Complexity is the defining business and leadership challenge of our time. But it has never felt more urgent than this moment, with the coronavirus upending life and business as we know it. Since March, we’ve been talking to leaders about what it takes to lead through the most complex and confounding problems, including the pandemic. Today we speak with Dr. Stefanie K. Johnson, author of Inclusify: The Power of Uniqueness and Belonging to Build Innovative Teams. Dr. Johnson is an associate professor at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Leeds School of Business, a member of the MG 100 Coaches, and was selected for the 2020 Thinkers50 Radar List. She is a frequent contributor to Harvard Business Review, Forbes, and Bloomberg, and appears regularly in other media outlets.
David Benjamin and David Komlos: Please tell us a bit about yourself and what set you on your journey to be an Inclusifyer?
Stefanie K. Johnson: I am a mom and I am a management professor who studies leadership and diversity, focusing on how these two things intersect. How do we view women leaders and leaders of color? And what can all leaders do to promote diversity and inclusion? My early leadership studies often showed discrepancies in the evaluations of male and female leaders. I could not just ignore the data so I found myself trying to understand why this was happening.
As I started studying the topic, so much more came up. Societal inequities make this topic so complex. Just thinking about me, I am Mexican-American but present pretty White so no one has ever really discriminated against me on the basis of my race. Instead, I experienced a lot of systemic racism in the fact that I grew up super poor, my parents did not go to college. I literally had to get a job to pay for taking my SATs. I was lucky enough to find my way into a great college (Claremont McKenna College) and Ph.D. program (Rice) but without that education, I would never have made it to where I am today.
I see this in my students all the time. Economic inequality impacts where they go to school, the support they have in college, whether they have to work to buy food. Add to that differences in how people are treated based on their race, sexual orientation, ability, and gender. Then, when companies consider candidates for jobs, they confuse merit with resources. Maybe a company chooses between two students with similar grades – one student worked as a server at a local restaurant to pay the bills and the other took an (unpaid) internship at the Governor’s office. Who looks like they had more merit? That had a big impact on my worldview and started me down the path of looking at things in a different way.
Benjamin and Komlos: You say that to inclusify is to, “live and lead in a way that recognizes and celebrates unique and dissenting perspectives while creating a collaborative and open-minded environment where everyone feels they truly belong.” Can you talk about the inherent tension in that definition?
Johnson: It comes down to striking a balance between two essential human needs: wishing to belong, and also to be your unique self. An easy way to make people feel like they belong is to focus on sameness and cultural fit, but that takes away from uniqueness, particularly for those who don’t fit the norm. If you do the opposite, encouraging everyone to be their unique self, then it becomes much harder to create a cohesive team. The balance lies in creating a place where people can fit together (as opposed to fitting in), while still being themselves and offering different perspectives. That’s not as easy to do.
Benjamin and Komlos: In the course of your research, you identified six archetypes that highlight the subtle ways in which leaders miss out on uniqueness and belonging (Meritocracy Manager, Culture Crusader, Team Player, White Knight, Shepherd, and Optimist). Do people find that any one or two of the six are particularly hard to recognize in themselves and/or to overcome?
Johnson: More than the other five personas, I’ve had many people reach out to me who have taken the quiz or read the book and say “I think it’s possible that I might be a little bit of a White Knight. I’d love to hear your feedback on what that might mean.” With other personas, people are more likely to say “yup, I’m a Team Player”, or a Culture Crusader, or a Shepherd, but White Knights seem to have a harder time acknowledging the persona because they really have the best intentions. They are usually white men who are pro-diversity and really try to support women and people of color, but might do so in a way that takes care of them too much, rather than letting them thrive on their own. They seem to feel less comfortable admitting that they might not be promoting women and people of color in the best possible way.
Benjamin and Komlos: How can leaders go about “rewiring” systems that create inequality?
Johnson: Systems will reinforce bias and inequity, through mechanisms like income inequality and recruiting and promotion and the defense that “this is how we’ve always done it”. It’s really hard, for example, to get new and diverse people in when you're recruiting from the exact same universities. So rewiring the system might involve making changes like recruiting from somewhere different, or dropping the need for a university degree altogether.
To give you another example, in some companies people are expected to take an expat assignment in Asia or Latin America before they’ll get promoted to a VP or Senior VP unless they’ve been hired in from the outside. The problem is that this rite of passage causes a huge drop-off in women who are eligible for that promotion because it's harder for them to move their family (statistically, women are more likely to have a working partner than men, for example). Rewiring the system in this case might mean getting rid of that requirement since it can’t be that important if it doesn’t apply to people recruited externally. And what we look for in leaders generally - the strong presence and big personality - needs rewiring, since it leads us to hire and promote white male extroverts from the US.
Benjamin and Komlos: Do you think the pandemic has created new opportunities to rewire?
Johnson: I mentioned earlier how “this is how we've always done it” is a big hurdle for change. We've always recruited from this school, we’ve always hired in this way, people have to work in the office and can't work from home… Now, as a result of the pandemic, we’re seeing that we can change the way we’ve always done it. We have a big opportunity, as we put things back together, to put them back in a way that’s more effective for everyone.
Take gender parity in leadership, for example. During the pandemic, people have valued leaders who are empathetic, supportive, sensitive, and understanding - who care for them - as opposed to displaying the traditional command-and-control style of leadership. We've seen how effective that leadership style can be, as female governors across the US and around the world have had more success managing its impact than their male counterparts. Researchers point to a caring leadership style and a focus on supporting people, and how that results in reciprocity in behavior - if you're supporting me and you're looking out for me, I'm going to look out for others. Given that these traits are more often exemplified by women leaders, maybe this is a tipping point.
Benjamin and Komlos: What are some of the problems that a leader may create for their organization in pursuit of a strong shared culture? How can this impede innovation?
Johnson: The Culture Crusader archetype is very focused on and effective at creating belonging. And that reflects in their hiring - reinforcing cultural fit and taking a pass on people who have different perspectives. Those who do have different perspectives in a place where culture is so strongly valued are less likely to speak up because they see that others just want them to conform to organizational norms. And if they don’t naturally fit in, they spend a lot of mental effort not being themselves. This taxes their psychological resources negatively impacts their creativity and their performance and probably makes them want to leave because it’s exhausting to continuously pretend to be what you’re not.
To innovate, you need healthy disagreement, conflict, the ability to question assumptions, and so on. When you’re overly focused on culture and avoiding conflict so that everyone gets along, you impede innovation. It is possible to have a strong culture that embraces inclusion of different perspectives and differences, where everyone gets along and feels part of the team while also feeling safe challenging ideas, but you have to be really intentional about doing that.
Benjamin and Komlos: What is the difference between equity and equality, and why is that distinction important?
Johnson: Equality is giving everyone something equal; equity is giving people what they need to be successful. The goal of equity is to give each person an equal chance of success, not to give each person the same thing. Some people might need leadership development, or mentoring, or flexible work schedules or time to pray in the middle of the day, or to smoke, or to use a breast pump. You’ve invested in the person by hiring them, training them, and developing them - it only makes sense to give them the latitude they need to be successful.
Benjamin and Komlos: Last June, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon acknowledged that corporations, including Walmart, must do more than simply write checks, and pledged to boost diversity within its own ranks and to invest in helping to fight systemic racism across the country. Beyond writing checks, what can companies do to boost diversity and to help fight systemic racism?
Johnson: It’s called ‘performative diversity’ when you're doing good things like writing checks, making statements, and setting up employee resource groups, but not demonstrating a real commitment. If you're just saying this is a nice thing to do and we're going to try, that can’t possibly stand up against other priorities that are actually tied to outcomes like compensation. Instead, you have to make diversity and inclusion part of your company’s mission, vision and values; transparently set and report on numerical goals; and use your data to create accountability by linking things like compensation and bonuses to success in achieving those goals. If your performance reviews are only based on sales, you're going to drive sales. If you’re not measuring and rewarding based on success with diversity and inclusion, you’re not prioritizing it over other things and you won’t see any progress.
Benjamin and Komlos: How would you recommend someone start on their Inclusifyer journey?
Johnson: Start with empathy. Everyone’s living through a pandemic, ask people how they're dealing with that, how they’re doing, how it’s impacted their work, how they’re staying healthy. Start learning about people and their experiences and how they might be different from yours, with the goal of listening, not judging or sharing your own experiences.
Empathy is the foundation of every other thing that I talk about in the book. How can you give people what they need to be successful if you don't know what that is? How do you build teams of individuals that are going to be more innovative, if you don't know your team members’ individual strengths? It’s almost impossible to imagine what other people are experiencing, but it's easy to find out if you ask them.
Original article posted on Forbes on April 12, 2021
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