The spread of the coronavirus, and people’s responses in the face of information about new ways to behave, alongside government action, offer up illuminating insights for how we can re-think how we bring about change in service of inclusion in our organizations.
ONE. Awareness is not enough.
One of the common refrains that we frequently encounter as we engage in the organizations where we work is that people ‘just need to be made aware of inequality’ for cultures of inclusion to be made possible. The argument goes that people are in a soporific state, unknowing, and that once we provide them with a lightning bolt of information — all will be made clear to them and their run towards inclusive behavior will commence. Predicated at the root of this thinking is the latent ‘good intentions’ of staff. In this paradigm, the staff is deeply committed to new behavior — they just don’t know anything and so can’t activate their commitment. You might ask: on what evidence are we basing their assumed commitment, if it has never so far materialized into reading any books, doing googling, or other action that could lead them to new inclusive behavior?
What we discover from this is that we are in a circular argument that doesn’t make a huge amount of sense.
Staff are assumed to have good intentions and on some level to be inherently committed to engaging in inclusive behaviour because the central problem is their lack of awareness. But how can one commit to (for or against) something one is unaware of?
Let’s look at the public response to the coronavirus, in the UK, so far. The breadth of information about the phenomena, the risks certain behavior produces, and the scale of the possible catastrophe we are facing — is unequivocal. The PM himself has addressed the public directly stating these claims. Its importance couldn’t be higher.
People are aware. Awareness is not the problem when it comes to containing the spread of coronavirus. That hurdle has been cleared. What we are seeing is that even with awareness people aren’t activating their commitment to new behavior (such as social distancing). They are aware and in a group picnic in the local park.
So what piece of information are we missing both from our analysis of assumptions about inclusion education in the workplace and public communication about coronavirus — both of which seek to engage people in new behaviors?
When it comes to building inclusive cultures, if the status quo already works for you — because you’re any combination of white, middle class, non-disabled, a man, cis, non-muslim, non-Jewish, heterosexual — then you’re asking people to engage in effort and energy for a goal that doesn’t directly benefit them. Or maybe we can argue that it will benefit them. And there are certainly rich arguments for how challenging and transforming all of these inequities does collectively benefit us all — the only niggle is that it also requires us to first shift how we understand benefit (i.e. moving out of zero-sum binary thinking which is how inequitable systems are designed).
Sure, you might be thinking, that’s why we have the business case! I’ve written about the multiple problems with this too. But as I’ve also said, it evidently doesn’t work because the company’s Return on Equity going up doesn’t directly benefit an individual employee — not enough to compensate for the scale of thinking, alternative behavior, and sweat it’ll take to incorporate inclusive behaviors into their every day. It’s too many leaps to make into an unknown — all of which means it’s irrelevant in the face of the comfort of the status quo.
We see that with coronavirus too. Let us be clear — the consequence of not following guidelines is possible death for some people and oneself. If that isn’t tangible, what is?! We have data of people dying already in huge numbers in neighboring countries and in the UK. Images on mainstream and social media show what for some might be unimaginable scenes.
And yet people’s self-interest triumphs.
I want to meet with friends. I don’t want to be bored. I want to be outdoors. I don’t want my normal routine to be compromised. I don’t think anything will happen to me. I am healthy. I have private healthcare. I…
What’s missing when we are in the zone of self-interest, is that we erase the collective. Acting in service of inclusion and acting in service of containing the coronavirus requires a commitment to the collective, over the self. A commitment to a goal that is bigger than each of us as an individual. Action that no one will individually reward me for. Action that no one may notice individually, but must nevertheless be done for it to be felt at the collective level. Action in service of a goal that might not be fully realized during our lifetimes (for equity at a societal level). And that is no clear deadline for when our endeavours will no longer be required (coronavirus).
That commitment to the collective can be built — but it takes serious effort, emotional connection, transformative new insights, and significant time invested — all of which fall beyond the scope of generic and superficial ‘awareness’.
TWO. Our starting point matters.
And so our starting point matters. Much of the rationale for why people aren’t adopting new behaviors to contain coronavirus is because: “I feel fine! I have no symptoms!”.
In this paradigm, people think they aren’t harming anyone with their actions because they are innocuous and innocent. It’s other people who are the problem — the ones who are actually bad.
To take the coronavirus analogy and apply it to inclusion endeavors we can read it as follows: I have no symptoms (I’m a ‘good person’), I don’t go around coughing on people (calling people homophobic slurs), I can carry on meeting up with people as usual (I don’t need to do anything, because I’m a good person – it’s those other people we need to worry about).
When it comes to inclusion, most companies subscribe to this thinking. What we could call ‘the bad apple approach’. It basically states: ‘We are good people here, we value difference, everyone can thrive here. Any situations where that might not be someone’s experience is due to the odd bad apple. As such, we should just keep doing what we’re doing. Occasionally apples are bad. We put that apple in the bin if we find it, but otherwise, crack on”.
In the face of this extraordinary and unprecedented global pandemic, we could — and arguably should — shift to an alternative starting point when it comes to coronavirus containment. A paradigm where people presume they are a carrier of coronavirus even while they may have no symptoms. And that they are harming people even if they never can trace who they have infected, who then end up in hospital, and possibly dead. With this starting point action is rooted in presumed harm mitigation. I have to act, or I will be spreading it.
And the same for inclusion endeavors. The shifted paradigm offers a new starting point: Inequities are systemic. They are not located within individuals who are the ‘bad apples’. Rather as historical processes that have been designed and shape all aspects of our society, our institutional policies and processes, and our interpersonal relationships. We all do and can perpetuate inequitable harm to differing degrees. Challenging this means personal vigilance, effort and focus on new ways of being and doing each of us every day to transform this context.
THREE. Systemic problems require systemic solutions.
Which brings us to the final piece of the puzzle. While individual commitment is required for inclusive cultures to be lived in our organizations, just as it is for the coronavirus to be contained, individual action alone is insufficient and indeed impossible.
The spread of coronavirus has made this patently obvious. We can’t all remain in our houses. Why? Because some of us are key workers who are needed to treat those who are already sick, and we may then become sick too. Some jobs cannot be done in isolation and without doing one’s job people will go hungry. Some people need to do certain jobs because certain jobs are vital to keep people alive. Schools are mass gatherings so aren’t safe in these conditions, but if your carers or parents are key workers schools need to be open to look after these children. When everyone is in their homes unable to do certain things businesses that provide goods and services have no customers and go bust so they lay people off and then those people are in fact going hungry because they have no income and can’t feed themselves or their family. Landlords kick people out because they can’t pay their rent and so people are homeless (and then can’t stay at home). If we don’t have enough test kits we cannot map who has the virus and trace who else has it which means plans can’t be made for where to allocate resources while elevated production is in train. And so the list continues. Individuals socially distancing, washing their hands, and working from home alone cannot contain the spread though they are also absolute requirements because our relative positions in the system produce differential experiences and consequences.
As such, we also see that isolated responses that are introduced to each of the above problems without analysis of how they interact with different issues can become a game of whack-a-mole. In the UK, a new policy to pay up to £2,500 per month for furloughed staff is hugely welcomed, but it fails to meet the living needs of self-employed workers who make up 15.1% (in 2017) of the UK workforce. What action might they engage in to survive that can amplify corona harm to themselves and others, that is not in service of the collective? And who can blame them?
So the question we must ask is: what collective conditions are required to contain the spread of coronavirus? The answer is found in taking a systemic analysis, which means a deep understanding of the operating logic of the economy, public health, and politics and how they interact, to know which levers to pull, how levers interact, and which will be most impactful.
The same is true for inclusion in your organization. If you do not have the system-wide conditions that make individual action possible or maintainable, you’ll go nowhere. If you do not have the analysis that enables you to engage with the operating logics of racism, sexism, cissexism, classism, colonialism, heterosexism, disableism, antisemitism, and islamophobia and how they are lived in policies, processes, and practices in interconnected and overlapping ways, as well as at the individual-interpersonal level — your efforts will fail. If we do not know which levers to pull, how to re-design, and what we must subvert — while inequities might spread and get exponentially worse, just as the coronavirus does — the unfair, hostile-to-inclusion status quo will also simply endure.