Cancel Culture: How Leaders Can Overcome the Fear of Speaking Up

When it comes to braving the DEI conversation, inclusive leadership is also a commitment to lead with values-aligned vulnerability. A leader’s accountability is not to get their words perfect, but to find the courage to overcome the fear of speaking out, roll up their sleeves and move the organization into the real work of addressing what’s stopping diversity, equity and inclusion.

The most important factors in cultivating a culture of inclusion are  leadership commitment and demonstrating a visible awareness of the bias within oneself and the organization. 


And when it comes to braving the DEI conversation, inclusive leadership is also a commitment to lead with values-aligned vulnerability


Why Leadership Commitment Matters


Research from Harvard Business Review Analytic Services and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reveals that the companies with the greatest success in driving real forward progress in DEI have two clear things in common: “a commitment from leadership and a commitment to data.”


Executives at “DEI-leader” organizations are nearly twice as likely (73%) as those at “DEI-laggard” organizations (38%) to regularly communicate the value of DEI. DEI leader companies are more than twice as likely to be seen as having visible executive support of DEI efforts, are twice as likely to be showing DEI metrics to all employees and are three times as likely to be seen as accountable. Whereas among “DEI-laggard” companies, 50% of stakeholders report that a lack of leadership commitment hinders their diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.


Leaders who show commitment to DEI are not delivering a one-time podium speech, but integrating DEI into the ongoing conversation, just as with any cultural value or business priority. When the CEO is actively involved and communicating on the DEI strategy and progress, a company is 6.3 times more likely to have diversity in the leadership team and to be a leader in its industry segment.


The researchers write, “Leaders must drive DEI as a strategic priority, build real accountability into their programs, and communicate goals with frequency and transparency. Without this commitment from the C-suite, the effectiveness and impact of any program are diminished.”


Cancel Culture and Fear of Retaliation


While the notion of “canceling” originated as a way marginalized communities could “call out” public figures for problematic actions or statements, the socially and politically charged notion of “cancel culture” in the last two years has warped into a looming barrier to speaking up on all difficult conversations - for the fear of retaliation or getting it wrong.


A recent poll revealed that less than half of employees felt comfortable to speak openly about diversity and inclusion and over half of employees expressed fear of saying the wrong thing. But leaders who fear a mis-step if they speak to diversity and inclusion run the risk of saying and doing nothing at all, and what a leader does not speak to actually becomes implicit consent


The DEI conversation is inherently a growth one, which requires the space for imperfection and learning amidst the courage of braving the awkward conversations. A leader’s accountability is not to get their words perfect, but to find the courage to overcome the fear of speaking out, roll up their sleeves and move the organization into the real work of addressing what’s stopping diversity, equity and inclusion. 


As Dr Brené Brown, author of Dare to Lead, says, “To not have conversations (about inclusivity, equity, diversity, etc.) because they make you uncomfortable is the definition of privilege.” She impresses that leaders will make mistakes, they may be called out and it will be uncomfortable, because it’s supposed to be: “You’re gonna learn about blind spots you didn’t even know you had. And then you’re gonna be grateful for that moment and take learning in it into your own hands, not make other people responsible for teaching it — and that’s how we move forward.”


In her book, the four principles of brave leaders that Brown highlights are: rumbling with the vulnerable, living in our values, braving trust and learning to rise.


Why Courageous Leaders Speak Up, Anyway


The reality is that what people value in leadership has been changing - empathy is now recognized as the most critical leadership skill, facilitating everything from innovation to engagement to retention to inclusivity to work-life balance.


In January, the Edelman Trust Barometer of 36,000 participants in 28 markets showed that 60% of employees actually expect their CEOS to speak out about controversial social and political issues and 65% expect them to inform and shape conversations and debate around issues involving prejudice and discrimination. When the expectation of leadership is to lead by speaking out, silence is especially loud.


"Unfortunately, many leaders have become so concerned with saying the right thing or not offending a particular group that they end up saying nothing, which speaks volumes," said Trisch L. Smith, global chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer at Edelman. "Now more than ever, leaders are expected not only to advocate but to inform around DE&I issues, partner with diverse stakeholders where needed, speak out and take a stand.”


At Pulsely, one of the key Inclusion Competencies we measure is the courage to engage - a willingness to get out of the comfort zone and engage in difficult conversations. Leaders who are willing to be transparent about their journey - from revealing their own blind spots to acknowledging their bias to admitting their mistakes - open the space for inclusion because they give others permission to brave the hard conversations too, with a culture of curiosity, compassion and growth. 


Leaders who own their mistakes actually build greater trust, safety and respect. A mistake that is both owned and well-navigated with integrity can create more leadership capital than a perfect record. When a leader can be a learner, we all can and we can all own our mistakes without shame inhibiting our growth.


As Dr Brené Brown says, “When we started this [seven-year leadership] research, I had hypothesized the greatest barrier to brave leadership was fear. I was completely wrong. The greatest barrier to courageous leadership is armor.” Sharing the insights journey behind her book, she goes on, “The very first step to being courageous, is asking ‘am I staying in the discomfort or am I tapping out and self-protecting’? If I’m doing that, does it lead me towards my values, or away from them?”  


Inclusive leaders are intrinsically motivated by an alignment to their personal values and a deep-seated sense of fairness. The leaders who come from courage and vulnerability in speaking up, even and especially when it’s uncomfortable, embody what it means to move from, and towards, their values. 


A good leader will evolve to honor their values and speak to inclusion, knowing the vulnerability of the journey is the very growth edge of leadership.


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