Vive La Difference

Great leaders aren’t afraid to embrace peoples differences – and my grandma has a genius way of remembering why!

My Grandmother, may she rest in peace, had a saying: “If everybody liked the same thing, everybody would have fancied your Grandad!”

I mention this only because I’m struck by the continuing belief that in order to be a great leader you must treat all your people the same – and a fear that if you don’t you’ll be castigated in the name of equality.

This was brought sharply into focus for me recently whilst watching a training session where the group was asked if it was ever acceptable to discriminate in the workplace. After a slightly awkward silence the group responded dutifully that it was not – only to be told by (the fantastic) Chrissi McCarthy, of Constructing Equality, who was leading the session that, not only is it okay, but that they’re already doing it…

The shock was palpable…clearly this was some kind of mistake. This was a group of seasoned professionals with many years’ experience and a great deal of success under their belts. We wouldn’t – we couldn’t – possibly discriminate…except that we do. As professionals we are paid to make discernements and differentiations all the time.

How else could we expect our people to make any kind of decision without discriminating? How do you decide which candidate is the right one for the job without choosing one over the other – or discriminating between the two? Is it simply the case that the word now comes with too much baggage that we need to shift our perspective and think about this differently?

The key is to do it fairly and equitably, making transparent decisions based on facts and using a criteria or a structure that’s appropriate to the decision you’re about to make and one that takes into account any biases that we may unconsciously allow to influence our final decision.

In fact, as an employee I want you, as the person charged with leading me, to make these discernments – and that’s why I think we need to spend a lot more time talking about fairness. This isn’t some “pink and fluffy” HR initiative either – we know that employees perform better in an environment they perceive to be fair and where trust exists between them and their employer.

A leader treating all of their people the same is guilty of nothing more than a “cop-out”, it’s a convenient excuse not to take the time to get to know your people and understand what motivates and drives them, their nuances and idiosyncrasies, their strengths, their frustrations and the areas where they need your help and support to get better.

As my Grandmother said, we don’t all like the same things and it’s only by getting to know your people that you can begin to treat them in a manner that’s appropriate, conducive to their development and supportive of their well-being; in short,treating them fairly because you understand them and can respond to their needs in an informed and intelligent manner.

The great news is there’s a really effective way to do this, it’s called coaching! You may have come across it and may even be lucky enough to have been the recipient of someone practising it.

So, if there’s such an effective solution to developing a fair and equitable workplace, an opportunity to build trust between organisations and the people they employ, why is it that there are so many disengaged members of the workforce out there? Well, as the old saying goes “what gets measured gets done.”

How many of our leaders are rewarded based on a people metric? How many of our organisations are still task driven with little or no thought given to the people doing the work? I know things have changed but the brave new world we anticipated has failed to materialise.

As learning leaders we need to be brave and start pressing those who lead our organisations to ask our people how fairly they feel we treat them – and we need to acknowledge the responses and face up to the consequences of the seeds we’ve sown.

McKinsey told us that we faced a war for talent and we seem to have accepted that the needs of our employees has changed in recent years and will continue to evolve, yet we seem to be doing very little to overcome the challenge – we tweak an appraisal document here and there or develop an engagement strategy as if that will be the miracle cure all or panacea.

Imagine your humble blog writer entering the next F1 Grand Prix, finishing a miserable and humiliating last – if at all – and then blaming the car and the pit crew.

At a recent seminar I was impressed by the bravery of one speaker who voiced the opinion that the infamous nine box grid had done little or nothing to progress our ability to identify, develop and deploy talent in the past 20 years. Why, because it’s seen as a means to an end, not the catalyst for an honest conversation.

What power lies unused at our fingertips? The ability to connect at a human level with those around us and based on what we learn from that connection the potential to respond in a caring and thoughtful manner.

An L&D colleague of mine recently remarked that he and has family seemed to get along quite well despite the lack of a set of prescribed behavioural and technical competencies. We know what people want from their work – the latitude to make decisions and the feeling of some semblance of control, a feeling of purpose and the opportunity to master that which they’re asked do.

Don’t we owe our people the time for at least that coaching conversation? The opportunity to get to know the people around us enough to be discriminating in the way we choose to lead them.

My grandmother and grandfather were married for almost 70 years because my grandmother took the time to figure out what it was she liked. Tick, tock…

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