Post the Christchurch attacks: What leaders can do to foster a more inclusive culture

What more do we need to do to build inclusion and embrace diversity and how do we model this in the organisations we lead? It has to start at the top, writes Kirsten Patterson.  

Recently, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s Christchurch Call was signed by an unprecedented group of tech companies and world leaders in Paris. The pledge committed all who signed it to fight the spread of terrorist and extremist content online. New Zealand, in the wake of the extreme sadness brought by the Christchurch shootings, should be proud to have led such an important step forward. 

An important question still sits with us all. What more do we need to do to build inclusion and embrace diversity and how do we model this in the organisations we lead? It has to start from the top. And we can see how powerful leadership is in setting the tone. Jacinda Ardern has been a role model to many. There is much we can take from how she handled one of New Zealand’s darkest days.

Our Prime Minister said something that we would all do well to ponder. She said, “we were not chosen for this act of violence because we condone racism, because we are an enclave for extremism. We were chosen for the very fact that we are none of those things.”

I agree with the Prime Minister’s sentiment. But I also believe that the statement should encourage further self-reflection.  Are we really none of those things? Are there things we can do better? How do we open our hearts and minds more fully?

We are now a country with more than 200 ethnicities and 160 languages. Based on the latest available data, 25.2 percent of New Zealand’s population is born overseas. New Zealand is not alone. There is a pattern of demographic shifts across the world. 

We may have thought we were managing this change better than most countries but the Christchurch attacks made me, and many New Zealanders, step back and question whether we could, and should, be doing better.

And cultural inclusiveness needs to be accepting of everything that brings diversity into the workplace and into our lives. I was saddened recently to read reports that the first New Zealand Workplace Equality Study showed that there are still members of the LGBTQI community who feel they cannot be their true selves at work and that some are still experiencing language and innuendo that makes them feel uncomfortable and excluded. 

There are some important steps we as leaders can take. At IoD our focus is on the director community but I believe the lessons and thinking are relevant to a broader audience. IoD’s Getting on board with diversity guide gives some good starting points. One is to create an inclusive culture. Boards set the tone for the culture of the organisation. It is important that boards and senior management take the lead in embedding diversity in the organisation. The IoD has long held that diversity of thought improves business performance. We should note that embracing diversity doesn’t mean compromising on the skills, experience and qualifications of individuals. Specific things leaders can do to create an inclusive culture are: 

• Put a stake in the ground and be explicit that diversity matters. 

• Encourage people to value and be open to diversity of thought.

• Put diversity on the agenda for regular discussion.

• Encourage diversity throughout the organisation, especially in middle and senior management.   

Another step leaders can take to foster diversity is to recognise and address unconscious bias. This requires continuous attention because by its nature unconscious bias can be unrecognised because it is unconscious. 

Some good pointers are to remember that using stereotypes and the tendency to gravitate toward those we immediately recognise as familiar happens to the best of us. A few things to help are:  

• Acknowledge that unconscious bias exists.

• Question assumptions and build awareness of bias.

• Ensure there is an objective competency and merit-based appointment process.

Diversity of thought and experience is essential. It builds organisational success and creates a more relevant and interesting workplace and life journey. Inclusion is also vital to building a great culture and a healthy workplace – as well as contributing positively to people’s well-being.  There are so many important reasons to re-think how we approach our future in this space. And it starts with you.

Today the focus on diversity is inclusive of, but also beyond, gender. It welcomes all those who can contribute meaningfully to our workplace and embraces a plethora of things that make us who we are including ethnicity, LGBTQI affinity, age, culture, disability, background and experience. 

That’s certainly the kind of workplace and the kind of community I want to be in – so let’s continue to take steps, challenge ourselves, be bold to consider our own opportunity to grow and put diversity and inclusion in an important place on our agendas. And sign up to a new and better future.   

Kirsten Patterson is the chief executive of the Institute of Directors.

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