Inclusive workplaces need leaders who are self-aware, not self-conscious

Why leaders need to be self-aware when managing racism and inclusivity in the workplace

Inclusivity is becoming one of the UK’s most prioritised business objectives. Every business leader must listen to their employees’ experiences and ask themselves: Have I witnessed racism or bias in my workplace? And what can I do to make sure I am supporting greater diversity and inclusion within my team?

Engaging with these topics can be difficult, and for some people, it will cause a great deal of discomfort. From my own experience as a leadership trainer, I have found that many managers feel extremely awkward when talking about diversity and inclusion. Often this is because they believe they should know how to deal with every aspect of it but feel self-conscious about using certain language or approaching individuals outside of their own network.

It is this self-consciousness that prevents many leaders from being truly inclusive. It stops them from leaning into the more difficult conversations and taking progressive action, all for fear of getting it wrong. This leads to inactivity and causes them to surround themselves with people they perceive as similar to them.

That is why it is so important for leaders to overcome this awkwardness by building greater self-awareness. Unlike self-consciousness, self-awareness allows us to cultivate a healthy acceptance of our own biases and blind spots. It helps us to understand that, as humans, we have multiple thoughts and feelings about different groups.

For example, upon learning their own unconscious biases, a self-conscious leader would feel awkward and likely shut down. His or her internal dialogue would sound something like: I’m worried I’m being racist, but I don’t know what to do about it. A self-aware leader, on the other hand, would acknowledge their own reaction to this but understand that the only way they can work on that is by challenging their own thinking. And this means having honest conversations and getting feedback from different groups of people.

Inclusive and self-aware leaders do not deny their own biases but take action to make sure that they don’t affect the decisions they make. They also take time to make decisions about people, without acting on gut instinct or intuition.

The trouble is most people believe they are self-aware. This includes most managers. But research shows that only 10-15% of the people actually fit the criteria. Generally speaking, organisations are very good at offering factual, knowledge-based training, but most don’t offer self-awareness training.

So, how do leaders cultivate greater self-awareness and, in turn, become more inclusive? And importantly, how do they measure their progress?

One of the most effective techniques for leaders to measure their self-awareness is to ask for feedback from their peers, bosses and Board members. They should aim to engage with as diverse a group as possible from various backgrounds.

Regular feedback provides leaders with a useful insight into how others see them, helping them to better understand their behaviours by viewing them through a different lens. One analysis showed that leaders who seek frequent critical feedback were ranked highest by their team in leadership effectiveness.

Feedback can be given after a call or meeting or as part of an annual 360 review. Leaders can then compare the feedback with their own self-analysis, paying close attention to any similarities and differences and how this changes over time in line with any training and self-development.

Psychometric tools, such as the Hogan personality series or even the PK:INDYNAMICS series, can also be useful tools for cultivating greater self-awareness and awareness of others among leaders. Psychometric tools create in-depth individual profiles for each team member, normally based on their personality type. This then provides insight into their motivations, strengths and weaknesses.

By identifying which group they and their colleagues fall under, leaders can gain a unique insight into the dynamics of their team and their individual behaviours. Of course, these can never be entirely accurate but are a useful starting point.

Other techniques for improving and measuring self-awareness include taking on a new challenge to stretch personal boundaries and seeing how you react; emailing yourself regularly to capture events and building on the learnings; and tuning into self-talk (our internal dialogue, influenced by our subconscious mind). With all of these, successful leaders will practise these habits on a regular basis and take note of the lessons learned and any changes over time.

Leaders who spend time working on their self-awareness will always reap the benefits. This may take a while – it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Over time, though, they’ll find that they’re able to successfully navigate many of the blockers that have prevented them from making progress in the past.

They will also find that they can create an environment in which people feel psychologically safe – that is, where they feel able to be themselves and speak up against inappropriate behaviour without fear of negative consequences. All of this sets the stage for better management and produces brilliant leaders and thriving, inclusive teams.

By Stuart Duff, a business psychologist and partner at diversity and inclusion consultancy Pearn Kandola.

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