Systems change: actions speak louder than words

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”

This reminds me of being in the playground at school, when this would often be chanted as we ran around the playground and moved from one group game to another or rallied around someone who was being left out. It is an old adage and idiom used in response to verbal abuse, bullying or an insult (in school or at work, incidentally). It is not a metaphor, but it implies that in life, someone can hurt you physically by using sticks and stones, but words will never hurt you until you consider them. Of course, it isn’t quite as simple as that, but let’s look at what happens when we do stop to think and consider the words.

“I was only joking!” How often have we all heard that? And we have probably all said it at some time in our life too. The likelihood is that we were only joking, but are all jokes appropriate? Can we joke about everything? Words may not break your bones, but they can shatter your soul and leave you feeling judged, or with a sense of ‘otherness’, making you feel like you need to fit in as opposed to belong.

Through all my work in inclusion and coaching, I have experienced many different approaches to this subject. As ever with inclusion, it is not only about difference but also about what makes us the same. We humans have the same basic need for connection, for recognition, for belonging and for human kinship. We like and positively need to be seen, heard, trusted, valued and loved.

The power of words

Often in workshops on diversity, equity and inclusion, I hear people admitting that they are so unsure of what to say that they quite literally say nothing. I see people getting defensive that they can ’no longer say anything’ or ’express themselves’ due to uncertainty about whether the language is appropriate, or whether they are going to offend someone unintentionally.

I think we should have quite the opposite reaction. I always encourage people to take the hard option, which is to stay with that feeling of uncertainty about what to say and how to formulate it. This is not a comfortable position to be in, particularly if you see that your well-intended remark or joke has backfired. This is what I call the ‘intention-action’ gap.

This happens all the time in everyday life and is often the trigger for moving away from a situation, when ideally we could use the opportunity to ask open and curious questions to find out what created the gap in the first place. After all, inclusion is not about being comfortable. It is about getting better at navigating that uncomfortable feeling and having courageous conversations. It may well be easier to walk away and say nothing, but it won’t create any meaningful relationships, change the conversation or move the needle on creating a more equitable environment where people can bring all their talents to the table. 

Appropriate language is something we learn as we grow up and is therefore also laced with bias. We learn what we ‘should’ and ’shouldn’t’ say, what is ‘polite’ and ’impolite’, etc. When we learn a different language, we learn about the different registers of language and what is appropriate to use, when. I think my favourite book when I was learning a foreign language was my slang dictionary because it contained all the words you apparently ‘shouldn’t be using‘! 

People must understand what is and is not banter. Linda Crockett advocates that we must self-monitor, self-understand and have self-insight to be aware and respectful of our environment and other peoples’ sensitivities (you can listen to the podcast here). Words are hugely important and, as the International Decade of Indigenous Languages reminds us, are intricately linked to our identity, culture and sense of self. “It is through language that we communicate with the world, define our identity, express our history and culture, learn, defend our human rights and participate in all aspects of society, to name but a few.” We need to learn about each other, and what it is that triggers us and others to feel part of a collective identity. Words can be used (consciously or unconsciously) to reinforce privilege and power in systems, and understanding our privilege is central to allyship. This is a pivotal topic for the understanding of equity, identity and the respect of invisible differences in the workplace, to create a richer tapestry of talent – be it in a community, a team or in the organisation as a whole. Everyone brings their strand to the mix.

Don’t be a bystander

Microaggressions are inordinately common in the workplace and indeed are usually unintentional. I spend a lot of time exploring this subject with leaders with a view to increasing awareness of this subject, lessening the intention-action gap, creating a healthier and more equitable dialogue in teams, and also constantly checking our own bias and that of our system. All this is essentially striving to design for inclusion.

We continue to see a lot of things in organisations (and beyond) where individual and elitist behaviour makes people suffer, and where peoples’ potential is capped for the wrong reason. I am often asked what microagressions are. They are subtle, verbal or non-verbal indignities based on membership of a social group and can very quickly and easily undermine efforts to create a more inclusive and open workplace. However, as people often do not speak out about these issues for various reasons, these stories and daily slights, insults and criticisms can undermine peoples’ sense of dignity and affect their mental and physical health, and ultimately the health of the organisation. In fact, a large proportion of burnout is due to the way people are experiencing the work environment and the amount of stress caused by indignities and bullying in some shape or form.

Building on our observations about speaking up and the use of words, being a bystander creates what I call the bystander-ally gap, a variation on the intention-action gap: you want to intervene or ‘help’, but you don’t dare.

Firstly, of course, it is about awareness, making our own unconscious biases conscious and providing factual and accurate information to challenge stereotypes and biases in the moment. This doesn’t need to be confrontational and can be done through challenging attitudes and behaviour rather than the person. The most effective responses to affect someone’s bias are polite as opposed to hostile, and even though it is common for people to feel negative responses when they are confronted, they can still learn from them if they are delivered in a respectful way. Secondly, equipping people with active listening skills and empathy to create the space for this conversation to happen, to step out of their comfort zone and call out inappropriate comments or behaviour, is all part of creating the conditions for a healthier and more productive workplace.

 Why should we confront microaggressions in the workplace?

·      to bridge the intention-action gap

·      to bridge the bystander-ally gap

·      to build belonging

·      to validate identities

·      to make people with traditionally marginalised identities feel included and supported

·      to build collective confidence and safety

  • to break the bias

It’s also important for leaders and employees to be vocal about when microaggressions have occurred and when their peers have done things that they find to be offensive. Employees should be coached and trained on these issues, as well as how to advocate for themselves in these types of situations. Sometimes these situations go unflagged because people are afraid to voice their opinions, afraid that they may suffer negative consequences (for themselves or their careers), or that they will not be taken seriously. Here we are back to listening, empathy and creating the conditions for meaningful dialogue and communication. This will create different habits in terms of listening, increase awareness of unconscious bias (both in people and the system), and lessen the pressure on people feeling they have to ‘wear a mask’ at work. 

Hold everyone accountable

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Often in workshops when we discuss trust, I start with the reminder that all human beings want to and yearn to be trusted, just as we are all wired for connection and other fundamental human needs (cf. Maslow’s pyramid) – although we can certainly now add Wi-Fi to the list! Joking apart though, this too is a need for connection, but sadly with the dangerous onset of one’s worth being defined by ‘how many likes you get’, and it is always good to remember this. Inclusion and belonging are anchored in what makes us the same, and accountability means being personally responsible for the way you show up in your system (your language, your actions, your gestures) and how you build trust across team and organisational boundaries. But this doesn’t mean we all have to be the same.

We hear a lot about accountability in teams: create an environment of trust, have strategic clarity, set clear ground rules of the behaviours we want to see, create team values, etc. Inclusion is no exception to this rule of accountability. It’s evervbody’s system, and in the same way that we encourage creating the right environment, we all have a duty to nudge the system. If I look at the fundamental building blocks of an inclusive environment – empathy, psychological safety, co-responsibility and collective vision – you cannot have co-responsibility without accountability, and you cannot have transparent and clear accountability without creating the right environment. It all starts here. Being part of the majority population doesn’t mean you can’t enact change and nudge the system to work differently. Stepping out of our own system of reference and asking ourselves the question: who is interacting in this environment, and what do they think, feel and need in this environment? Do I do this, and if I do, how will it be received in and catered for by the system? We have seen a shift in the way inclusion is making its way up the strategic ladder in organisations, from compliance to strategic journey, and I am thrilled to see it being placed like this.

All the metaphors for inclusion lead to the same conclusion – we need to be bolder about how we show up, listen more actively, constantly question our biases and get more curious about what that space feels like for others.  

Thank you for reading.

If this resonates with you please share your thoughts in the comments, and subscribe for more thoughts on human systems. 

You can also find more subjects like this in my podcast, Let’s talk Transformation, available on Apple PodcastSpotify, and Google Podcast.

If you’re looking to build and lead agile ecosystems differently, check out our Human Systems Practitioner course :

Suzie Lewis

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