Moving beyond discomfort to inclusive leadership

Nadia Nagamootoo’s new book is about how to build an inclusive culture through pushing past the discomfort barrier.

 

Nadia Nagamootoo is a chartered psychologist by training, but for over a decade she has been working as an inclusion consultant. A popular podcaster on all things diversity, equity and inclusion [DEI] – her podcast Why Care? has attracted leading global figures in DEI –  she was named HR’s Most Influential Thinker in 2023 as well as HR Champion of the Year at the European Diversity Awards. All that and she has just published a book, Beyond Discomfort: Why inclusive leadership is hard, and what you can do about it to encourage workplace leaders to challenge themselves more when it comes to inclusion and to move forward with courage.

The idea for the book came in summer 2022. Nagamootoo says it was born out of her work facilitating conversations on DEI globally where she got a sense of some leaders’ concerns and anxiety about inclusion work. She realised that it was not enough to teach inclusive leadership and hope that leaders would buy into it. “As with anything psychological and emotional, you have to start by encouraging people to understand and consider where the emotions are coming from so that they can navigate that discomfort. To do that they needed a mindset of openness and curiosity,” she says.

A new framework

Nagamootoo’s book outlines her framework for embracing openness. It revolves around three of the attitudes she finds among leaders which act as barriers to progress on DEI. First is the ‘Disconcerted Way of Being’ which describes those who push back at DEI because they feel sidelined from the conversation and made to feel guilty for their ‘overrepresented’ characteristics – something which may seem unfair to them. Nagamootoo says they often fear recognising their own privilege because that means they either have to take action or remain complicit. “Because it is less acceptable to be against DEI, they will say things like ‘the pendulum has swung too far’,” she says. “They are not opposed to DEI, at least not out loud, but they are saying words to the effect of ‘what about me’.” Her approach to that mindset is not to judge those people, but to encourage them to think more deeply about where their discomfort stems from so that they can see other people’s perspectives.

Next are the ‘Proof-Seeking’ leaders. These want to learn more. They are big on evidence yet often feel uncomfortable with the nuances of DEI and the lack of clear data that points to the ‘right’ answer. Nagamootoo suggests approaches such as experiential learning, for instance, through reverse mentoring or shadow boards, can help as can building coaching skills, although she counsels that initiatives such as reverse mentoring need to be owned by the executive to avoid exploitation. “Leaders should listen to people’s lived experience and ask them what they think, but they should not rely on the individual with minority characteristics to tell them what to do,” says Nagamootoo. 

The third approach is simply called ‘Cheerleading’. Cheerleaders often minimise the differences between people, saying everyone is equal, but not acknowledging people’s daily experiences of inequity.

Courage

For Nagamootoo, writing the book and creating a framework around the three different mindsets she has encountered in leaders which affects how they approach DEI and their willingness to learn and act allows readers the opportunity to reflect on things they might not say out loud. She notes that some types of DEI make leaders feel more uncomfortable than others, for instance, trans issues or anti-semitism. Race is typically an area that leaders find difficult. “It’s so deeply emotive and can be very polarising and we tend to want to steer clear of politics. It can be challenging to open up conversations and there is the potential for being accused of racism,” says Nagamootoo.

Given the current cancel culture, it is not surprising, she adds, that leaders and organisations as a whole fear missteps, but she says that makes it even more important to create places of psychological safety where mistakes can be acknowledged and where people are willing to forgive. “Fear doesn’t create an inclusive culture,” she says.

For Nagamootoo, inclusive leaders need to embrace the possibility of multiple truths, have the courage to challenge themselves and know how they can channel their discomfort into positive action. That can be through allyship – speaking up for others – but first comes understanding where and when a member of your team might feel excluded. “We all have times when we feel excluded. Allyship is for everyone. It’s about listening and being attentive and asking what does this individual need from me,” says Nagamootoo.

*Beyond Discomfort: Why inclusive leadership is hard, and what you can do about it is published by Practical Inspiration Publishing. You can follow Nadia on LinkedIn and Insta @nadianagamootoo.



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