In the section relating to how to avoid being accused of discrimination, the point was made that many organisations have developed a ‘culture of fear’ in which defensive reactions to fear of being accused of discrimination have led to a very unhealthy atmosphere. This atmosphere can be characterised by tension and a reluctance to enter into dialogue around equality and diversity issues. This can be a serious barrier to learning and can encourage further defensiveness which, in turn, can become a major obstacle to overcome. If this is the case in your organisation, then you will need to look carefully at what steps you can take to create what is known as an ‘ethos of permission’. This refers to a working environment in which people feel comfortable enough to raise issues, express feelings and deal with complex and sensitive matters. Creating and maintaining an ethos of permission is a skilful job that draws on a great deal of leadership ability. It is not something that can be done overnight. If you are fortunate enough to be in a situation where no such culture of fear exists, then your challenge would be to ensure that such a culture does not develop. One important way of doing this is making sure that all members of staff within the particular team or working group are aware of the importance of equality and diversity issues, that they are clear about what forms of behaviour and language are acceptable and what forms are not. This should not be done in a heavy-handed, punitive way, but rather in a more constructive and supportive way, which makes clear the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. For example, if you have a team philosophy document or equivalent, this could be amended to include a Statement of Values which includes a commitment to equality and diversity, with some discussion about what that means and how it manifests itself in your particular work setting. If you do not have such a document already, it may be a wise move to develop one, and to make sure that such a values statement is included within it. Whilst such steps can help, clearly they will not be enough on their own. You will need to make sure, through your managerial and supervisory skills, that the staff you are responsible for feel comfortable enough to raise issues with you. If someone feels that they are being discriminated against, this can be a very stressful experience, and it is understandable that they may feel reluctant to raise it with you. It is therefore vitally important that you are able to establish positive working relations where you are maximising the chances of such a dialogue taking place where it needs to. In addition, you will also need to ‘keep your ear to the ground’ in order to be aware of what the issues are in your particular setting, what dynamics are operating, what complex intentions may exist and therefore what potential for unfair discrimination may be in place. These are difficult issues to address, and so you should not feel the need to deal with them alone. You should feel comfortable in seeking the support of like-minded colleagues to try and make progress in dealing with the promotion of equality and the valuing of diversity. These are significant challenges, and so you should not feel uncomfortable about the need to work together in developing a team or collective response.
Neil’s website and blog are at www.neilthompson.info