Lately, among both my clients and my wider network, I’ve been seeing a lot of negativity. A lot of fear. A sense of paralysis around tackling difficult issues. Many leaders are afraid that they’re unknowingly out of date on things, and feel defensive about that.
This isn’t just about their image. I think the root is often a real anxiety about harming relationships. Things seem to be moving so fast, and they know that saying or doing the wrong thing might undermine their employees’ trust – and could cause real harm.
Even among the boldest leaders and most gleeful risk-takers I know, I’ve heard people say this just feels too daunting. But these challenges are not insurmountable. How can you overcome this and come out the other side as a stronger, more adaptable leader.
We’re going to start with four simple questions. I’d like to invite you to really engage with them, and apply some radical honesty. They’ll help you know where you’re starting from, and remind you why doing this work is so important.
Who are your employees?
No need to get into the nitty gritty of your organisation’s demographics here. Simply ask yourself: are any of your employees under forty? Because if so, you really can’t afford to bury your head in the sand about big issues like DE&I, social and environmental impact, and work-life balance.
According to the Deloitte Global 2023 Gen Z and Millennial Survey, employees in this age range expect their employers to be proactive on these issues. And they’ll vote with their feet if they’re disappointed. To quote Deloitte Insights:
“For values-driven generations like Gen Z and millennials, the ability to drive change on social issues has the potential to make or break recruitment and retention efforts. […] 44% of Gen Zs and 37% of millennials […] say they have rejected assignments due to ethical concerns, while 39% and 34%, respectively, have turned down employers that do not align with their values.”
Are you open to learning?
Let’s reiterate that: “the ability to drive change.” Gen Z and Millennial employees aren’t expecting to arrive in a perfect workplace with no problems. In fact, they do expect problems – and they’re ready and willing to put in the work to help solve them.
So the question then becomes: when they point out issues and suggest solutions, will you listen
Essentially, you need to figure out whether you have a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. When you meet a challenge or receive feedback, do you dig in your heels and say “this is just how it is”, or do you see it as an opportunity for improvement?
It’s not the end of the world if you’re more the former – remember, radical honesty! But it is something you’ll need to work on if you want to become the best leader you can.
What are your biases?
Sometimes, even leaders with growth mindsets will have a ‘digging their heels in’ moment. Often, this is about bias. As Imperial College London says, “unconscious (or implicit) bias is a term that describes the associations we hold, outside our conscious awareness and control. Unconscious bias affects everyone.”
I’d wager that almost everyone reading this right now knows the term. But have you actually found out what your biases are? Because you’re bound to have some – There are even free online tests you could take right now – the Harvard IAT is especially famous. It’s so important to know your blind spots, the areas where you have a bit of extra learning (or unlearning) to do.
Some bonus questions: where have you encountered other people’s biases? In what areas do you expect people to respect your expertise from lived experience?
Who’s doing well in your field?
I opened this post by pointing out a trend I’ve seen towards anxiety, overwhelm and disengagement. But of course, some people and organisations are bucking that trend. I think positivity is key when combatting these feelings, and one way to tap into that is by finding those trailblazing figures in your own industry.
These don’t have to be ‘big names’. They don’t have to be people you personally know and like. You don’t even have to agree with everything they’re doing! I just want you to find examples of people actively engaging with tough topics, starting these messy conversations, and not being so afraid of making mistakes that they don’t even try.
After all, we’re none of us perfect. And even if we stumble along the way, setting out along this thorny path is the only way to make progress.