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.”
Not 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.
- Practice 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 establish rapport.
- Ask specific questions.
- Demonstrate concern.
- Use brief verbal affirmation.
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
The 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 the future.
Jay Jamrog is a co-founder of the Institute for Corporate Productivity and Chief Futurist