Monthly Archives

June 2020

Can We Halt the Perverse Cycle of Racism?

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This is a very personal piece for me to write, as a White privileged person, who has sought over a large part of my professional life to mitigate some of the most egregious manifestations of racism and prejudice directed towards persons of colour.

I come from South Africa (am now an Australian citizen) where race divisions were institutionalised and opportunities distributed on a racial basis to a degree exceeding anywhere else in the world. Through the last decade of the 20th century and into the first few years of the 21st century I worked with government organisations and large corporations in South Africa to endeavour to dismantle apartheid and reach a fundamental change in mindset: from the one where Black people were assumed to be inferior, to one where the intrinsic equality and worth of all humans is acknowledged.

There were certainly positive signs to be seen. The sustained adulation by millions across the world of Nelson Mandela for his inspiring leadership taking South Africa to democracy, followed by the election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the USA, seemed to indicate that gross and universalised race discrimination was at last on the wane. This, as we all know most unfortunately was just an illusion.

The current upheaval in America, precipitated by killings of unarmed Black civilians followed by sympathetic protests across the globe, is a pointed reminder of how far we are from the reality of embedding racial equity and justice. Societies almost everywhere, physically removed from the locus of the incidents, have been taking stock and facing the reality of their own histories of ongoing racial oppression and discrimination.

These protests hopefully reflect that societies have reached an inflexion point in their willingness to blind themselves to or tolerate unrestrained racial humiliation, exclusion and repeated acts of race-based violence. However, it will take a huge and sustained effort by individuals, the media, governments and private businesses and organisations to bring about real change.

And such transformation has to start with me, with you, with us. A constant refrain from BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Colour) is that White people “just don’t get it”.  White people do not comprehend or even acknowledge the repeated fears, hurt, humiliations, exclusions and apprehensions experienced daily by people of colour. This is a reality which all of us as Whites must accept. Saying we are colour blind is simply denying the reality of very real racial dynamics which filter through every conversation and every situation that a person of colour encounters daily. We need to take off our blinkers, to make the gigantic emotional leap into the shoes of the person of colour, and do the hard work of really getting to grips with the immense toll that racism plays on our social structures and on people of colour the world over.

And we need to take stock, pause and consider what deliberate action we can take, individually and collectively, to halt the perverse cycle of racism and ameliorate the harsh impact of inequity and oppression in the long journey to building a fair, just and inclusive culture for people of all  races across the globe. Will you join me?

A Sexual Predator Stalks the High Court of Australia: A Call to Action

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The revelation that Dyson Heydon, a former judge of the High Court of Australia had been a serial sexual harasser and that female judges and associates at the Court had been amongst his victims is shocking, but not really surprising. The accounts given by the female victims reveal a startling degree of recklessness on the part of the judge and a callous indifference to the emotional damage and professional disruption caused. The incidents remained buried for years because of the power and authority of the perpetrator.

The stories recounted by Heydon’s targets are symptomatic  of what is known to be a perennial problem in the legal profession not only in Australia but globally.

The International Bar Association report released in 2019 records the following salient statistics:

  • 1 in 3 females and 1 in 14 males in the legal profession have been sexually harassed
  • Targets do not report in 75% of cases
  • 32% of sexual harassment victims consider leaving the profession

The report points to the features which make the legal profession particularly susceptible to bullying and sexual harassment:

  • male-dominated
  • hierarchical power structure
  • lower level employees dependent on superiors for advancement
  • power highly concentrated in one person
  • targets not reporting for fear of repercussions
  • Policies do not deter unacceptable behaviour

What is apparent from these shameful episodes at the apex of Australia’s legal profession is that until there is a comprehensive and systematic endeavour to create respectful and inclusive workplaces, we will not see any reduction in the unacceptably high rate of sexual harassment.

So what do we need to do to create such a culture?

We need to build leadership capability in the legal profession to role model inclusive behaviour. We need to make it clear that all forms of sexual harassment, from mild, more subtle forms right through to serious sexual misconduct ALL contribute to a disrespectful, unsafe and unfair culture. We need to set expectations that leaders be inclusive and:

  • Actively and visibly speak out about sexual harassment when it occurs
  • Call sexual harassment out as a problem (saying nothing is not good enough)
  • Apply real consequences
  • Provide real protection for people to prevent victimisation and retaliation
  • Approach training that embraces men as part of the solution to the problem, rather than treating them as “perpetrators in waiting”.

And at the same time as all of this, we need to even out the power imbalances between men and women – because at its core sexual harassment is about unequal power relations at work and in society at large.

The fact of the matter is that Diversity and Inclusion efforts, gender equity initiatives and efforts to combat sexual harassment should not run disparate paths in organisations. They should converge, collaborate and work together to achieve the common goal of creating respectful, fair and inclusive workplaces.

Female Leaders Shine in Crises – will this debias the lens through which they are seen?

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The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity
William Butler Yeats

Male leaders stumble

Disasters and Crises show leaders at their best and worst. Some political leaders show their underlying strength, the ability to listen and a talent to rally the troops when decisions to act are taken. Others respond with arrogance, denialism, false assurances and unfounded assertions that the situation is entirely under control.

Donald Trump, the nominal leader of the free world has been confronted by three crises in recent months: his impeachment, Covid-19 and the racist killing of George Floyd.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, he has lost his nerve and displayed an abject lack of leadership in dealing with all three.

Similarly and disconcertingly  other male leaders of major powers, Putin in Russia, Boris Johnson in the UK and Bolsonaro in Brazil in dealing with the current pandemic have in turn been arrogant, dissolute and inept and have probably caused the needless deaths of some of their citizens.

By contrast, Jacinda Ardern, facing her first crisis was admirably resolute and calming in responding to the shooting in Christchurch. Her conduct won plaudits globally and promoted healing rather than division and upheaval.

The crisis of Covid-19

The monumental and fast-developing calamity brought about by Covid-19 has given us the rare opportunity to witness leadership capability across the globe in real time.

Four countries have been noteworthy for the exceptionally good performance of their leaders: Estonia, Iceland, New Zealand and Taiwan. All four have women political leaders, although only seven percent of world political leaders are female. In addition, Angela Merkel of Germany, Mette Frederiksen of Denmark, Sanna Marin of Finland and Erna Solberg of Norway have distinguished themselves in the resolute, and sometimes imaginative, ways they have acted in a period of profound uncertainty.

At the very least these instances demonstrate an unmistakeable thread of consistently competent female leadership which should put an end to the biased notion that women cannot lead.

What marks a leader in a crisis?

Is there any one vital leadership characteristic in a crisis which sets the effective leaders apart from those who fail?

Professor Gianpiero Petriglieri explores the vital leadership quality of Holding”  in a crisis.

“Holding describes the way a leader contains and interprets what is happening in times of uncertainty. It is that ability to calm in a time of distress and help to interpret when times and circumstances have engendered uncertainty.”

An article in Harvard Business Review posits that women leaders are clearly better exemplars of holding behaviour.The authors suggest that there are at least seven lessons that men can learn from women which, if they do, will make the men better and more effective leaders:

  • Don’t lean in when you’ve got nothing to lean about
  • Know your limitations
  • Put people ahead of yourself
  • Don’t command, empathise
  • Focus on elevating others
  • Motivate through transformation
  • Don’t say you’re “humbled”. Be humble.

This suggestion is consistent with evidence gathered by Symmetra over several years through deploying its online assessment tool, the Inclusive leadership Index measuring inclusion capability in leaders.

On seven out of twelve behaviours reflected in the graph above (those marked with an asterisk) female leaders score better than men and the difference is statistically significant. Some of the critical leadership “holding” behaviours such as showing empathy, putting others ahead of yourself, knowing your limitations and focusing on elevating others are common to both sets of data.

In light of all this evidence one would expect a fundamental change in perspective when evaluating female leadership capabilities which would stand women in good stead when the COVID-19 pandemic has cleared.

The future for women in the workplace

However, there is also a distinct possibility that women may emerge from this crisis worse off than before. More women may  lose  their jobs than men, more have and may continue to  be subjected to domestic violence while under lockdown and  more have been expected to shoulder the greater share of the caring responsibilities while children are away from school.

We are starting to emerge from the most drastic aspects of isolation and interruption to normal living. Work norms have been unceremoniously upended and discarded (some permanently). Many of our false pre-conceptions and prejudices have been exposed for what they are and our behaviour in some areas will surely change.

Australia is experiencing its first recession in 29 years and going forward the economy and many workplaces will look different. The opportunities to rebuild our societies and economies stronger and free of unnecessary shackles are there for the taking. Using the abilities of all our women will make Australia stronger and more prosperous. Is it too much to hope that organisations will look at women with talent, drive and ambition through a fresh lens and recognise that their leadership skills are not to be wasted?

Why are 75% of suicides by men?

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By the end of today, 12 people will have taken their lives by suicide, 75% of them will be men.

In recognition that the Covid-19 Crisis would place a significant burden on the mental health of citizens, the Australian Federal Government approved long overdue additional funding for mental health services in March.

It unfortunately needed a global crisis to fast-track support for what was fairly widely acknowledged as a protracted pandemic of a different kind – i.e. the mental health pandemic.

However, this pandemic impacts men, at a much greater rate than women.  It has been exacerbated by increasing loneliness, distributed family relationships and cyber-friendships over the last 50 years.  With the health impact of persistent loneliness being equivalent to 15 cigarettes / day, so some say it is the “new smoking”, with 1 in 4 Australians regularly feeling lonely. (Beyond Blue; Medibank)

Almost 1 in 2 Australians will experience a common mental health disorder in their life, which means 20% of us are experiencing a mental health challenge in any given year.

How does this impact business?

In today’s Knowledge Worker WorkPlace, our brain is our “tool of trade”, which means having it function at its optimal level of performance is key to results.

Having 20% of your WorkForce at any one time working at less than their optimal level, cannot possibly deliver optimal results.

Therefore, it’s not surprising, that wellbeing has become a major focus of corporates in recent years.

Companies investing in traditional wellbeing initiatives have found positive returns of 2.3x expenditure as a result of reduced absenteeism and presenteeism; employee turnover and health care costs with results augmented by increased productivity, creativity and engagement. (BeyondBlue)

How are wellbeing and inclusion connected? 

Symmetra sees a merging of inclusion and wellbeing, with some mature corporations recognising the benefits of a systemic approach to both inclusion and wellbeing, based on a foundation stone of culture and leadership.

Just as wellbeing is not just about fruit and pilates, diversity and inclusion is not just about celebrating harmony day!

Inclusion enables wellbeing in six important ways:

  1. Being able to safely speak up (Parke & Sherf)
  2. Being yourself (Emanuel et. al)
  3. Flexibility (NCBI)
  4. Self-Actualisation (APA)
  5. Mental health (Medicare)
  6. Reducing loneliness and increasing belonging (Murthy)

Whilst this confirms what we’ve long known i.e. there is a strong correlation between WorkPlace experiences and Life experiences, it doesn’t explain why men are at more risk than women.

Why are men more at risk?

Although this is changing, many men still have a strong sense of identity and self-worth emanating from their desire to self-actualise in their work and careers. Many men also spend more time at work than women and have fewer personal social connections, putting them at greater risk when things aren’t going well in their professional environment.

This can be further exacerbated for mature men, who face the additional pressure of being the family breadwinner, and view asking for help or seeking support as a sign of weakness.  Younger men face their own challenges too, largely because of their stronger social media use and resulting less meaningful social connections.

The risk factors of loneliness and feeling as if you don’t belong and can’t be yourself are magnified by the relentless pressure to appear as if it’s “business as usual”, even when things aren’t going as well as you might wish.  For anyone who has carried that burden for any period of time, you understand the weight of its impact.

How can Inclusion better support Men’s Mental Health?

Our Inclusive Leadership data shows men have lower levels of capability (as judged by other men and women), in 3 competencies which both inoculate individuals against lower levels of wellbeing and mental health, and support resilience and performance in all walks of life.

Psychological Safety supports being able to speak up, be yourself and feel as though you belong.

  • A recent study highlights those who did not feel it was necessary to stay silent about an issue or problem did not experience as much burnout as employees who reported self-silencing about problems. (Parke & Sherf)

FlexAgile WorkPlaces offering a variety of flexible work locations and options, enable a better balance of life and work relationships, reducing loneliness and increasing belongingness.

  • Flexagile Future WorkPlaces enable men to benefit from systems and structures which were originally put in place to benefit women, balancing their work and life aspirations.

Learning Mindset enables individuals to approach life’s challenges with curiosity and a desire to learn.  In a recent client analysis, we discovered “was 1 of the top 3 drivers of inclusion and belonging.

  • By believing failure is an important step in future performance, individuals are protected from the full impact of life’s inevitable disappointments and setbacks.

Creating environments and making choices 

Just as “karoshi” in Japan has remained a silent curse for too long, men’s mental health will too, if leaders don’t purposefully create an environment which enables men to speak up and speak out, asking for what they need to thrive, not just survive in life and work.

As the leadership in many organisations today is largely male dominated, men have the uncommon ability to influence the environment and culture to not just their own, but to everyone’s advantage.

What is good for men’s wellbeing is good for all genders.

Psychological Safety, FlexAgile WorkPlaces and Learning Mindsets have individually shown they have positive impacts on business performance and personal wellbeing.

During a week in which we focus on Men’s Mental Health specifically, we encourage all men to overcome their “code of silence” and take the lead in building their own capability, whilst also evolving existing professional environments to reduce the incidents and severity of the other pandemic currently influencing our lives and livelihoods.

What will the Future WorkPlace, in the “Future of Work”, look like?

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As we enter Phase 3, of the S-Curve (A. Edmondson, adapted from G. Land), we have a unique opportunity to design “Future WorkPlaces” as a win-win-win for business, teams and individuals.

The “Great Working from Home Experiment of 2020”, did not have the benefit of the consciously considered human-centred design principles, we typically recommend for teams seeking to co-create high performance FlexAgile WorkPlaces of the future.

Rather, it was urgently rushed into place, to protect lives and livelihoods, in the middle of a crisis.

On good days we’ve heard our clients espouse the value of less “dead” commute time – positively impacting personal productivity and the environment due to l fewer cars on the road, in addition to closer connections with colleagues – resulting from the window we’ve gained into each other’s personal lives.

On bad days, we’ve heard it described as chaotic, confusing and alternately socially isolating or socially overwhelming (depending on your home schooling and/or home office circumstances).

The highest priority has been, to keep people physically safe whilst maintaining their ability to do their job, and support their emotional health and wellbeing.

This has not been a typical “FlexAgile” experience.

In the initial stages of the crisis, (it seems like a long time ago now!) the focus of business was to “keep the lights on” and figure out what the “winning model” was in the new world.

With many companies successfully emerging from Phase 2 of the S-Curve, with all but their most intractable challenges resolved, they now turn to the next order of business, Phase 3; devising what comes next.

With a very different economic trajectory to pre-Covid forecasts, many companies previously in the   throes of adapting their strategy and “go to market” approaches to ensure survival in the “old disrupted world” of just 3-4 months ago, now again, find themselves re-thinking their markets and marketplaces and devising what the next new winning formula will be.

We’ve coined the term “hyper-disruption” to describe the experience.

Whilst many companies are exploring cost reduction measures ensuring short term protection in response to hyper-disruption, it’s equally critical to explore short and long term reinvention and renewal of business models, products and programs, to lay the foundation for future survival and growth.

The very nature of reinventing business models in Phase 3 is complex, and we know diverse teams with diverse mental toolboxes are uniquely positioned to find optimal answers to challenging problems.  (S. Page).

So it’s crucial, as we design Future WorkPlaces – be they virtual or on-premise –  that we seek to enable high performance environments which enable both individual performance and the collective intelligence of teams.

What Future WorkPlace designs will enable “high performance teams” to thrive?

Beware recency or confirmatory biases which lead you to determine either a remote or on-premise WorkPlace is best placed to deliver this outcome.

If you’ve had recent positive remote experiences, you might be tempted to go “all-in” for remote / distributed Future WorkPlace models.  Conversely, if you’ve experienced frustrations, you might be tempted to swing the pendulum and opt for the traditional on-premise WorkPlace.

Crucial for “sparking” new ideas and generating new perspectives essential for the organic renewal and reinvention of every business, is the oft accidental and informal “water cooler” chat.

Enabling this organic human interaction, has been the rationale for much of the open plan, hot desking arrangements incorporated into modern office design.  During this crisis, instant messenger applications have sought to replicate this organic communication – with greater or lesser success, depending on their pre-existing level of adoption.

It is our view supported by data from clients, that achieving a blend of distributed and on-premise “Future WorkPlaces” will achieve optimal employee satisfaction, engagement and business performance.

FlexAgility is not just a “perk” for high performers.

It is a performance enabler generating win-win-win outcomes for business, teams, individuals (and the environment).

Symmetra’s Roadmap for designing Optimal “WorkPlaces of the Future”

When designing “Future WorkPlaces”, we recommend leveraging a Human- Centred Model of Design to co-create the win-win-win for your business and your team.

Human- Centred design principles always start with empathy for the human condition and experience.  Next they define the goal – which in this instance is to design a Future WorkPlace which maximises individual and team performance.

We recommend leveraging the collective intelligence of your team to solve this complex problem by:

  1. Asking: what would our WorkPlace look and feel like, to achieve our highest performance, individually and collectively?”
  2. Challenging: your own traditional thinking and biases about performance in remote vs. on-premise Future WorkPlaces.
  3. Consciously: exploring a blend of remote / distributed and on-premise arrangements, to unlock the optimal mix of individual performance and collective intelligence.
    • When faced with a request for ongoing FlexAgile arrangements, ask “how might this work if we were to…”? rather than respond “it won’t work because…”
  4. Exploring: a wide range of FlexAgile options including:
    • Flexible start and finish times; compressed working weeks; time-in-lieu; part-time and job share; purchasing leave, unpaid leave and sabbaticals are all options available to retain and engage teams and enhance individual and collective performance over time.

It is the ideation discussions of the team, which co-create the experimentation required to refine the optimal solution for implementation.

Optimal “Future WorkPlaces” require experimentation and an ongoing shift in mindset of how “flexagility” supports optimal individual and collective performance.

We urge you to use this great ‘reset’ to explore your own unique and optimal “Future WorkPlace” to unleash the critical blend of individual and collective performance which will steer your business through Phase 3 of “hyper-disruption”.