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8 November 2018 | By Jeff Phipps Community

Encouraging diversity: Do we need to dial down the hierarchy?

If senior leaders don’t look or sound like you, it can be hard to speak up, says ADP’s Jeff Phipps

Can you recall a time, either recently or in the past, when you have found yourself in a room with some much more senior people? For those of you that ooze confidence, you no doubt relished the opportunity. For the rest of us though, the memory will bring discomfort as we recall an incredibly intimidating experience.

Despite my best efforts and reputation for being informal and approachable, I still see times when these experiences stifle and stress people. What I’ve particularly noticed, and what research supports, is that these experiences are even more challenging if those senior people don’t look or sound like you. It suddenly becomes even harder to perform at your best and express your opinion – something that’s worrying considering underrepresented workers are exactly the people we most need to hear from.

It leads me to question the role of hierarchy as a barrier to addressing workplace diversity and inclusion?

The discomfort that comes from meeting with senior colleagues doesn’t stop there but extends to all forms of interaction, from emails to the office elevator. As a human I care about the impact on people when they feel unnecessarily stressed, and as a businessman I worry about how it can constrain ideas or stop leaders from getting the feedback they need on decisions and initiatives.

On my journey I’ve discovered a few practical steps that can help senior leaders to help counteract the unintended consequences of hierarchy:

Get the right people in the room – Focus on skills and knowledge to drive the required outcomes over job titles. People who are closer to the challenge will often have a better understanding of how to tackle it. Mixing these people with fewer senior leaders promotes more dialogue and tangible action.

Ensure everyone gets a voice – As a leader, demonstrate that the input of everyone matters. This starts with really active listening, making sure people are not cut off or the person asked the question is the one who gets to answer it.

Create a supportive environment – Show an interest in anyone attending a particular meeting for the first time and help to calm their nerves. Understand and be on the lookout for micro aggressions and unconscious subservience and help to make people aware of these so they can avoid them (something that is generally best done outside the meeting). Try to ask questions rather than make judgements.

Praise and recognition – Assume that whatever you say is going to be shared with colleagues as soon as employees get back to their desks, and with their friends or family over the dinner table that evening. Senior leaders have the power to inspire or demoralise with a few words so be deliberate and thoughtful. “Great job” is meaningless so be specific and demonstrate that you were paying attention.

I’ve been shocked in the past to hear how men are often mistakenly credited with ideas that were made by female colleagues, so make sure you get it right. And, if someone has an idea, avoid suggestions for improvement that risk confusing and destroying its integrity – instead encourage and ask how you can help.

Underpinning all these steps is the organisation culture. Fostering an egalitarian culture with a community feel encourages collaboration and inclusion, and ensures everyone has a voice. This is not to suggest the abandonment of hierarchy but to recognise that it should primarily be a tool for supporting and removing obstacles. I know from personal experience that culture change is a long hard journey but the rewards are worth the effort.

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