others to hold and express their own views. All honest views are welcome no matter what they are. They are just views.
- Curiosity – Curiousity, even in small doses, gives us a burst of dopamine, and this helps the experience to feel rewarding. That’s a big plus for this kind of conversation, reducing potential ‘pain’ and increasing pleasure, which increases the likelihood of engaging with the topic in the future.
- Confidentiality – Being candid and curious about beliefs is made safe by emphasising, and getting agreement, that the conversation is confidential. Chatham House doesn’t cut it here.
Another thing that I do quite early on is to admit to a biased decision that I’ve made. One that I use (and I’m still kicking myself about this one!) was when I was travelling. I was walking along an airport concourse and saw two pilots walking together. One was female and the other was male. There was a significant height difference between them. My default thought was ‘She can’t be a pilot, she’s not strong enough to fly the plane.’ As if!
I’m modelling that these mistakes are made by women as well as men. And that it’s not about being perfect. It’s about how important it is to be able to notice them if they happen, and work on avoiding their recurrence.
Even very senior people in organisations need the context to be safe if they are going to engage freely in conversations about such contentious areas as gender and diversity, and these tactics help.
In one recent discussion with a leadership team comprised primarily of men, the relief from the men during the conversation was obvious. They didn’t feel like they were walking on eggshells. There were many questions and suggestions about what’s happening and what can be done.
For some, the focus and their questions were a little more personal, as they sought to get a handle on the impact of their own behaviour. One was shocked by things that he described himself as being blind to, that were contradictory to his values, and how challenging he found that. Others were keen to explore what they could do to model inclusive behaviour. They agreed that they couldn’t remember the last time they’d had a conversation that was so collaborative.
If you can set up a context where people are prepared to be candid and curious, and to keep the conversations confidential, you will make a big difference to increased understanding about gender, inclusion, and leadership. And this provides the chance to explore actions for change, and to inspire leaders to be more inclusive. And together, we can create changes that improve leadership and our working lives.
Find out more about how I work with leaders to increase inclusion.