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Social Change and Employee Empowerment: Why Leaders Need to Embrace the Times

Our recent Fierce survey revealed that conversations around current social movements, including #blacklivesmatter, #metoo, and #TimesUp, are happening. Unfortunately, most of these conversations are not happening at work.

The survey also revealed that while employees still experience and witness discrimination, there has been a shift the past year in terms of how empowered individuals feel to change that.

Almost half (48%) of those surveyed said they are more likely to stick up for themselves than they were a year ago, and another 40% are more likely to stand up for a colleague. Thirty percent are also more likely to address a colleague directly for inappropriate behavior, such as a racist joke or unwelcome flirting, than they were a year ago.

Although our results reveal that conversations on key issues are missing in the workplace, especially between teams and their leaders, the good news is that people are generally feeling more empowered to speak up.

What These Results Mean for Leadership

Despite missing conversations, this growing sense of empowerment is an uplifting trend. And it's a trend that I believe will continue. A question we need to be asking ourselves as leaders is:

How can I support empowerment and assure this trend continues?

These feelings of empowerment are a good thing, but many are fearful of how it will change daily operations. Instead of choosing fear, we need to be asking what's to gain from both a personal and business perspective if more people are feeling empowered.

Cyclically, our economy experiences recessions. After the next recession, businesses will likely have a different landscape than they do now. The 2008 recession reflected this phenomenon when it created a lot of change and movement in business. As a result, the workforce has more options than ever. Fewer people are opting into situations they don't want to be in, which expanded options for solo-preneurship, a need for purpose, and more autonomy.

More scrutiny is needed, and leaders, we need to be prepared for these changing times. People are feeling more personally empowered than ever, and we need to be asking how we can use this social shift to create business results. Leaders also need to be asking:

How can I operate with a mindset of abundance instead of fear around what these changes might mean, now and in the future?

Employers need to anticipate, support, and shift with these increasing levels of empowerment. Leaders need to embrace progress, seek to evolve alongside these changes, and continue to find ways to support where the workplace is headed, even if the future is uncertain.

What's happening in the world right now naturally affects how people feel, both in and outside the workplace. Among the various social movements, someone in your workplace is likely active in a particular movement. Leaders need to allow passionate people to be a force and potentially help lead a discussion with their teams or company-wide about what's taking place in the world. When there's controversy or when people are uncomfortable, this direct involvement can bring issues to light, and potentially conquering stigmas, eliminating fears, and reducing biases.

Assure employees and key stakeholders have the space and floor to continue to mold what progress looks like for them. At times, this will require a difficult conversation. We often fear uncomfortable or difficult conversations, but it's the conversations we don't have that cost us the most. Over time, missing conversations become a dangerous undercurrent in organizations.

The Big Picture

I'm currently reading Factfulness by Anna Rosling Ronnlund, Hans Rosling, and Ola Rosling. The authors explain how the world is the best it's ever been in terms of good things happening, on a global scale. This is contrary to what many believe, but when we look at the facts, it's true. We're fed so much negativity by the media that it would seem like the state of the world today is worse than ever. When we assess our history and the present state of humanity, we are in fact progressing. Holistically, things are improving.

That said, real social injustice is still a problem. This is why conversations around these difficult issues need to be taking place at work. These conversations are what keep us progressively moving forward, and if we continue to have them, the future will be even brighter than today. In a privileged society, we have the responsibility to ask:

How can we course correct?

The more we understand the people who walk this earth, both in spite of and in an embrace of our differences, the better our decisions will be. Positive change begins with understanding, and understanding often begins with courageous, authentic, and open conversation.

When I was a young girl, I moved around the country nearly every two years. In every new place, I found myself curious, trying to figure out the lay of the land, the people, and their ways of being. There were times I made assumptions and turned out to be wrong about them, and there were times when people made assumptions about me and they turned out to be wrong. These experiences throughout my life have filled me with a strong conviction around the idea of curiosity and getting to know people beyond our assumptions.

As leaders, we have a responsibility. The progress of our organizations and the world is directly dependent upon our progress as individuals, now. Within ourselves is where our power lies, and this goes for everyone. Empowering ourselves and the people we work with is the key to healthy organizations, continued growth, and happiness.

Every day, we make decisions on incomplete pictures, and we need to bring facts into the equation. We need to question assumptions, interrogate reality, and embrace where the world is headed. When it comes to social issues, things are improving…but we still have more work to do.

Read our full survey results here


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