At first glance, the statement “I don’t care who you are. I just need you to do your job.” seems innocuous. It may even be presented as pro-equal opportunities. But it is problematic. Particularly in the context of workplace diversity.

On an emotional level, for the person on the receiving end, it feels dismissive. But it also prompts an important question – why don’t you care who I am? We should be interested in people.

For me specifically, as a member of an LGBTQ+ community, I want you to know who I am. I want you to care who I am because it is symbolic of my lived experience – of everything I have had to withstand to get to this point. Because, if there is ever a situation at work that makes me uncomfortable, I want you to be sensitive to that.

These situations arise far more often than we realise, whether it is the misgendering of a partner, being asked to work in an unsafe global territory, or exposure to inappropriate “banter”. I want you to know who I am so you can watch out for me and I feel you have my back.

Understanding employee motivations

 

That feeling is not limited to LGBTQ+ employees. It applies to everyone. Straight, white, able-bodied men of a certain age want to be understood for who they are and what makes them tick, too. You may need your employer or manager to understand what motivates and excites you outside of the workplace because it allows for a more human connection or a better work-life balance. But it may also provide insight into how you work – your thinking and communication styles or how you respond to certain situations and stresses.

For employers, there are practical considerations and benefits to knowing employees. Most notably in terms of talent acquisition and engagement. Research shows employees are more productive and loyal to an organisation when they feel a true sense of belonging (Forbes). They make better brand ambassadors and advocates.

But belonging requires people to feel as though they can be themselves. To feel appreciated, recognised and accepted for who they are. When we feel like we belong and can be our authentic selves at work, we don’t waste time and energy trying to conform. And we can focus our attention on the things that make us more productive.

Personal and professional – an evolving relationship

 

In the post-COVID world, there is no escaping the fact that our relationship with our jobs and our work has changed enormously. COVID gave us time out and paused that treadmill, providing a space to think about work, life and how we synchronise and coordinate these two elements. It accelerated a pre-existing trend which saw more employees asking questions about what they want to get out of work, their motivations for going to work and how they balance that with their personal passions. Post-COVID, people want to be understood, appreciated, recognised and supported for who they are as a person. Not just as a colleague or a job description.

This shift is also generationally driven. Generalising, my generation – Gen Xers – derived status from their job. Subsequent generations are more open to connecting status with other areas of life.

As a result, our reasons for going to work are diverging. Younger generations have grown in a more self-confident way and learned that they can put their needs and considerations first. We didn’t. We sacrificed family, spare time and our interests and needs outside of work because we felt that if we did not do that – if we were not seen to be completely beholden to our careers – we wouldn’t advance. That didn’t leave us much room to express ourselves in other ways.

And that can make Gen Xers – the people in positions of power in many organisations – more defensive. We want to protect that investment – the time, interests and opportunities we sacrificed in pursuit of a career – and justify our decisions.

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Self-awareness and inviting individuality and diversity

 

Overcoming this starts with self-awareness. At Mix, we help leaders be more self-aware and recognise they have intuitive, unconscious biases and reactions to different people. We look at what shapes their particular responses and reactions, and explore the journey they have to go on to better understand and appreciate the diverse people around them.

But how do we facilitate this learning process in the workplace? How do we learn who our employees are without overstepping their personal boundaries or infringing their privacy?

For me, invitation is a key term and a crucial concept. No one should ever feel they have to share more than they are comfortable with or than is necessary. And that will always be a personal choice. Just because ‘I don’t care who you are’ isn’t helpful, does not mean ‘I need to know who you are’ is. Great employers create an environment in which people can safely talk about who they are. But they also recognise that not everyone wants to do that and they respect those who don’t.

So, it is about inviting people to share and be themselves. It requires clear communication from leaders and must be backed by actions that the organisation values difference. It requires leaders to be adaptive in their leadership styles, eschew a one-size-fits-all approach, and back words with actions.

Role-modelling and Pride as opportunities

 

Many organisations use Pride month to further their diversity goals, and it’s an excellent opportunity to kick-start or re-energise conversations surrounding diversity. But you need to ensure those conversations extend beyond Pride. Otherwise, your efforts can appear tokenistic.

Strong role modelling and starting conversations around difference also make employees feel more comfortable and confident about being themselves at work. Organisational influencers who are willing to talk about their diversity values, why they appreciate diversity, and their own journey can be incredibly powerful. The more people role-model and share stories, the more they humanise themselves. They create a space which invites other employees to be themselves and communicate their differences.

Pride is also a chance to recognise the intersectionality of those who celebrate it. They may not necessarily be LGBTQ+. They may be a parent or sibling of someone in the community. Or have other attributes that contribute to their identity. They may be female, neurodivergent or have a mental health condition. Organisations should avoid looking at Pride through an exclusively LGBTQ+ lens and recognise the diversity of people who want to engage with the occasion.

Recognising employees as individuals makes for better leaders

 

“I don’t care who you are. I just need you to do your job” is not a helpful, empathetic or productive statement. But, when I encounter it, I try to acknowledge that it often comes from a positive place. I don’t tell the person they are wrong. I proffer an alternative view.

I want you to see who I am because it defines and influences my approach to work and, by extension, my performance.

Work is a deal – an exchange. What do you need from me? What do I expect from you? Increasingly, part of the deal is that employees expect leaders to understand who they are, what makes them tick and what their life is like outside of work. Because they will show up as that person.

Personally, I can’t leave my sexuality at the door. Being LGBTQ+ is so inherently personal and there is always a fear others may not accept us for who we are. So we need reassurance. You reassure people not by dismissing and minimising who they are but by discussing their identity in a positive and positively curious way that allows future discussion. You invite individuals to share their differences. And good leaders harness those differences to improve performance, empower employees and benefit their organisation.

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Tom Crawford

Tom consults and speaks on leadership, organisational culture and inclusion. By the way, he’s Bipolar 2. Would you have read this blog in the same way if he’d admitted that up front? He has detailed the raw reality of living with his condition whilst building a successful corporate career in his book Breaking the Glass Floor. It is on Amazon. It’s a short but impactful read. More of a posh pamphlet really.

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