How many times have you heard leaders say that their door is always open? I’m sure they’ve meant it. But how many times have you also heard – possibly even in the same conversation – the same leader saying that they are not hearing enough about what people think and feel, and that they want more feedback and opinion. It’s no surprise to me that these two comments often sit together and when they do, an alarm bell sounds loudly in my ear. The mere fact that the leader needs to mention the state of their door – open or otherwise – tells me that no-one has noticed it being open or made use of it. And why not?
When I started at work about ten decades ago – I exaggerate only a little – I would have been way too nervous to walk uninvited into the big boss’ office. Thank goodness that things have moved on a touch since then and that the psychological distance between leader and led has diminished. I celebrate that younger generations don’t put their leader on a pedestal purely because of their status or pay grade; and I welcome their desire to make leaders accountable. That’s surely a good thing.
So if younger generations don’t generally fear approaching the big boss as I did back in the day, then what’s stopping them walking through the leader’s open door to ask questions and demand action?
I could point to a few reasons including how engaged they are (or not) in the organisation’s vision and how confident they feel (or not) that they are really being listened to, let alone that their requests are being acted upon.
But there’s one more reason I want to flag that’s not at all obvious, and is often a hidden dimension in the diversity and inclusion debate. It’s class and education.
To explain this let me briefly paint a picture, that of a young adult growing up in a family where there is regular debate and discussion about current affairs, business and a wide range of topics and activities, not just with their own parents, but perhaps also with their parents’ friends, and the parents of their friends. This is an environment in which there is equal access to the debate across the generations. All voices are heard and each is valued no matter the age or experience of the speaker.
Young adults from backgrounds like this start their career with the skills to interact with the big boss and more importantly, the confidence to do so.
Contrast this with a young person who has had little of the home environment or type of education that would put them on a par with a future leader, or who may have grown up with adults who ‘looked’ nothing like someone they would end up working with. As a result, they probably lack the confidence, shared vocabulary and skills to easily converse with someone with materially different power to them in the organisation. Indeed, they may not even acknowledge that it’s expected.
Class, background and education are hidden divisions in our society, no less destructive or disempowering than race, gender, disability or colour. The diversity and inclusion debate has at its heart the difference of power, or access to power. If disability or race or gender or colour or class or education or different thinking styles (neuro-diversity) separate those in power from those with less power, we need to take action to be more inclusive. But let’s not forget to look out for when social background and education – with or without gender or race or colour or disability – is the cause.