Open conversations about diversity at conferences

It’s a tough one, and there are no right or wrong answers. There are questionable questions, and questionable answers. Sometimes we can respond with absolute brilliance, grace, respect and inclusion. At others times we can respond with ill thought, defensiveness, and lack of openness to feedback.

I see it fairly regularly these days at conferences. I last wrote about it 3 years ago and there’s not been much movement. Just have a look at the speaker line up at conferences and you’re more than likely to see a list of white people speaking. Some might be women. If you’re lucky, there may be the odd person of colour.

The best worst thing I’ve seen today is a well known consultancy holding a conference in a few weeks time, and their speaker list is pretty much exclusively their own consultants, and all are white.

In this day of 2016, how can we not take the idea of diversity more seriously? I am actually lost for words.

If you’re an organiser of events, then I’m kind of looking at you squarely in the eye. (Also, I am fully aware I’ve had some direct conversations about this in recent days, and this post isn’t directly about anything I’ve attended or have been commenting on.)

I’m writing this as if there’s an order of who has more importance in the list of diversity characters, and there really isn’t.

Is there gender diversity? That’s kind of the basics of what I’d expect to see. And I mean talking on the big stage, not in smaller breakout sessions. How many women do you have speaking to a large audience? Scared you won’t sell enough tickets with a woman headlining or being the keynote? Re-think your PR strategy, and, perhaps, your worth as a human.

Look at the diversity of ethnicity of the speakers. If you have a minority of your speakers from an ethnic minority, that’s just a cruel reflection of society. How can you make that better? Actively seek out people of colour who have an opinion on the topics you want to talk about. Can’t do that? NO EXCUSE, DO IT. Or are you making judgements that people of colour will only talk about things in angry voices and not add content of value? If not, what judgements are you making on having ethnically diverse speakers? And if you don’t have any/enough speaking at your conference, how can you objectively claim to be an inclusive conference?

Your audience may have diversity, that’s not the same as your speakers having diversity. When we attend events where people are speaking, we want to feel we have a connection with them. At a basic level, what we see is the connection we make. If I don’t see an ethnic minority person speaking, then how can I take that conference event seriously? If a woman in attendance doesn’t see a woman speaking, what social norms does that reinforce for her?

If your speakers are all white men, no matter how well they speak, and how great their content, how are you genuinely including people with difference into that event? Where is the inclusion? If you’re all patting each other on the back for such a great event, how are you challenging yourself to think better and actively seeking to include voices of difference?

We hear about privilege a lot when it comes to diversity and inclusion. That privilege comes from a place of blindness and ignorance. It comes from a place of not thinking and acting in the interests of sales. It comes from a place of justification and explaining why things haven’t happened.

It’s too hard a topic to articulate well in one blog post. It’s too hard a topic to debate well openly. It can easily (and often does) break down into abusive and offensive language.

If you’re a conference organiser, you have a moral obligation to improve this. Yes, there could be a business benefit, BUT THAT’S NOT WHY YOU SHOULD BE DOING THIS.

And here are some quick thoughts on what can be done to make things better:

  • Improve your PR and your marketing of your events so that more people are able to access the event
  • If you notice your speakers are either all white men, or white men and women, then you have work to do to make that better
  • If you notice that your speakers may not represent other important diversity factors such as disability or gender orientation, then you have to work to make that better too
  • There is nothing wrong in asking people of influence to share marketing with their networks so that you can make these things better.
  • If you’re holding an event and it’s in an area where a certain class/gender of people is likely to attend, then you’re automatically excluding others to attend
  • If your PR and marketing makes it sound like you have to be brought up in a certain environment or you’re making cultural references, or you need a certain type of education, then you need to think that through better
  • Actively analyse your audience makeup and speaker makeup to better understand how diverse they are and then decide on how you’re going to make it better

There are no right or wrong answers to any of this. There are questionable questions and questionable answers. Even in writing this, I am sure I have made exclusions and omitted important inclusions. I will get this wrong, and I will learn every single step of the way.

If you’re a conference organiser and you want to make this better, holding a conference isn’t the answer – acting on that gut feeling that this isn’t right is the answer and will make it better.

Delivering a new kind of L&D

I’ve been heading up a project for the organisation to work towards achieving 100% completion of appraisals (inclusive of review, objectives and PDP). It’s a tough target to achieve, and was set by the board so highlights the seriousness that is given to achieving the target. Cynicism of annual appraisals, and of targets like this aside, I want to share the approach we’ve taken internally in working towards achieving this.

The appraisal period for us spreads over April and May. There are still two weeks left, and we’ve already hit 75% – which I think is quite impressive. We’ve (my L&D Manager, Kate Bowden and I that is) managed to get this far without holding a single person-led training session – be that in person or digitally. (We’re an organisation of about 1200 people.) Instead, what we did was re-think the way we support our managers and staff to access the right resources, make use of internal support and opened access to completion data. Here’s what that looked like, and how we did it.

First, we (I) decided we weren’t going to hold any formal training sessions if we didn’t have to. This isn’t because I believe person-led training is a waste of time or redundant or anything like that. It’s because I needed an effective way to just get people doing things, which didn’t take up unnecessary time, and I was (and am) against the clock.

Instead, I wanted to provide on-point resources that people could access (yes, via our LMS) when they needed, and could answer pretty much any and all questions that people might have had. We produced tip sheets, videos, e-learning and guidance sheets. Anything to do with using the system, about the meeting, having a good conversation, having difficult conversations, setting objectives, establishing a PDP, was all covered.

This set of resources was the essential ingredient needed to provide that support to our managers and staff. Without this, we couldn’t be in the position we currently are – I’m cautious to say this is a complete success, but the evidence to date suggests this approach has been effective and will help us achieve our target.

Next, I needed people in the organisation who I could rely on to support their peers and team members without needing to rely on HR. Some of you will recall a while ago I asked for another name other than ‘champions’. I settled on ‘Advocates’. These advocates were chosen because they were naturally positive people, were good organisational citizens, and would be supportive of helping to achieve the target. I checked in with each of them individually before briefing them on what was expected of them. I made it clear that the support they needed to provide was focused on the support to their peers and to their team members in getting things done. They weren’t experts in systems, or in policies or processes, they were just great managers.

Kate made sure the HR team could handle any system based queries. She needed to be free during this period to be able to address any escalated system issues, and focus more on the internal comms plan that was going to help us (bang a drum) spread messages about appraisals in different ways.

We’ve literally saved hours in avoiding unnecessary training, administration time and really focused on helping people at their point of need with the right set of resources available and the right people to help them.

And if it isn’t obvious, there was (and is) clear leadership on this from our senior leaders. Everyone is tasked with achieving the targets for their areas, so they’re all vested in making it happen. Oh, and we opened access to the completion data so that anyone can access the completion data from the business. In particular this has been useful because senior leaders have taken it on themselves to find out how their teams are getting on without relying on HR to produce reports and wait for them to come through.

In the 6 weeks that the appraisals have been happening, there has been all sorts of system based queries, but very little around the appraisal meeting, setting objectives or PDP based queries. that suggests to me that:

  • people are making use of the resources
  • people are relying on their peers to figure things out
  • people are just figuring things out anyway
  • the advocates are doing a great job
  • some combination of all of the above

Ok, so the title kind of lies. This isn’t delivering a new kind of L&D, it’s delivering modern L&D. I’m cautious to say it’s performance consultancy, and I haven’t adopted a direct 70:20:10 model around the design of this – but it definitely is a modern take on supporting performance at work. There’s work to do yet. That last 25% needs clear support to help them get through to the final point. Hopefully this post helps share a practical example of how modern learning can be delivered with some clarity on the methodology used to get there.

(Oh and if you want me or Kate to come and talk about this at a conference / seminar / other event just get in touch and let me know.)

When a personal learning network becomes… more

Two years ago I sat with a group of people for a two day self directed and self facilitated learning experience. The intention behind the event was that we would direct our own discussions, that a loose structure would allow us to explore thinking, for there to be dialogue, and for us to hone and craft our facilitation skills. I knew these people mostly from Twitter, had various interactions and engagements with them in real life and on social media, and regarded everyone there well. When we were doing our introductions and talking about our purpose for being there, I unexpectedly started crying. I couldn’t stop. I was offered if I needed a moment to myself, and I took it. On coming back into the room, I wasn’t questioned about how I was, I wasn’t cuddled, and I wasn’t judged. There was enough trust and empathy within the group that there was an appreciation that I would know and could ask for the help and support I needed without it being offered.

As the years have gone on, as I’ve grown with social media and keep learning how to get the best from it and how to give my best to it, there are some surprising things that have developed which I would not have expected on the outset.

Sooner or later, in the world of social media, you hear about personal learning networks (or PLNs). A group of people that you are connected with, can learn from, share knowledge with, have discussions with, connect in real life, possibly do work together, and all with a shared understanding that it’s a mutually beneficial relationship.

What I’ve personally discovered, though, as I think many do, is the unexpected point when the PLN becomes more. Consider my experience I described at the outset of the blog – could such a thing have been cultivated and engendered with another disparate group of people on your typical training course? Possibly, but not likely. There was something about the fact that we were a PLN that allowed a deeper connection to be present without needing to build that level of trust at the outset.

What I’ve discovered, personally, is that my PLN has grown to be that, and with a group of others, they are clearly now friends and my personal support network. I can rely on these people to help me when I need them. I value their thinking, their challenge to me, and I value them individually. I have found someone who I can trust as a counsellor and they help me work through personal struggles. I have found someone who I can talk openly with about starting my own consultancy and bounce ideas with. I have found someone I can hold events with and enjoy the experience. I have found friends, unexpectedly.

So in your world of building a professional network of people through social media, don’t be cut off to how the network can suddenly become more, and what that can mean for you personally.

In no order, I honour these people for being in my personal support network. David D’Souza, Phil Willcox, Julie Drybrough, Meg Peppin, Doug Shaw, Fiona McBride, Simon Heath, Perry Timms, Tash Stallard, Rachel Burnham, Martin Couzins, Jo Stephenson, David James, David Goddin, José Franca, and Michelle Parry Slater.

Can you design for serendipity?

Successful people will often tell you that their success came through hard work. That they had to put in the hours, the money, the time, the resource, to make things work. That they had to compromise and make hard choices, that they were always focused on their goals and fought hard to not be distracted. The shiny veneer that we often see at the end is the result of years of hard work and graft. Success, comes from working hard at success being the desired outcome. Everything is geared towards it, and if it does happen and it does come, then can be accounted for because of these things.

But if a person is not successful, and their business does not fly, and they end up folding, do we argue that the above things were not in place? Some people will, and they’ll be just as right as those people who say, luck played a part. Before social apps like Snapchat and Instagram became unicorns, they were out there competing like everyone else. They were doing the same things that other apps were doing, they just did them differently and in their own way. So how much was hard work, and how much was luck?

In organisations, we often talk about the need for there to be moral leadership, for diversity and inclusion to be high on the agenda, for people to have empathy, for people to deliver a great customer experience, for people to be innovative and the freedom to be creative. High and mighty lofty ideals that many work towards, few succeed, and others are just trying to do a good job.

So, the question is, can you design for these things to happen as a matter of course? That is, could you design a workplace where not doing things in the desired way just wasn’t an option?

This is a proper thinking out loud piece by the way. No right answers, no wrong ones, just thinking.

So let’s take moral leadership as an example. How would you, or could you design workplace practice to happen in such a way that being a moral leader (or any other ideal) was the only thing you could do – regardless of your own prejudices and biases? (This is totally dependent, of course, on the will of the senior leaders to want for this to happen).

Where when a group of people need to make a decision, they have such guidance, such clarity on their shared values and such insight into the impact or consequence of their decisions that they could only make a decision which was a moral one – not one driven by other personal or selfish reasons. How could that work? What would you need in place for decisions like that to take place?

Then move further. When someone is taking a call with a frustrated and annoyed customer, how do they resolve the situation which is the right thing to do, because they have seen others do the right thing, and they know that by doing the right thing they will be rewarded and recognised for the solution?

Or when a decision for restructure needs to take place, how do you create an environment where a team of people help those at risk and those being affected act in ways which are helpful and useful to them and causes as little disruption as possible, because that’s the best thing to do, and it’s the right way to act, and it’s what is expected and what is measured.

If you were to design such a workplace where such things happened, what would that mean? How would or could you succeed in such a place? Can you design for serendipity to happen?

Why I’m in favour of employee engagement surveys

I, Sukhvinder Pabial, hereby declare that I am in favour of the annual employee engagement survey and herewith set out my reasons why. Please, be patient with me.

Ok first of all let me get out of the way some things:
– I agree that the annual survey route is ineffective because it’s too much of a gap and doesn’t take into account peaks and troughs, successes and failures as the year progresses
– for some it can be a very cynical process where nothing good happens anyway so why bother in the first place
– you are constrained by the questions you choose to go with. For consistency it’s hard to change them year on year for it to remain meaningful and comparable
– individuals may be high performing, great organisational citizens and highly engaged and still not care about completing the survey, so what happens to their input/data?
– nothing beats a conversation and that 1:1 feedback
– working on improving engagement scores doesn’t deal with the heart of issues or improve organisational performance
– why make a point of anonymity and confidentiality when surely the best way to engender and cultivate trust is by being open and transparent?
– there’s more cos you know, criticism and progressive thought

Right, so I am vested in the annual employee engagement survey process because I’m responsible for it. We’re into our third year of doing these formally and I’m learning loads from the whole thing.

I’ve learned that when you want a vehicle for change, an employee engagement survey helps provide that. I am less focused on improving scores for scores sake, and more interested in providing meaningful solutions that become business as normal.

I’ve learned that when you decide to spend resource and energy in doing something, it’s just as important to share progress as it is to communicate outcomes, even where there may be nothing that impacts you at all. People care an awful lot of knowing what’s happening, and if you don’t help them know, they create their own narrative. The important piece is to understand that narrative and where it makes sense to correct it.

I’ve learned that the data start to tell a story and it’s important to have an open and honest dialogue about that. Some leaders are willing to also engage in open dialogue reflecting on their own leadership and what they can do to improve things. Others feel they can’t act without approval and permission. And others are cynical about the survey and data in the first place so aren’t interested to act anyway. And then, of course, you have the people who just don’t care and only doing things because they have to.

I’ve learned that if you ask open questions about the data, you get some great responses and insight. The data can’t do that by itself, and I’m only one man. I can be smart about what plans we could create, but what makes me more smart and the plans even better is when co-creation happens.

I’ve learned that sometimes a well thought out idea just doesn’t fly. You can make that link about why it’s good in your head, and can convince others that it’s a useful thing to do, but it just doesn’t fly. That’s ok, because it’s always hard to know if an idea actually has legs until you try it. I learn and I’ll evolve the idea.

I’ve learned that some improvements require systemic change. That means fundamentally looking at, analysing and understanding processes, leadership and culture. More on that as it emerges.

Organisational life is full of interesting things that happen. Some we control better than others. Some we didn’t know were in play. Some we didn’t know were being hidden. Some are easy to resolve and some are too hard to even define.

As with all organisational activity, you should only do those things that make a difference and add value. Once they become a thing unto itself for the sake of doing it, we can forget why they were useful in the first place. I’m in favour of the annual employee engagement survey process because I see how it’s helping us develop as an organisation. The hard conversation comes when we end up doing it for no other reason than “it’s what we’ve always done”.

What is Positive Psychology?

It’s often the first question I get asked when I talk about the topic. Actually in truth it’s the first question I often ask people who want to know. Mostly people guess it’s something to do with positive thinking. Some, who have read better on the topic, tell me it’s about wellbeing and focusing on strengths. I care less about right answers and am more interested in people’s perceptions so I know how to adapt what I’m about to talk about.

Positive psychology is the scientific study of wellbeing, resilience and thriving. That is, it is a field of psychology which is focused on helping us better understand what can help us live a life where we feel more positive in general, how we can adopt practices that increase our ability to deal with challenging times, and how we can carry out regular activities that help us feel vibrant.

When Martin Seligman became president of the American Psychological Association several years ago, he brought insight and his own research into positive psychology to the forefront of discussion. He argued that in essence, all psychological fields are positive in their nature. All interventions and therapies are designed to improve the wellbeing and resilience of people. But not all were designed to aid thriving, and in many replicated studies, we find there are people who face and have faced the starkest of moments and yet not only do they survive, but they thrive. Seligman argued that this is an area we don’t understand well enough and that we should focus energy and resource into understanding this better so that we can share those learnings more widely and increase the capability of society and communities to be more resilient and to enable and cultivate thriving where possible.

There have been many other well respected and noted scholars who have made their contributions to the topic – Tal Ben Shahar, Barbara Ehrenreich, Barbara Fredrickson and Mihaly Csikszentmihaly to name a few. And with ongoing research and exploration of this field we are understanding more and more about what positive psychology can enable, and what it can’t.

Positive psychology is not about positive thinking. Positive thinking can be helpful to help people move passed events and can encourage day to day positive living by not focusing on the negative. However, significant life events and distressing events cannot be overcome by positive thinking alone. If you lose a book, or graze your knee from a fall, or have been asked to write a report at work, positive thinking can be fine. If, however, you are burgled, or you break your leg or you have been made redundant, positive thinking alone cannot make those things better.

Positive psychology doesn’t discount or dismiss reality. In fact it fundamentally deals with reality by supporting individuals to deal with their reality and where possible/relevant resolve issues. Only by doing this are we better able to understand the areas where we can focus on building strength and resilience.

Positive psychology is about building strength and resilience. By focusing on what is going well in our lives, what our personal strengths are and how we can be our best, we start to identify what activities we want to do more regularly, can do more regularly and are helpful to us personally as well as to others. It does not advocate in any way that we embark on behaviours which are harmful to ourselves or to others.

Too much of a focus on strengths can become detrimental because we end up neglecting other parts of our being which make us who we are as a complete person. We are not just our strengths. We are our weaknesses, our hate, our fear, our joy, our love. This is less about “all things in moderation” and more about finding optimal ways to maintain positive feeling and resilience.

Positive psychology can be used therapeutically and as part of intervention to support those suffering mental health issues. This does clearly require trained therapists in the techniques and or careful guidance on how to deal with challenging life issues or events. Be cautious about those claiming they can do everything by helping you focus on the positive. There be dragons in them parts.

Positive psychology actively encourages social activities as well as carrying out community activities that are giving in their nature. Acts of altruism and supporting others can be deeply heartening and create lots of naturally good energy that can be useful to others.

Positive psychology helps us identify regular and useful activities that when brought together aid longer feelings of positivity, better resilience and activities that can lead to us feeling like we’re thriving. I’ve only captured elements of what positive psychology is and how it can be helpful. This isn’t intended to be a catch all, more to help raise better understanding and awareness of what this field offers. Comments are very welcome as are any challenges and questions to clarify things further.

Emotion, at work

The human condition is a weird and wonderful thing. A brain with some of the most complex connections, chemicals, energies and all sorts helping our body function in ways which are perfectly logical when you understand the human system, and at the same time when something unusual happens it can discombobulate us totally and utterly. In most of what we do, we often take for granted that most of us are able bodied, able minded, and able just generally. We get on and do the things we want to do and need to do.

It’s very rare we look to understand our emotional health. We’ll take the time to understand physical health, some of us may need to take care of our mental health, most of us will try and manage our financial health, and many of us just remain oblivious to our emotional health. It’s just not something we discuss that well.

I don’t believe there’s a male/female thing at play. It’s down to several things at play:

What language do we use?

How do we help others understand that we’re experiencing something emotional and that it needs to be expressed and articulated? How do we learn the language of emotions to create better relationships? How do we learn how to share our emotional health so that others can better understand our thinking and frame of mind? What happens when we try to express and articulate our emotions but it comes out in unintended ways that have a negative effect and affect? How do we manage our emotional health when we feel that everything is either going well, is plodding along, or is falling down all around us?

Who do we discuss emotions with?

Most people might think they can talk to their partners about such things. That’s a sensible assumption, but one that needs care. Does your partner recognise your emotional health and how it can change? When it changes, do they know what that means and how to either support you or experience it with you? What about our friends? Siblings? Work colleagues? What do those different groups of people understand about our emotional health? Are you allowed to discuss it with them? What do they do that either supports you or allows them to experience it with you?

How acceptable is it to express emotion at work?

The workplace tends to be a place that people traditionally think of where the environment is such that you have to be professional and this equates to leaving your emotions at the entrance. Except, we are none of us able to do that. Our emotions are a fundamental part of our being. They can make us do rational and irrational things and often without us having any control over them.

Does your manager know what your emotional health is like? What about your work colleagues? What would happen if you were to share your emotional state? How might people respond to you? What kind of working environment might that create? Would you feel supported? Vulnerable? Exposed? Trusted? Appreciated?

What are emotions actually for?

Many of us know and understand that our emotions are part of what makes us human, and our expression of them is just another unique factor of being human. But do we understand what they’re actually for? I mean, everything about the human condition serves a purpose, so what purpose do our emotions serve us? Would it surprise you to learn that our emotions serve multiple purposes? Ranging from self-protection to relationship building to preparing the body for action to creating connections with others – our emotions are a fundamental essence of being human. Yet, most of us just give them a cursory acknowledgement of existence.

I personally find the topic incredibly fascinating. The insights that we’ve gained through empirical research, investigation and philosophy helps us understand so much more about how we can understand our emotions better, understand how to experience them, understand how to articulate them and understand how to work with our emotions and not control them. There’s an event on Thursday 9th June (2016)  which is going to help explore this topic, and I highly recommend it. (I don’t get a kickback for promoting it, just bonus universe points.)