future proofing your management

Highlighted below are several statements that I have heard multiple times from managers when I ask about their management style. They’re widely held beliefs and might strike you as innocuous, or perhaps mere common sense. But they could mark you out as being out of touch. So, if you’re interested in future-proofing your management style, read on as I examine each statement in turn and challenge the implicit assumptions underlying them.

1. “I pride myself in being very fair-minded. I treat all my staff in the same way”

My stepdaughter once dated a professional rugby player. Let’s call him Andrew to protect the innocent! As an amateur, he’d played at the national team level throughout his teens; he then turned professional and joined a big-league rugby club. What shocked him when he started was that he went from a highly individualised training schedule to being trained with the rest of the team – typical at a professional level. I’m no rugby expert, but, even to the casual observer, it’s clear that the players that run down the wing, and the ones in the scrum, are quite different. It follows that they would need highly tailored training plans. At the time, I read Clive Woodward’s famous book “Winning,” which describes his leadership philosophy. He suggests treating each team member as an individual and tailoring the exercise regime to that player’s particular physiology and psychological make-up. For some sports clubs, this proposed approach was and still is quite revolutionary.

Andrew realised he wasn’t going to get an individually tailored approach at his club, so ultimately, he hired a separate coach. He credits her with much of his success. She focused on unlocking his unique talent by analysing his physical abilities and what motivated and blocked him. Andrew was then able to use the team coaching sessions to work out how best to play with his team-mates, getting to know their strengths, weak points, and habits.

You may not be managing a top sports team, but it is incumbent upon you to raise everyone’s performance, as well as the team’s performance. To do this, you need to understand everyone, their goals, their strengths, and what they’re not so strong at to get the best out of them. Simultaneously, you need to stand back and look at the team and see how they’re working as a whole, to see how those individual contributions mesh to result in a superior performance.

To be an inclusive manager, you need to figure out how to create an environment where hugely different people can be comfortable and be themselves and yes, forgive the cliché, be the best version of themselves – which brings me to the following statement about how some people don’t feel they can be their best selves at work.

2. “I’m colour blind, I just don’t see race – or gender, for that matter”

If you don’t notice colour or gender or any other protected characteristic*, then the chances are you won’t see when your team all look remarkably similar either. It is perhaps one reason many boardrooms worldwide continue to be dominated by men and usually of the same race. If you don’t notice ‘difference’, you may not be alert to the challenges that people from marginalised groups face. You may not be alive to the possibility that you’re accidentally excluding certain groups of people who are different from you. It also means that you might be encouraging a culture in which some people do not feel they can be their best selves at work. Increasingly, you will be managing groups of people who are vastly different from you across all the dimensions listed at the end of this article under protected characteristics*. It is important that you understand terms like “othering” and “code-switching” to give you a true insight into how people who are different from you feel they must adapt their behaviour to fit in. Check out this TED Talk (The Myth of Bringing Your Full Authentic Self to Work, by Jodi Ann Burey, as well as Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility and Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m no Longer Talking to White People About Race).

The push for more diversity isn’t going to go away. Having diverse teams isn’t only the right thing to do morally; it’s a commercial imperative too. Research shows that homogeneous groups don’t cope with the complex problems we deal with on a day-to-day basis. Goldman Sachs recently announced they would no longer invest in start-ups where the founding team is not diverse. I suspect that it is not just about being politically correct. Instead, they have analysed the numbers and found that start-ups with homogeneous teams fail quicker and more often.

Simply put, if you want to get a straightforward task done, then it’s easier and faster to do it with people who think a lot like you. But, if you want to solve more complex problems, then you need diverse perspectives to offer a range of solutions.

Computers are now handling all the simple problems leaving complex issues for humans. And, for humans to do their best thinking, a command-and-control style of management tends not to work. It’s more likely to close people’s thinking – while psychological safety is what you need to engender creative and proactive thinking. (Do check out Matthew Syed’s book Rebel Ideas if you’re interested to learn more about the link between innovation and diversity). This insight has helped to usher in today’s era of Inclusive Leadership.

So, a fundamental aspect of future-proofing your management style is to show that you are not just comfortable with difference, but that you relish it – because you recognise that multiple perspectives improve your decision making, and you know how to get the best out of everyone in your team.

A common concern from managers I coach is that if you’re treating everyone differently, then surely this means you’re acting discriminately. It is quite the opposite. If you treat every individual according to their needs and circumstances, you avoid being discriminatory. Discrimination is where you lump people together and make assumptions about them as a group of people. When you do that, often unintentionally, you exclude people, and this brings me on nicely to the next statement I hear a lot.

3. “It’s understandable that new mothers are going to de-tune their career aspirations once they’ve had a baby because it’s natural for them to want to be with their child”

Many who have this belief premise it on two assumptions. Firstly, they assume that all mothers react the same way to having a child, and secondly, women are inherently more suited to childcare than men. The first of these is wrong. It’s worth bearing in mind that there are more differences within gender than there are between genders. We all know caring men as well as dominant, competitive women. In my experience coaching women who become mothers, I’m consistently surprised by how different their reactions are to the whole experience. Being inclusive is about asking and checking in – and not assuming anything. Be curious.

The second assumption that “it’s natural for them to be with their baby” has a couple of red flags. Not everyone believes that it is natural for women to be more caring than men. Many take the view that society socialises women to be caring and men to take charge. (If you’re interested in learning more about this, I highly recommend Cordelia Fine’s books Delusions of Gender and Testosterone Rex).

It takes us to the age-old nature vs nurture debate. The truth is that no one knows how much we inherit that is genetic and how much is a function of our interaction with society. We know that people can hold extreme opinions on this topic, one way or the other. Try not to present your opinion as a universal truth.

In this seemingly innocuous statement, the second red flag is that there’s something unnatural about wanting to continue your career if you’re a mother. For a start, with over a third of couples now in the Western world being dual-career couples, there’s a solid chance that the mother is the primary breadwinner and may not have the choice to be with her baby – irrespective of how much she wants to be. She might also be a single parent, a sole parent or be in a same-sex couple. Again, you can see that you need to be open to different viewpoints to be an inclusive manager – and you need to check your unconscious biases. We all have them, but that doesn’t excuse them. Check out yours in Harvard’s Implicit Assumption test here.

One bias that shows up often with returning mothers is benevolent bias. This bias is when well-meaning managers make assumptions about how women prioritise their lives once they’ve had a child. The statement above is an excellent example of benevolent bias. It leads to “mummy tracking”, which is where a manager might subconsciously switch a woman from the fast lane to the slow lane when it comes to careers and promotions after they’ve had a baby. To find out more about this, do read the two other articles on this platform entitled How to Avoid the Mummy Track and How to Address Being Mummy-Tracked. Understanding your biases is critical to being an inclusive leader.

The last statement pertains to the bias against flexible working.

4. “I don’t think you can be as productive working from home as you can when you’re in the office”

Despite a global pandemic that had us all working from home for a year, a pervasive belief persists. Even banks and law firms, known for their presenteeism cultures, have now had cause to rethink. A recent study on LinkedIn showed that c70% of the population expect to work at least part of the week remotely, and many large organisations – mainly but not exclusively in the tech world – have decreed that everyone can choose where they work.

You will have heard the term “hybrid working” by now. Chances are we will all be leading teams where some people are working from home while others are coming into the office. The issue of vaccination alone will force a hybrid workforce, as you can’t assume everyone will want, or be able, to be vaccinated. We might find ourselves having to hold virtual meetings, even when a majority is in the office, for fear of excluding those people at home shielding. It might even be considered illegal.

Being steadfastly opposed to home working is the antithesis of being an inclusive leader. It’s a blocker on having a truly diverse team because the important thing about working online is that it allows universal access. In the past, working from home has been seen as a special concession, in the main, to mothers. But thankfully, many more men have joined the ranks of those who would prefer not to commute every day. It will allow more men to see their kids and in different-sex couples at least, this will enable women to go into the office more. In this way, we will start to see a blurring of the gender lines between breadwinning and caregiving, which will significantly affect increasing the number of senior women in leadership, an elusive diversity goal for some time now.

If being in the office doesn’t matter, then you can hire people from anywhere. We’re investigating a scheme that gives you the chance to create economic opportunity for refugees worldwide. Unshackling work from location presents many opportunities to tap into resources hitherto inaccessible and do some good simultaneously – something that we know appeals particularly to those generations starting their careers. If you want to find out more about the working from home revolution, do read Harriet Minter’s Working from Home.

A Final Word – Don’t Default To Silence

Hopefully, this article has opened your mind to the benefits of inclusive leadership, but it might also give you cause for worry. Some managers I’ve coached have admitted that they are increasingly scared of getting some of this stuff wrong – of saying the wrong thing. Unfortunately, the cancel culture in which we live exacerbates this foreboding. And so, many choose silence.

But this isn’t the answer. Being inclusive doesn’t mean being an expert on diversity and inclusion. You’re going to get it wrong. An inclusive culture is one where we show tolerance, kindness, and respect to everyone. And this applies to managers who get it wrong too. And so be brave about reaching out and asking for help if you’re unsure whether you’re saying the wrong thing. Ask people who are different from you what is the best way to say something; ask them to help you get it right, but don’t expect them to educate you. That’s for you to do. I’ve pointed to several resources in this article that will help you in this respect.

And finally, never more than now have the basic human skills of asking open-ended questions and deep listening been more needed. These will take you a long way in your journey to becoming an inclusive leader.

*It is against the law (in the UK) to discriminate against someone because of:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • marriage and civil partnership
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation

These are known as “protected characteristics” and they change according to jurisdiction.

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