I was lamenting with a colleague about how we all have areas in our lives and our leadership that drive other people crazy, cause damage to the world around us, and hurt the people we care about. And we are blind to them. That’s why we call them blind spots in our leadership development program. So much of what we bring to the world causes harm and requires intentional work to improve our leadership, and yet has become so habitual that we aren’t even aware of it. It all seems fine to us, but we are blind to how destructive it can be.
So it would appear that perhaps the eruption of anger toward inequality and discrimination in our society is a reckoning of our own blind spots around the issue of racism. Professional athletes this week have reminded us all that there is something more important at work here than winning games, making money, and the achievement of goals.
It seems to be human nature to avoid problems and dodge the truth. After all, who wants to look at the financial ledger of our businesses or our lives? It’s easier to procrastinate a visit to the doctor than face lab work results. It’s easier to avoid facing the difficulties in a marriage than confront what’s really going on. Who wants to admit they have an addiction and actually do something about it?
It’s easy to criticize leaders in an organization for not facing reality or confronting brutal facts and acting on the implications. But how many of us do this in our own lives? And it’s easy to judge the racism we see around us, but what about the unacknowledged prejudice within us?
I recently spoke to a high-ranking public service leader who publicly made a statement that there was systemic racism in the culture that she led, and she was taking action to rectify it. She opened herself to much criticism from her employees, but her courage to face reality demonstrated the strength of her character. It also deepened her credibility and the respect of her best employees.
We all have our prejudices. Only when we own up to them and face this reality will we begin to heal the world – and heal our lives. Helping people see their blind spots is a large part of the work we do in our retreats and online programs for developing authentic leaders (see www.irvinestone.com).
There are specific actions you can take to change the world by facing some of your own racism blind spots. Let’s do our part to heal the world by taking personal accountability:
- Speak to someone you know well who is different from you – in gender, race, ethnic background, or sexual orientation – and ask if they have experienced you being prejudiced, disrespectful, judgmental, or insensitive – and how. Say thank you and listen carefully to what they have to say. Be sincerely open to learn from them.
- If the level of honesty about these questions may be in doubt, invite the people you work with to provide the answers to these questions anonymously.
- If they honestly don’t perceive you as prejudiced, then still take time to listen to what they have to say. If something in you gets triggered, resist the human tendency to get defensive and instead use the trigger to open a new door to learn something. It’s important to begin the dialogue.
- Treat all diversity as an opportunity to learn and face the truth. It’s a life-long endeavor, and one worth pursuing – for the sake of a good life and for the sake of the survival of our species.
The focus of my life’s work and passion is authentic leadership. At the foundation of authenticity lies ownership and personal accountability. In part, this means the ability to distinguish between what you can control and what you can’t and putting energy into that which you can influence. I am aware that COVID-19 is causing concern and fear. I recently read that, despite all that is being done, 50,000 people still die on this continent every year from the flu. As much effort that is going on to try to contain this thing, let’s keep things in perspective. A trickle of fear in the brain can eventually turn into a trough that everything flows into.
The truth is that our health is constantly threatened by external toxins and “invaders” such as viruses and bacteria. We have little control over what is circulating in the air around us, but most of us have the ability to influence our immune system – how the body responds to these toxins.
Personal accountability means taking full responsibility for what we can control and letting go of what we can’t control. In the midst of all the unknowns in the current world narrative about this disease not enough emphasis is being placed on what we can control – our own response to the disease. Let’s not get so stressed about this that we create a self-fulfilling prophesy of a compromised immune system.
While much lies outside the sphere of influence in this impending endemic, here are three things we can all be accountable for:
1) Get as much knowledge about what is happening as we can – from trusted sources.
2) Learn as much about your immune system as you do about the disease. And put your energy into what you can impact – bolstering your well-being.
3) Wash your hands.
I’m concerned about the focus these days on employee engagement as if it were some kind of “special thing” to be pursued outside the usual day-to-day operations of a workplace. Engagement isn’t a goal to be sought. Rather, it’s an outcome of good leadership. The goal should be a well-run organization. The best run organizations have engaged employees, not because they are necessarily pursuing “an engaged workforce,” but because they are committed to a well-run organization. If you keep your eyes on the right priorities – on the right prize – engagement will naturally follow.
An adaptation of Gallup’s Q12 Index (https://q12.gallup.com/) provides a suggested checklist for leaders. If you sincerely pursue these endeavors toward a well-run organization, employee engagement will follow. In other words, these behaviors can assist the leader to do a much better job.
Don’t try to accomplish this massive list all at once. Start with getting a read on how your employees might perceive your leadership and begin to take action in any of these areas. Action on any one item on the checklist below will result in a better, well-run, engaged organization.
- Are you doing everything you can to clarify the kind of employee you need on your team? Are you clearly assessing the kind of skills and attitude required of an employee before you hire them, so that in the hiring process you get the right kind of people on the bus? While you may refine behaviors, don’t count on changing people’s fundamental values.
- Are you explaining to your people exactly what you expect from them, both in terms of operational results and the kind of behaviors you need to see demonstrated to support your values?
- Are you doing everything you can to give them the skills, tools, resources, and capabilities to succeed at their job?
- Have you linked your expectations with the purpose of your organization so they feel their contribution is valued?
- Have you assessed their strengths so they are doing what they do best every day?
- Are you getting out of your office at least every week and catching them doing their job well? Are you recognizing and celebrating success?
- Do you genuinely care about them as people? Have you listened to what matters to them, what they value, and how you can best support them to use their job to achieve their personal goals?
- Are you encouraging your employees to grow, learn, and develop themselves? When was the last time you recommended a good book for them to read?
- Do you allow genuine input and collaboration from your team so their opinions actually matter? While you can’t possibly make every decision by consensus, do you explain – and demonstrate – that their input on as many decisions as possible will be taken seriously?
- Do you set high standards and hold people to account to those standards? “Everyone knows who is and who is not performing, and they are looking to you, as the boss, to see what you are going to do about it.” (Collin Powell)
- Are you encouraging the development of good friendships at work?
- Are you openly talking with people about their progress toward the achievement of both personal and organizational goals – so there are no surprises if/when you do an annual review?
- Are you bringing humility to your leadership by being honest, vulnerable, and teachable?
- Are you making it safe for people to risk making mistakes, while ensuring that they learn from these mistakes?
- Are you creating a culture of ownership, so that employees are encouraged, and held accountable to create conditions for success on their own rather than depending solely on you, the boss, to deliver this?
Moving into a position of leadership does not give you more power. What it gives you is more accountability. Leading a well-run organization takes time, patience, and a clear intention. Set a goal for a productive workplace and employee engagement will follow.