5 lessons for leaders to unlearn in 2022

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Written by Abi Adamson on 23 March 2022 in Opinion
Opinion

Breaking old habits, or unlearning is becoming a popular concept in L&D and here Abi Adamson reveals some leaders’ habits that need to be unlearned

Although the concept of unlearning and relearning is nothing new, it’s never been more important. In fact, the futurist Alan Toffler, famously wrote: "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn."  

Importantly, unlearning does not mean forgetting. But it does mean challenging one’s mindset from what we’ve come to know as “the way things have always been done”. 

Unlearning is bucking against this – it is taking issue with what you think to be true and expanding this view

Why unlearning is so important
The diversity and inclusion (D&I) agenda has gained momentum. However, progress has, largely, been slow. This can be attributed to a number of factors; empty or ill-thought-out D&I pledges, a lack of legislation, a focus on vanity metrics or due to inauthentic leadership. Arguably, the biggest issue is in trying to navigate a new world with knowledge gained from outdated and backward-looking lessons. In the workplace, failure to diverge perspective, to discourage new thinking and to praise compliance makes for a workplace that does not serve the interests of equality.

Closing the mind to different ideas and approaches is a dangerous thing for anyone, but no more so than for the leaders in our organisations. Certainly, leaders are the captains of the proverbial ship. They dictate the culture, they set the tone and they navigate their teams through murky water. But leaders hold a power that can be as helpful as it can be fatal. The longer people play into the old fable that they are almighty and infallible, the longer it will take to create sustainable change. Worse still, the longer leaders teach these baseless lessons, the longer discrimination will be at large in our societies. 

The obstacles to unlearning
There’s no question that the way things have always been done does not align with current culture and the needs of businesses today. And the failure to admit, or recognise that, is a risk. Not just for organisations, but also on the drive to bring down the discrimination that has long plagued our societies. 

The truth is, social justice cannot be achieved without unlearning racial prejudice, and gender equality cannot be embraced without unlearning gender stereotypes.

It’s important to acknowledge that it is hard to take a step back, to let go of what we hold true. No more so for long-standing leaders who radiate the toxicity of assuredness.

A leader that portrays themselves as untouchable will lead to an untrusting and disengaged workforce

Founding partner of Within People, Laurie Bennett writes, And if there’s anything that gets the proverbial goat, it’s being asked to unlearn something you hold to be true. If you don’t believe me, please also ask Darwin, MLK, the people involved in the Middle East Peace Process, #MeToo, a non-binary friend.

Five lessons to unlearn

It’s time for leaders to address toxic issues and there are five things to unlearn in 2022.

1. Unlearn: the stigmatisation of salary transparency
Many employers have long silenced their employees on matters of pay. There are a number of reasons companies keep salaries private. However, experience has taught that it’s often because someone has something to hide. 

The benefits of pay transparency are plentiful; a company is more likely to attract new talent and improve retention, it will increase trust among teams and between the employer and employee, and, most importantly, it will help address gender, ethnicity and any other D&I characteristic pay gap. 

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, nearly 80% of the gender pay gap, across a sample of 16 member countries, can be attributed to wage inequity within firms. 

Pay transparency will help expose those employers who are discriminating and underpaying.

2. Unlearn: ‘Don’t let them see you sweat’ 
Study after study has found that authentic leaders (or those that are perceived to be) have a positive impact on both their employees and their organisation’s bottom-line.

Although the portrait of a great leader looks a little different to each of us, authenticity and autonomy are recurring characteristics for most. In fact, theoretical research strongly establishes the hypothesis that authentic leadership will have positive effects on employees’ hedonic wellbeing. 

Disguising emotion, no matter what the cause, hampers a leader’s ability to build trust among their colleagues. The danger is that employees then mirror this behaviour. They learn that the way to lead is to hide one’s true self. 

In 2022, let them see you sweat. If someone at the height of power cannot show vulnerability, they will fail to connect with their workforce. There is common ground amongst us all – we are all human.

3. Unlearn: set quotas
Tackling diversity is not about fixing a number, it is about changing a culture. Which means, those companies that take a tick-box approach by focusing on aspects like quotas, risk building more inequalities.

Quotas help companies appear to change, in comparison to genuinely wanting to change. Don’t fall victim to the pressure of change. Ill-considered strategies are praying into the hands of tokenism.

4. Unlearn: Avoid confrontation
No one likes confrontation. However, sometimes confrontation has an important role to play in creating psychologically safe environments. 

Ensuring employees know how to confront harm when it is happening is essential to protecting vulnerable people in the workplace. Arming employees with timely expressions and intentional language will contribute to a culture of inclusion and belonging.

5. Unlearn: Leaders are untouchable
Visible leadership is incredibly important. But it is about more than simply being seen in the workplace. Leaders must demonstrate that they are as committed as they are asking their employees to be and they must open themselves up to feedback. 

A leader that portrays themselves as untouchable will lead to an untrusting and disengaged workforce.

Today, there are many leaders doing an awesome job of promoting unlearning. They are disputing long-standing fables that lead to stagnation on the agendas that matter the most. The truth is, a culture that challenges perspectives is healthy for everyone. It’s time to square up to age-old lessons and open the mind to new ways of thinking.

Abi Adamson, founder & DEI director of The Diversity Partnership (TDP)

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