Futurist Alan Toffler famously wrote: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” And whilst the concept of unlearning and relearning is perhaps nothing new, I would contend that it’s never been more important.
Unlearning does not mean forgetting. Rather it means challenging one’s mindset from what we’ve come to know as “the way things have always been done”. Ultimately, it’s all about taking issue with what you think to be true and expanding this view.
Unlearning and relearning can be central to Diversity and Inclusion (D&I)
The D&I agenda has gained momentum over recent years. However, progress has, largely, been slow. This can be attributed to a number of factors; empty or ill-thought-out D&I pledges, a lack of legislation, a focus on vanity metrics or due to inauthentic leadership. Arguably, the biggest issue is in trying to navigate a new world with knowledge gained from outdated and backward-looking lessons.
In the workplace, failure to diverge perspective, to discourage new thinking and to praise compliance makes for a workplace that does not serve the interests of equality. Closing the mind to different ideas and approaches is a dangerous thing for anyone, but no more so than for the leaders in our organisations. Certainly, leaders are the captains of the proverbial ship. They dictate the culture, they set the tone and they navigate their teams through murky water. But leaders hold a power that can be as helpful as it can be fatal.
The longer people play into the old fable that they are almighty and infallible, the longer it will take to create sustainable change. Worse still, the longer leaders teach these baseless lessons, the longer discrimination will be at large in our societies.
There’s no question that the way things have always been done does not align with current culture and the needs of businesses in today’s world. And the failure to admit, or recognise that, is a risk. Not just for organisations, but also on the drive to bring down the discrimination that has long plagued our societies.
The truth is, social justice cannot be achieved without unlearning racial prejudice, and gender equality cannot be embraced without unlearning gender stereotypes. It’s important to acknowledge that it is hard to take a step back, to let go of what we hold true. No more so for long-standing leaders who radiate the toxicity of assuredness.
Here are four behaviours a leader can unlearn to better their leadership style right now:
- Unlearn: “Never show your vulnerable side as a leader.”
Study after study has found that authentic leaders (or those that are perceived to be) have a positive impact on both their employees and their organisation’s bottom-line. Although the portrait of a great leader looks a little different to each of us, authenticity and autonomy are recurring characteristics for most. In fact, theoretical research strongly establishes the hypothesis that authentic leadership will have positive effects on employees’ hedonic well-being. Disguising emotion, no matter what the cause, hampers a leader’s ability to build trust amongst their colleagues. The danger is that employees then mirror this behaviour. They learn that the way to lead is to hide one’s true self. In 2022, let them see your vulnerabilities. If someone at the height of power cannot show vulnerability, they will fail to connect with their workforce.
There is common ground amongst us all – we are all human.
- Unlearn: “Quotas will fix equity in the workplace.”
Tackling diversity is not about fixing a number, it is about changing a culture. Which means, those companies that take a tick-box approach by focusing on aspects like quotas, risk building more inequalities. Quotas help companies appear to change, in comparison to genuinely wanting to change. Don’t fall victim to the pressure of change. Ill-considered strategies are praying into the hands of tokenism.
- Unlearn: “Pay should always be kept private.”
Many employers have long silenced their employees on matters of pay. There are a number of reasons companies keep salaries private. However, experience has taught that it’s often because someone has something to hide. The benefits of pay transparency are plentiful; a company is more likely to attract new talent and improve retention, it will increase trust among teams and between the employer and employee, and, most importantly, it will help address gender, ethnicity and any other D&I characteristic pay gap.
According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, nearly 80% of the gender pay gap, across a sample of 16 member countries, can be attributed to wage inequity within firms. Pay transparency will help expose those employers who are discriminating and underpaying.
- Unlearn: “Never confront a colleague in the office.” No one likes confrontation. However, sometimes confrontation has an important role to play in creating psychologically safe environments. Ensuring employees know how to confront harm when it is happening is essential to protecting vulnerable people in the workplace. Arming employees with timely expressions and intentional language will contribute to a culture of inclusion and belonging.
Remember, a culture which challenges perspectives is healthy for everyone. It’s time for leaders to square up to age-old lessons and open their minds to new ways of thinking.