Diversity (and its silent enemy, Shame)

When I was around the age of 8 or 9, I experienced shame. There was one thing about my dad that made me feel really uncomfortable and self-conscious. All my friends’ dads had a full crop of hair while my dad was bald.

Sitting up-front with him in his white Isuzu bakkie for the morning school-run, we would first drop my brother off at his school, and then we would make the 2km journey to my school.

As we got closer, I remember feeling this rising anxiety. I didn’t want anyone to notice me (or more specifically, my dad). I didn’t want any questions, any comments, any jokes. I just wanted to get out of the car as swiftly as possible, as unseen as possible.

One day, I came up with a brilliant plan to avoid all this anxious ducking and diving. I persuaded my dad to wear a hat, which he very graciously agreed to do!

What I hope my story highlights is a truth we already know: being different often triggers discomfort.  And in my case, I now realise, that the uncomfortable emotion that was really at play for me then, was shame.

Dr Brené Brown is internationally esteemed for her ground-breaking research and thought leadership on this very topic. She argues, that as human beings, we are all hardwired for connection.

Love and belonging are fundamental needs of every human being.  Shame, simply put, is the fear of disconnection. It’s fearing that something we do, something  we say, or more painfully something we are is unacceptable to others, making us unworthy of connection.

Shame is the voice, the inner critic that says, you don’t belong here. You’re not good enough, clever enough, attractive enough, experienced enough, qualified enough.

Many organisations today are placing increasing priority on accelerating diversity and inclusion. I earnestly believe that as part of this conversation, we need to understand what shame is and how it can derail meaningful connection, creativity, innovation and risk-taking.

Shame resilience

As individuals first, practising shame resilience means having the courage to show up and be seen for who you really are. It requires confidently speaking up when you have a different idea, a different point of view or a different take on how things should be done.

What underpins our ability to do that, is the fundamental belief in our own worthiness as a human being. This conviction that “I am enough” is what gives us the courage to be imperfect, authentic and vulnerable.

The alternative is to keep “hustling for our worth” by constantly striving to live up to some idealised version of who we think we are supposed to be in order to win the approval of others, especially those with power.

A culture of “putting your head down” and “fitting in” absolutely kills diversity.

The Harvard Business Review recently shared the findings of an intensive two-year study by Google to explore the top 5 characteristics of high-performing teams. Number one on the list was psychological safety (the belief that you won’t be punished for making a mistake or saying the wrong thing).

According to this study, psychological safety is what accelerates risk-taking, creativity and speaking up, the exact behaviours that lead to market breakthroughs.

As leaders, you have the opportunity to set the tone.  To walk into those uncertain, unpredictable and challenging arenas without bravado, but with a willingness to engage others with candour and humility.

When we are authentic with the people we lead, we give others permission to do the same. To put their armour down, and to really bring their diverse ideas and authentic, dynamic, imperfect selves to work.

Written by Liesel Scott

Categorised in: