Leaders who ‘perform’ on racial inclusion don’t fool BAME staff

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This article was originally published on the Health Service Journal (October 2018).

As a study of earnings by ethnicity shows significant gaps in pay for black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) NHS staff, Tracie Jolliff – director of inclusion at the NHS Leadership Academy – explores how leadership can affect change.

Last week saw the release of a report that showed yet again how deeply racially unjust practices are embedded within the NHS. The report revealed that black medics and nurses are being paid thousands of pounds less than their white counterparts. With racial disparities evident at every level of the system and persisting year on year, how collectively do we bring about change?

Leading inclusively requires a willingness to take an unvarnished look at racial injustice, acknowledging that not only is it an undeniable component of our history and society; it has become an everyday norm into which we have all been conditioned. Many scholars agree that we reproduce these inequalities by default.

In the absence of purposeful and conscious work to create inclusion, these forms of inequality will continue to be reproduced. In contrast, anti-racist practice arises from conscious and purposeful acts rather than being something that emerges by coincidence.

Creating conditions for racial equality

The architecture and mechanisms that perpetuate racial inequality are deeply embedded in the ways that we think and operate. For many who are unaffected by the negative impacts of racism, this architecture is largely invisible.

In the face of these systemic, racially persistent moral wrongs, it’s an act of personal courage to admit that at times unwittingly, and at times perhaps out of self interest, we have contributed to the maintenance of systems that harm and subjugate others.

Courage is required to take that unvarnished look at injustice, and to critically and honestly scrutinise ourselves, noticing the distance between where we are, and where we would like to be on race equality.

The above realities are at times unpalatable, but a quote by James Baldwin holds a key to healing when he states that “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” So, what does this mean for leadership, in creating the conditions where racial equality, instead of racial injustice, can become the norm?

Our chairman, Peter Homa, recently stated that in times of uncertainty, we need to “be the bankers of hope”. These words convey an important truth where race equality is concerned.

Those who have consistently been on the receiving end of broken promises about racial transformation and let down by well intentioned but unproductive initiatives need to see a form of leadership emerging that brings this hope; evidenced by leaders who embody, and model racial equality as opposed to merely learning the script.

Leading inclusively is not a performance. Leaders who “perform” on inclusion are fooling no one, especially black, Asian and minority ethnic staff who spend much of their time creating strategies to avoid the systemic obstacles of discrimination, segregation, marginalisation and exclusion.

It is important that our leadership practice includes experiments that aid the growth of courage. Courage is required to take that unvarnished look at injustice, and to critically and honestly scrutinise ourselves, noticing the distance between where we are, and where we would like to be on race equality.

I listened to a recent podcast of a conversation between Oprah Winfrey and Maya Angelou, two women activists who have re-crafted what authenticity, humanity and inclusive leadership looks like. About courage, Maya said “it is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue consistently”. The exercise of courage is a demonstration of banking hope.

Deep work

Racial equality is not simply about replacing white bums on seats with BAME ones at the most senior levels. It is the work of transforming mindsets, attitudes and behaviours in ways that result in racial justice, and therefore changing the lived experiences of BAME staff.

The evidence of advancing racial equality should be less bullying, harassment and discrimination reported in staff surveys; an amplification of BAME voices; an increasing recognition and valuing of the vast and diverse contributions of BAME people; a myriad of opportunities opening where BAME staff are welcomed in, and of course, fair pay.

Leadership development that builds capacity and capability for anti-racist practice must include answers to questions such as:

  • How is it that our intentions and efforts to make race equality happen often lead to the opposite outcomes?
  • How do we create systemic and sustainable change on racial equality?
  • How might the work of interlocking systems of power which impact those who are most marginalised in society inform our progress?
  • What mindsets hinder or enhance progress?
  • How do we lead in ways that bring healing, hope and connection across our differences?

So, what journey must we collectively take towards the goal of racial equality?

First, let’s think about the context in which to ground our ambitions. From a vantage point of societal, historical and global racial inequality, it becomes clear that racism is a complex problem that requires deep work at many levels to address it.

Having a deeper appreciation of what the nature of the racial problem is, will help us to create strategies for change that are effective and sustainable. Such strategies can only be effective if they are informed by the lived experiences of those who encounter racism and know how harmful and intensely painful it can be.

Our conversations about race need to mature and move into spaces where we can accept far more sophisticated analysis and insights that lead to improvements. Let’s accept the fact that it’s possible for someone to call out your leadership practice, and not your principles on race equality.

Anti-racist practice cannot be grown if you are unwilling to hear and accept feedback from others, especially BAME people. Buying into the narrative of “racism is perpetrated by bad people, I am a good person and therefore not racist” is both naïve and unhelpful and stifles useful debate about creating race equality.

It will take the efforts of all of us to turn the dial on race. This work is primarily not about what colour skin we have, it’s about what mindsets we choose to embrace.

We can permanently dismantle the architecture that maintains these racialised outcomes if we want to. We can determine as leaders to do this with the humility to learn from BAME staff in ways that open new possibilities for change, and that have not been tried before. This is not an easy road, but it is a healing one, and as human beings, we will all thrive together as a result.

This article was originally published on the Health Service Journal (October 2018).

3 thoughts on “Leaders who ‘perform’ on racial inclusion don’t fool BAME staff

  1. Getting rid of racism is not easy because we have leaders who talk the talk but do not walk the talk because even BAME leaders get the same benefit which White leaders get by being in the same club. So they talk the talk but do not walk the talk. Uni-cultural Britain had uni-cultural leadership and sadly even today Multi-cultural Britain still has Uni-cultural leadership. Culture of bullying, racism, discrimination is all too common in our society and NHS simply reflects the society. It is all to do with club culture and old boys network and creating ghettos or tribes. The tribal leaders get the benefit for being inside the club and hence many keep quiet or talk the talk but do not do anything about it. BAME leaders are heard but sadly it is same old BAME leaders who talk the talk and fool people and collude with the system. They bully their own people and they collude with the system.

    Today, we have management culture and not leadership culture in NHS. NHS leadership is very insular and same old leaders move from one place to another. Same old BAME leaders move from one job to another and talk the talk but do not walk the talk. Many get OBEs and MBEs for being a part of the system.

    Transformational leaders are visionary. They have high moral values and they are courageous people and they will not compromise their values for any privileges and they always put patients at the heart of everything they do.

    Transformation means, keep good old leaders and success and bring new vision, new thinking and transform or change. Sadly no one likes change as they have comfortable life and salary. Leadership is all about honesty, integrity, sincerity, courage to change. Without good governance and accountability for leaders and managers nothing will change.

    Authority without accountability is the most dangerous system of leadership. Leadership is all about disempowering self and empowering everyone else and good leaders always put patients and patient safety at the heart and unite everyone and create kind, caring compassionate inclusive culture and inclusive leadership, This can only happen when there is accountability for everyone.

  2. Yes, great article! This is definitely a topic that needs to be pushed out more in today’s society. Part of being a good leader is having a vision like no other and inspiring others to follow that vision. Let’s push this vision more. Equality in Leadership.

  3. As someone who worked in middle management in the NHS, I have to say that on 50% of my roles I was discriminated in terms of promotions (internal external), ongoing training (had to fund this myself) and when trying to raise concerns re: a no of issues (understaffing, dealing with contractors and team working). The so called leaders were oblivious, indifferent and hostile which eventually cost my job (despite having national awards, 15 yrs experience and 3 Uni Degrees to include a PhD). HR and unions did very little and also faced a world of silence when contacting E&D officers, national leads and NEDs.
    Also recruitment and selection are currently very subjective, biased and secretive processes especially re: non clinical roles.
    These are issues that need to be addressed and dealt with within the NHS rather than courts of law.
    Originally I come from Southern Europe.