Following on from my last post about common courtesy, I’ve spent the last week reflecting on the broader issue of how we treat each other, and the responsibility that we have as individuals.
There’s no doubt that the #metoo movement has recently shone a light on some very dark corners and exposed devastating abuses that had become institutionalised. The public condemnation and outrage that has followed have been loud and far-reaching, as it should have been.
But a question that I have been asking myself lately is whether this movement will result in lasting change. Can we, collectively, sustain our outrage long enough to ensure that these types of behaviours are never tolerated again?
Just the other day I witnessed a form of unconscious racism that shocked me deeply. It happened as I went about my daily life on the weekend. I think what was most abhorrent to me was that the individual perpetrating the act could behave in this way because the person being maligned was somehow considered to be ‘lower’ in social status and not able to stand up for themselves.
I know that this is different from the rampant sexism at the heart of the #metoo movement, but it does constitute a form of abuse that the individual in question did not invite, and that there can be no excuse for them being subjected to it.
For me, the similarities between these wrongs are in how we respond to them as individuals. When we become complicit in our silence, we allow space for these abuses to flourish. In our silence, we help to normalise them.
In my case, I did speak up. But it was both uncomfortable and deeply unsettling. Many of the victims of abuse that come forward must deal with similar emotions, only at a much greater level. And these difficulties become even more acute when they happen in the workplace.
As with our personal lives, we should be no less willing to confront and speak out against aggression or belittling behaviour in our professional lives where it works directly against creating an inclusive and richly diverse company culture. People often feel vulnerable in a work environment because of the perceived power imbalance that exists within organisations, and the fact that we all depend on our jobs for our financial security.
There is more for corporates to do in this space. Some are making more progress than others. At IBM, one of the things we do is to constantly provide forums for employees to speak up – either in person or anonymously. As a business leader, I try to spend as much time engaging with employees as I do engaging with clients.
And while there is always more to do, it begins with creating safe spaces where employees can share their views so that these important discussions can happen. If we are, as I am, focused on our employees bringing their whole selves to work, then we have an even greater responsibility to make their work environments safe, empowering and continually improving. And it also falls to each of us to be stewards and custodians of fine constructive uplifting leadership.
In the end though, nothing will change unless we say and do things! This means that we must become practiced at recognising the signs, and then fearless in finding our voice and effecting change by being better leaders. For if we don’t stand up and speak up, we risk the hard-won progress we’ve made slipping away. And ultimately, that diminishes us all.