Creating A Respectful And Inclusive Culture Is About Leadership, Not Policy

I’m often asked what company policies need to be reviewed, changed or implemented in what is being termed “the age of #MeToo.” My answer is always, “What is it about your culture that puts you at risk?”

This doesn’t mean we don’t need to discuss policy. But policy cannot dictate culture, it can only support it. Therefore it is not an effective first defense against misconduct. If our goal is to not only mitigate perceived risks in an age where disrespect, harassment and assault no longer go unreported and unaddressed, but also to create a work environment where all people feel safe, respected, valued and empowered, then we must first define and address gaps in our company culture before we review policy.

As leaders, we are accountable for three things: culture, creativity and performance. As you might expect, both the second and third are, for the most part, dependent on the first.

In an environment where any person, regardless of their demographic, feels that their physical, mental or emotional well-being is or could be compromised without reprisal or correction, creativity and performance will suffer. So it is on us, as leaders, to create environments where the opposite is true.

We must address the #MeToo movement as part of a larger challenge because the issues that exist in your workplace have their roots in deeper cultural norms that we have all been raised under, conditioned to and have learned to accept and live with. Those roots have very little to do with sex and everything to do with power.

Which means that if your culture tolerates abuses of power, you are inevitably at risk for sexual harassment allegations in the age of #MeToo. It also means you probably have a higher-than-average number of actively disengaged employees, problems with employee retention and attraction and that your ratings for diversity and inclusion are well below average. So in order to expect your team to function at their highest potential, you must address culture.

Culture is determined by the prevailing mindset of any group or organization. There are two key words here: “prevailing” and “mindset.” Your first challenge as a leader is to embody the mindset you wish to foster; the second is to ensure that that mindset prevails throughout the members of your team, department, division or company. If the prevailing mindset accepts abuses of power as normal, whether that is your personal mindset or not, then you can expect that they will occur.

For instance, in a recent controversial video taken at one of his events, Tony Robbins claimed that a client was so stressed about the #MeToo movement that he hired a less qualified candidate because he believed the highly attractive female who was the best person for the job represented “too high of a risk.” At least a dozen men, Robbins says, have told him the same thing.

Are these men exaggerating the risk? Maybe. But if they do not actually hold enough power in their organization to create a culture of mutual respect, or if they have a personal mindset that says it is normal for men to respond to a beautiful woman in a disrespectful or damaging way, then that risk is probably very real in the context of their own companies. They can blame the #MeToo movement for redefining what is acceptable, but the responsibility for fostering a culture that has expected and accepted an abuse of power rests squarely on their shoulders.

There are two mindset principles you can embody and promote that will curb not only the abuse of power but even the desire to abuse power.

Higher Purpose

Linked In’s Fred Kofman, in his latest book The Meaning Revolution; The Power of Transcendent Leadership, says, “Great leaders understand that they are not managing human resources, but conferring value and meaning to human beings.” A culture that encourages and rewards people for connecting to that value and meaning will, by its very nature, promote responsible use of internal power while weeding out abusive use of external power. In that culture, harassment of any kind, sexual or not, is rare, and repeat offenders are such an ill fit they are quickly identified and usually self-select out of the organization.

Universal Respect

A culture of mutual respect and value of humanity also precludes the abuse of power. When we value others and hold them in respect, we do not knowingly treat them in ways that make them uncomfortable, we do not force them to justify their individual preferences or sensitivities, nor do we assume that their preferences are unreasonable or only because of their demographic or past experiences.

In a culture based on a mindset of higher purpose and universal respect, the worst you can expect is misunderstandings that are easily resolved. Physical abuse or assault is an anomaly and harassment of any kind is never intended.

Look around you, listen to conversations, observe patterns. Does what you see and hear suggest that people are working toward a purpose greater than themselves? Do you see universal respect for all people, inside and outside of the organization or group? If not, what you are seeing is an opportunity — not only to avoid risk in the age of #MeToo but to impact lives and improve the bottom line.

Originally published on

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