Disability Discrimination: Disabled People are “just People”!

by Marcie McCleary

Wow, I was so excited! This was the first trip I’d taken in a LONG time! And it was a girl’s get-a- way! My best friend and I were flying to Santa Fe to stay with a very good high school friend I hadn’t seen in more than 40 years!

Of course we were all older now. On top of age, I had been diagnosed with a rare neurological disease and was losing the strength in my legs. So, Connie and I planned on using my lightweight, manual wheelchair to get me around the airports and for sightseeing in Santa Fe.

As “normal” as I felt, I soon learned that others did not see me that way.

At the airport, the airline staff responded to me in different ways. Some acted super sweet and concerned, calling me “sweetie” and trying hard to help. Others looked away and pretended they didn’t see me. When we landed in New Mexico, I had an odd experience. The airline attendant in the airport did not talk to me at all. In fact, she acted like I was unable to talk or understand what she had to say. So she only directed her questions to my friend, and asked “are you making a connection or going to baggage claim?” and “do I need to get someone to push her?”  Maybe I’m oversensitive about having to use a chair, but the response of the airline people cast a shadow over my vacation. This experience also made me realize how our society tends to treat people in wheelchairs and/or with physical disabilities in general. 

It seems there are various ways people respond to those with disabilities.  Maybe it’s time to think about this issue. As a recently disabled person, I’ve noticed that some people literally look down at us, choosing to ignore us, or act as if we must have other disabilities, i.e. we’re deaf or mute or mentally challenged, which is usually not the case at all. Others overdo it and treat us like we’re totally helpless children. There has to be a happy medium here. How about acting like disabled people are “just people who happen to have a disability”? Rather than ignoring us or making a huge fuss over us, how about just including us”? And, hopefully, in this time when so much of the world is suffering, how about treating all people warmly and directly?

Like this airline person, I’ve noticed others who seem very uncomfortable around people in wheelchairs. A more recent encounter clearly displays disability discrimination. I was at a medical appointment at a rehabilitation hospital. When I was done, I contacted Lyft to get a ride home.

It took the driver a while to get there and, when he did, he drove by me (in my wheelchair) slowly but did not stop or attempt to talk to me when I tried flagging him down. In fact, he refused to roll his window down or talk to me at all. When the valet approached his car, the driver rolled his window down a little bit and the valet asked him what was going on. The driver said “I might be able to fit her wheelchair in, but I’d rather not give her a ride.” The valet was surprised and asked “are you saying you won’t give her a ride?” The driver said “No, I won’t.” The valet asked him to leave the premises, which he did. This whole experience left me breathless! What had I done to deserve this kind of treatment? The fact that I was at a rehab hospital should have clued the driver in but, clearly, it did not. 

Eventually, another Lyft car showed up to drive me home. The car was about the same size as the previous one, and the new driver had no problem fitting my foldable chair in the trunk. When I got home, I emailed Lyft to tell them what had happened. There was no apology but they did refund the $5 charge for a “missed ride” and said they would not pair me with that driver in the future!

I don’t know what the solution is, but I do know that our society has a general problem when it comes to dealing with those with disabilities. 

Some suggestions:

  • Don’t gawk at or act afraid of people in wheelchairs or with physical differences. I think most of us with a disability prefer to be treated in the same way other non-disabled folks are treated.
  • If you’re talking to a person with a physical disability, look them in the eye and speak to them just as you would speak to anyone; in other words, don’t make a spectacle of them.
  • If the disabled person is struggling to open a door or move in a crowd, don’t hesitate to offer a hand.

An even larger issue for those of us using wheelchairs is accessibility.

Obviously, there are places (cities, streets and buildings, etc.) that are not accessible for wheelchairs. My experience in Santa Fe brought this issue to the surface. As an older, very historical town, the streets, sidewalks, and curbs were hard to navigate, and my friends had to help me. 

I think accessibility in new construction is paramount. Steps, narrow entryways or hallways, heavy doors, and high elevator buttons are usually too difficult for us to deal with. Restaurants with all booths, high bars, or tight seating need to think about how they can make their facility more inviting and approachable. 

Lastly, I would just say I think our society as a whole needs to be kind and inclusive of everyone, no matter our situation or differences.

Build Bridges – Structures We Sorely Need Right Now

We are living in a very difficult time where we are viewing the world from polar extremes.  This becomes a challenge in the workplace where even a hint of one’s political affiliation may be enough to impact a work relationship, damaging trust, confidence and credibility. Many of us were raised with instructions never to discuss religion or politics in public settings…and this is one way to avoid problems.  But perhaps we’ve been damaged by this rule…where we only talk about our beliefs (religion, politics, etc.) with like-minded people, and we only get our news/input from like-minded media outlets.
By doing this, we remain comfortable and secure in our own world view and those that do not agree are “the other.”  How does this fit with what we know about productivity, innovation and risk management in the workplace which rely on encouraging diverse perspectives? For these diverse perspectives to be effectively utilized, we need to learn to be able to listen, suspend judgments and be open to possibilities.  And the data indicate that companies that master this are ultimately the most profitable.
We know these skills are learnable.  They are not mysterious…but they do require a willingness to try something different. What would happen if we committed to using these same skills to bridge the divides that are causing so much pain in our world today?  What would happen if we took the time to:

  • Actively listen – hear what the other person is saying and confirm that what you think you heard is what they said. When people feel heard they are more willing to seek understanding as well – even if we do not agree.
  • Suspend judgment – don’t prepare your rebuttal while they are talking – consider the possibility that they have a reason for their point of view (that they are not a (insert your favorite denigrating term here for someone who doesn’t agree with you).
  • Be open to possibilities – what if they actually said something that made sense – how could you fold that into your belief system without it crumbling like a house of cards?

We know that it is easier to do these steps with people we care about and in fact, when we understand where people are coming from, their story, we hold them with respect and compassion.
So perhaps we need to start with a new first step – first hear people’s stories. Use active listening, suspending judgment and being open to possibilities as we learn more about how someone came to be where they are…and they can learn how we came to our place as well.
Stories bring us together, they build empathy, trust and compassion…they build bridges – structures we sorely need right now.
Emily Esfahani Smith, author of The Power of Meaning, began her studies researching what makes people happy.  She discovered that happiness is just transitory comfort and ease.  What provides people with resilience, strength and satisfaction is meaning and she defined four pillars to living a life of fulfillment and meaning.  They are belonging, purpose, transcendence and storytelling.
I see these pillars operating to help us not only find our own meaning but to share in a larger sense of meaning in this world.  I spent a number of years as a member of a local Rotary club.  There were only about 20 of us in this particular club so we knew each other pretty well and we came from very different political, religious and other perspectives…and we knew it.  However, we were all committed to making the world a better place.  We ascribed to slogans like “Peace through service.”  We joined together to help at-risk youth, to support the annual Veteran’s Day parade, to support literacy, feed the hungry, and ensure folks got dental care…and we supported global projects to bring clean water to remote communities and to eradicate polio.
This was amazing work!  We found meaning and purpose together.  And we spent time learning about each other.  Once a month, a member was invited to tell their story – both professional and personal.  Suddenly an 80-year-old retiree was a daring fighter pilot again, a 25-year-old “kid” was a courageous peace corps volunteer, we learned more about the police commander, the healthcare worker and the immigrant. Each of us emerged as whole, complex human beings.
It takes time and effort, it takes desire to know our neighbors and not hide away.
Imagine how telling our stories can bring us closer to belonging as we learn to understand each other, how we might find shared purpose in our lives and transcend our small divided viewpoints for a broader and more promising whole.
If you’d like a chance to explore meaning and purpose in community, consider joining us on November 9th for the 12 Annual Leadership Summit.  Share in conversation with some 70 other curious, courageous and unlike minded people to find a way of Being on Purpose.  Click here to find out more information.

When the Going Gets Rough: Turn to Wonder

We have been conditioned to believe in a direct link between action and reaction, cause and effect.  Something happens (you do something) and I respond. This leads us to think we do not have control over our reactions to our environment…you made me mad! You hurt my feelings!
What we know however, is that context influences our reactions.  In psychology there is an entire therapeutic practice based on this – cognitive-behavioral therapy.  It is premised on the concept that between cause and effect is my interpretation of the situation…and this influences my response.
A dear friend of mine has often said, “When you love someone, you can tolerate just about anything…once you fall out of love, the way they brush their teeth can make you crazy.”
I used to carpool with a friend who had a baby daughter.  Towards the end of the work day, she got a call from the sitter that her little one started spiking a fever.  My friend called the doctor and was told the office would squeeze them in if they could get there by 5:30. We left the office immediately and hurried to the sitter. Of course, it was rush hour and there was road construction. A lane on the road was closed up ahead and everyone was merging. How would we make it on time? I am not sure of your attitude toward the people who whiz by you when the lane is ending, but I have always considered them selfish, arrogant, pushy… And yet, I opted to zip down that merge lane to the very end to save us precious time…and someone graciously let me back in!  We made it to the sitter and my friend and her sweet baby made it to the doctor’s office on time!
Why do I share this story?  It is about context.  Now when people are whizzing by me in the merge lane, I stop myself from getting upset and wonder where they might be hurrying to, what might be going on in their lives.
When things get rough, turn to wonder. The Center for Courage and Renewali developed touchstones for their Circles of Trust, one of which is the focus of this month’s blog entry.  “When the going gets rough, turn to wonder.” ii
Rather than create and act on my own understanding about what is happening, why people are doing what they are doing, what their motivations might be, I can step back and reflect. If I assume most people have good reasons for their behavior, what could they be?
Most people are able to defend their actions.  I don’t have to agree with their justification or decision, but how does it impact my reaction if I at least understand why they are doing what they are doing. Does it soften my response? Do I have a chance of building relationship rather than destroying it? Can my understanding bring us closer, rather than increase distance?
My challenge is to discipline myself to take that step back and consider alternative explanations. I aspire to be open minded and a life-long learner. The practice of turning to wonder seems an ideal technique to help me achieve those aspirations. Now if only I could help others do the same…
I have several colleagues, friends and even family members who are convinced that they know other people’s motives and intent, without ever checking to see if their assumptions are true. When I see things differently, I have a hard time even inviting them into my world.  I find myself shutting down instead and avoiding the conversation at all because I see them as unwilling to even consider another point of view.
What if I could invite them to turn to wonder…it doesn’t mean they have to change their conclusion, but to at least entertain the possibility that there is more than one way to see things.  We know that perspective taking increases innovation and creates a more inclusive and accepting environment.
I wonder:

  • If asking them to turn to wonder could be a more acceptable and approachable way for them to consider other options?
  • If I could connect with them instead of shutting down?
  • Why they think their way is the only right way?
  • Why it is so important for me to influence their way of thinking?

There are so many possibilities. What do you wonder about?
i The goal of the Center for Courage and Renewal is to strengthen relationships, build trust and empower people to create a better world. All of us have the capacity to lead from where we are to influence our environments for good. They do this through Circles of Trust. http://www.couragerenewal.org/
ii When the going gets rough, turn to wonder. Turn from reaction and judgment to wonder and compassionate inquiry. Ask yourself, “I wonder why they feel/think this way?” or “I wonder what my reaction teaches me about myself?” Set aside judgment to listen to others—and to yourself—more deeply.

Power Tools at Work

I am passionate about creating fabulous work environments; ones that are highly productive, mission-focused, energizing, inclusive and innovative. What words would you add to that list?
We spend so much of our waking hours at work, shouldn’t it be a place that energizes us instead of drains us? I don’t mind going home from work fatigued from the mental and physical work, but I do question the value of going home drained from frustrating, demoralizing and discounting experiences.
As I was driving to a session on DiSC™ this morning, I thought about how DiSC™ can help to create that environment. (The DiSC profile, published by Wiley, is a non-judgmental tool used for discussion of people’s behavioral differences.) We usually think about DiSC™ or personality-type assessments as tools to help us get along better with our colleagues, but this morning I started thinking about how they can be so much more. . . about how they can actually become POWER TOOLS.
When we use DiSC™ or other assessments in a deeper way, we have the ability to influence the organizational culture to one that truly values diversity, and honors and celebrates differences as essential to an effective workplace that promotes quality work, engagement, high productivity and innovation.
From my work on creating inclusive cultures, I have focused on the following key elements; empathy, perspective taking, communication and conflict management across differences. People who are culturally competent seek to understand another’s world view and recognize that the way they see the world is not the only way to see the world. (Perspective Taking) They care about another’s experience of the world. (Empathy) They recognize that communication is not just about what is sent, but what is received and strive to find practices that ensure effective outcomes. (Communication) And they recognize that tensions are produced through misunderstood communication, differences in values, differences in perspectives, priorities, etc. The ability to work together to understand and resolve these differences provides opportunities for growth, innovation and connection. (Conflict Management)
When we dig deeper into DiSC™ or other assessments, we can see that they provide a training platform for important organizational growth. As people learn about the different styles or types, they recognize that other people do not see the world the way they do. As they listen to other people explaining their perspectives, they begin to develop empathy for the other. As they discuss strategies to work with people from different styles or types, they begin to strengthen their communication skills, and finally, when they see differences as potential for growth, innovation and connection, they reframe their view of conflict.
This requires using DiSC™ or your preferred assessment as an ongoing part of your culture rather than the once- a-year-ain’t-it-interesting-team-building activity at the annual retreat. It means:

  • Orienting all new employees to your assessment, how and why it is used
  • Posting the assessment results permanently to remind people of the assessment and the diversity of results
  • Recognizing the dominant style/type culture of the organization and what that means for employees, customers and the business itself
  • Providing strategies for ensuring non-dominant styles/types are needed, valued and included. This can include:
  1. Identifying styles of all participants in work groups and discussing how this will impact the way you work
  2. Delegating roles to capitalize on strengths and/or to strengthen areas of challenge (intentionally and mindfully)
  3. Leaders running meetings to ensure all voices are heard – not just the loudest
  4. Noticing gaps in your organization – and recognizing if that might be a problem – and if so, how do you fix it.

What happens when people’s styles and strengths are recognized and accommodated? People feel valued and engaged. They contribute more, they stretch more, resulting in higher productivity and performance.
When people feel valued and contribute, the organization benefits from new ideas as well as identifying problems and risks earlier. These behaviors help create high performing, innovative organizations, and interestingly, these cultural behaviors are also noted in the most inclusive organizations.
These same strategies that honor the information revealed from DiSC™ or other assessment styles, can be used to honor differences in age, experience, race and ethnicity, culture, gender, sexual orientation, discipline. We can broaden our skills to value what people bring to the table rather than their job title, role or social identity.
If I can learn to appreciate your different way of thinking based on your assessment style, it might just be possible for me to appreciate your way of seeing the world through your other lenses. I might take time and ask more questions to understand your point of view. I might adapt my style to better communicate with you. And then, I can use those same skills to address some of those harder identities where the “baggage” of history has made those connections harder to resolve. I might react less quickly, reach out more for understanding, take time to explain my perspective and understand yours, and discover new possibilities.
And yes, my session went really well this morning. The management team explored how they can use DiSC™ more dynamically to improve performance and morale. They considered their own style strengths and some of the areas they could address to be more effective with their teams, and with each other. It was a wonderful morning. . . and I came home energized and excited about their future together.
Contact info@thunderbirdleadership.com if you want more information about DiSC™ or other facilitation work we can provide.
Resources for more information
Only Skin Deep – Reassessing the Case for Diversity, 2011
Forbringer, Louis R. (2002) Overview of the Gallup Organization’s Q-12 Survey, O.E. Solutions.
Wiseman, Liz and McKeown, Greg. (2010) Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter. New York: Harper Collins.

What Difference Does It Make?

On Christmas Day a few years ago, while juggling suitcases at the airport, I hooked one on a pole, tripped over the wheel, and went skidding across the floor in my best belly flop position. It was quite dramatic. In addition to the acute embarrassment, I had a fabulous rug burn on my hand and jammed my shoulder as I caught myself in the fall.

A few weeks later, my shoulder was still out of whack. My weight trainer and my chiropractor (both women) recommended physical therapy. I went to my PCP (a man) to get an order for physical therapy. He checked me out, deemed it a soft tissue injury and said physical therapy was unnecessary because it would heal on its own in 6 to 12 months. I accepted what he said and dealt with the discomfort while continuing my workout regimen and not sleeping on that side. However, I wondered if I had been a 40 year old man, would my doctor have been as quick to expect me to wait it out for a year?
Currently, the health care industry is focusing a great deal of energy on the patient experience with training, assessment and whole departments dedicated to the provider-patient relationship and communication. As a patient, I am on the outside looking in and wondering how much attention is given to implicit bias in these programs?

In 2003, the Institute of Medicine produced a critical publication about health care entitled “Unequal Treatment”. The report concluded that “unrecognized bias against members of a social group, such as racial or ethnic minorities, may affect communication or the care offered to those individuals.” (Blair et.al., p. 71) It stated that people experienced differences in the quality of their healthcare based on their social identities: race, ethnicity, age, gender, socio-economic status, insurance status, and sexual orientation. (Blair et.al., p. 71)

Further research indicates that differences in the quality of care are also associated with conditions such as mental health issues, obesity and drug use. (FitzGerald, p. 13)

Since 2003, some of healthcare’s most turbulent issues (revolutionary medical interventions, increases in pharmaceutical costs, the controversy over the Affordable Care Act) have influenced expectations and outcomes for the industry. Is healthcare a right or a privilege? Should health and longevity be based on one’s financial or social status? How should healthcare be allocated and compensated? These public policy issues continue to be debated and at this time, the outcomes are not known.

What has not changed fourteen years later is the fact that who we are impacts the care we receive. Numerous studies since then reaffirm that implicit or unconscious bias impacts our relationships with our caregivers, the quality of our communication, and the diagnoses and treatments we receive. (The Joint Commission, p. 1)

How does this play out? Examples from the research include impacts on three areas:

Communication and relationship:

  • People with more implicit ethnic/racial bias have poorer interpersonal interactions with minority individuals, often in very subtle ways. Such interactions may contribute to a lack of trust and commitment on the part of the patient, leading to poor adherence. (Blair et. al., p. 73)
  • Besides influencing judgments, implicit biases show up in our non-verbal behavior towards others, such as frequency of eye contact and physical proximity. Implicit biases explain a potential difference between what a person explicitly believes and wants to do (e.g. treat everyone equally) and the hidden influence of negative implicit associations on one’s thoughts and actions. (FitzGerald & Hurst)
  • Stereotype threat may impair patient-clinician communication, reduce self-efficacy, and increase mistrust. (Blair et.al., p. 75)

Diagnosis and treatment:

  • Non-white patients receive fewer cardiovascular interventions and fewer renal transplants.
  • Black women are more likely to die after being diagnosed with breast cancer.
  • Non-white patients are less likely to be prescribed pain medications.
  • Black men are less likely to receive chemotherapy and radiation therapy for prostate cancer and more likely to have testicle(s) removed.
  • Patients of color are more likely to be blamed for being too passive about their health care. (The Joint Commission, citing van Ryn)

Patient behavior:

A 2011 study conducted by van Ryn et al. concludes that racism can interact with cognitive biases to affect clinicians’ behavior and decisions and in turn, patient behavior and decisions, such as higher treatment dropout, lower participation in screening, avoidance of health care, delays in seeking help and filling prescriptions, and lower ratings of health care quality.

While there is evidence that conscious or explicit bias has declined significantly over the past 50 years, there is no evidence of change in unconscious or implicit bias. This is profoundly disturbing for people who express, believe and desire to treat all people equally. (Blair et. al.)

Call to Action

We know that most health care providers truly want the best for their patients, but without intentional effort, providers may be unconsciously short-changing their patients. . . and patients may also be complicit in risking their own outcomes. (Blair, et.al, p. 74) Essentially, we are in a relationship where one party’s behavior affects the other, and vice versa.

This research has been growing for the past fourteen years. There are some valiant efforts to change things in pockets of the health care industry. So how can we expand the message and reach all providers and patients in a comprehensive and effective way?

  • The first thing to do is acknowledge that health care disparities are real and that we all participate in maintaining them.
  • Then we need to identify those areas we can influence. Certainly, this is a time where policy and legislation is at the forefront of our attention…so yes, call, write, lobby, do what you can and what you believe to move our nation forward, so that we can have equitable and effective health care for all.
  • And finally, we need to look at ourselves and identify effective ways to challenge our own biases so that we provide and receive the best possible health care.

Receive you ask? Yes, receive. I had a responsibility in that partnership too. Why didn’t I ask my doctor why he thought it was okay for me to be uncomfortable for a year? Yes, I did assume that he was treating me like a little old lady and that my physical activity didn’t matter. I did not speak up or take the time to challenge my assumptions or his. I was complicit in maintaining disparate treatment – even if the answer to my question was that he would have treated a 40 year old man the same way. I was complicit because our relationship was damaged. I lost trust in him and discounted his investment in me. He did not have an opportunity to reflect on whether, in fact, he was making incorrect assumptions about me – and “little old ladies” like me.

Although research has not yet identified proven strategies for providers or patients, there are a number of promising approaches that have been found to reduce unconscious bias. Here are some recommendations that appear repeatedly in the literature. (van Ryn, Blair et.al., FitzGerald & Hurst)

  1. Practice perspective taking — how might the other person feel? What might they be thinking?
  2. Remember that we are all human and all individuals. Providers need to see their patients as individuals. Patients need to recognize that their providers are human and imperfect.
  3. Develop empathy – listen to the feelings behind the words, observe non-verbal cues – and then address what you see and hear.
  4. Increase partnership building and see the provider-patient relationship as a partnership. When we are in it together, we consider the other as part of our group, which increases caring, empathy and trust. When we are in a partnership, we can and must speak up, question assumptions, and provide feedback.
  5. Counter stereotypes. This action has been proven to have the strongest evidence for change. Decrease negative stereotypical cues and seek out and attend to information and images that are contrary to the stereotypes. This takes intentional effort!! Professor Margaret Whitehead, head of the World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborating Centre for Policy Research on Social Determinants of Health states that, “Once learned, stereotypes and prejudices resist change, even when evidence fails to support them or points to the contrary. People will embrace anecdotes that reinforce their biases, but disregard experience that contradicts them.” (cited in Blair et.al., p. 1)
  6. Increase positive interactions with people of difference.
  7. Manage stress levels and cognitive load. When we are overloaded and in high stress situations, we revert back to stereotypes in order to reduce mental demand necessary to cope.

If we truly want to improve the patient experience (as providers and as patients), we need to be serious about building genuine relationships. This requires trust, honesty, and recognition of our human frailties. It requires us to be mindful of our biases and help each other challenge them. How else will become conscious of that which is unconscious? How else will we ensure the best possible care?


Blair, I., Steiner, J., & Havranek, E. (Spring 2011). Unconscious (Implicit) Bias and Health Disparities: Where do we go from here? The Permanente Journal, Volume 15 No. 2. retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3140753/

The Joint Commission, Division of Health Care Improvement, (2016). Implicit Bias in Healthcare, Quick Safety Issue 23. Retrieved from


FitzGerald, C. & Hurst, A. (2017). Implicit bias in healthcare professionals: a systematic review. BMC Medical Ethics, 18:19. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5333436

van Rynd, M. 2015. Unconscious Bias in Healthcare. APHA Webinar on Unequal Treatment: Disparities in Access, Quality and Care. Retrieved from


Smedley, B., Stith, A. and Nelson, A. Eds, (2003). Unequal Treatment, Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Healthcare. National Academies Press. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25032386

Preparing Next Generation Leaders

Preparing Next Generation Leaders – can we change or just get out of the way?

by Rory Gilbert, M.Ed., SPHR, SHRM-SCP

In my work, I have often heard people complain about millennials…even millennials complain about each other! Millennials (MLs) are described as needy, slackers, demanding instant gratification and constant feedback. They don’t want to pay their dues and want to be able to speak up and contribute right now! They don’t know their place and they are not loyal to the company. They keep talking about work-life balance – where is their dedication?i

We also know that as boomers retire, especially in leadership positions, there are not enough folks to replace them without an infusion of millennial talent and energy. People worry because they believe MLs are not prepared, not ready for leadership.

I would challenge those of us who see this dilemma to revisit three things.

  • What do we know are best practices to create successful organizations?
  • How do MLs fit into these recommended best practices?
  • What do we need to do to prepare MLs for the leadership demands of the future?

So, what makes an organization successful in the current environment?

Alex and David Bennetii tell us that organizations must be able to adapt quickly to change. This means hiring people, not positions. Organizations need capable, competent people who can be assigned projects that use their skills and develop their skills. People need content knowledge and the ability to collaborate well with others to respond effectively and creatively.

People need to be clear about the organization’s mission and empowered to make timely decisions within their field of influence to respond to changes in the environment. People need to be willing to take risks. Hierarchies and overly controlled environments do not allow for this type of activity.iii

Patrick Lencioni emphasizes that taking needed risks requires a deep level of trust in the organization from leaders to employees – that they will act in the best interest of the company, and that they have the knowledge and ability to make good decisions. And for employees, when (not if) they make mistakes, it is essential that leaders back them up and support them in learning from and correcting those mistakes. To do so, leaders need to provide quick and clear feedback, advice and counsel. iv

When there is an environment of deep trust like this, an organization can have true accountability – where people own their actions and decisions, speak up about concerns, work together to take the best actions and make the best decisions. In a truly accountable organization, people can easily review, learn from and rapidly respond to mistakes, so there is as little negative impact as possible. v

Harvard Business Review identified the leadership competencies that were most important for all management positions. Among the top competencies were inspiring and motivating others, displaying high integrity and honesty, communicating powerfully and prolifically, collaborating and promoting teamwork and building relationships. Displaying technical or professional expertise finally emerged eighth on the list. vi This list indicates the importance of interpersonal skills for effective leadership.

How do millennials fit into these best practices? I would suggest they fit perfectly if we reframe the attributes so often used to describe them.

They are ready for a challenge, want to learn and try new things and want honest, supportive feedback. They recognize people for their skills and contributions not their titles, and they want to be recognized for what they can contribute as well. They seek resources that will help them solve problems, rather than relying on stifling chains of command.vii

They want strong, genuine and honest relationships with their leaders. They count on rapid feedback that allows for quick course-corrections so they can be successful. viii

When they feel valued by their organizations and see opportunities to advance, MLs prefer to remain with their organizations. They are loyal when the organization’s values and goals are aligned with their own. ix

They commit to giving 100% when they are on the job and are wise enough to believe what we say (but not what we do), that we perform better when we take time to refresh and rejuvenate. While they are wired in 24/7, that doesn’t mean they want to work 24/7. x

What do we need to do to prepare Millennials for the leadership demands of the future?

I believe we need to follow the lead of MLs in creating the organization of the future. We need to support environments that are flexible, non-hierarchical and capitalize on their greatest asset, people.

That means letting go of some archaic notions. Things like:

  • what it means to pay one’s dues
  • the number of hours at the office demonstrates commitment or ability
  • setting boundaries on work time means slacking or disloyalty
  • speaking up too soon is a sign of disrespect
  • trying something new and failing is dangerous

We need to look at what people are capable of doing rather than being limited by job titles, and then let them have a chance to try something new! And we need to build genuine relationships that allow for risk-taking, creativity, innovation and adaptability. For millennials, this is the standard they are seeking.

This means providing information, context and mentorship for our emerging leaders and providing them with growth opportunities to test their abilities and learn from failure.

This means demonstrating how to give and take constructive feedback, manage conflict respectfully, admit our mistakes and learn from others. These are critical skills for the next generation of leaders. No one knows it all, but in strong and collaborative environments, a leader can facilitate making the most of what everyone knows.

None of these skills is new. Leadership books have been espousing them for years…but most of us have not mastered them…or in many cases even tried. xi Millennials come to us ready to embrace a supportive, collaborative, adaptive environment. Now is the time to shape that future. Organizations cannot afford to make MLs conform to leadership styles that are destined to fail. We need to model the new way of being (even if imperfectly) or it may well be time to get out of the way.

Updated 4-3-17:  Just read this article. It reinforces my main points. Check it out.


iMillennials have been labeled as lazy, entitled, and narcissistic, with an innate distrust of bureaucracy and authority. This generation is also known for being difficult to manage in the workplace and prone to job-hopping. For better or worse, Millennials now make up the largest generation in the U.S. labor force which means it’s time for employers to start adapting to an ever-changing workforce.” http://www.inc.com/sujan-patel/6-tips-for-managing-millennials.html

ii Bennet, Alex and David (2011). Organizational Survival in the New World. Routledge Taylor and Francis Group: New York.
iii Bennett, Alex and David (2011).

iv Lencioni, Patrick. (2012) The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else In Business. Jossey-Bass:San Fransisco.

v Lencioni, Patrick (2012).

vi https://hbr.org/2014/07/the-skills-leaders-need-at-every-level

Top skills ranked in order: inspires and motivates others, high integrity and honesty, solves problems and analyzes issues, drives for results, communicate powerfully and prolifically, builds relationships, displays technical or professional expertise…

vii Shaw, Haydn (2013-07-22). Sticking Points: How to Get 4 Generations Working Together in the 12 Places They Come Apart. Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

viii Shaw, Haydn (2013-07-22).

x Shaw, Haydn (2013-07-22).
xi Consider the body of work of Peter Drucker, Peter Senge, Kouzes and Posner, Jim Collins, Margaret Wheately and many others.

Embracing Diversity in the Workplace

Why do I as a leader need to pay attention to diversity and inclusiveness in the workplace? There are so many other factors I need to take into account already. Isn’t inclusiveness just one more thing? I ask all my employees to do the best job they can and I evaluate them on their performance. Isn’t that what equality is all about? Isn’t that just good business?
The strategy of setting clear expectations and providing fair evaluations would probably be enough if you had everyone on an assembly line and they were all doing the same job. But even then, you might have to consider if one person was taller than another, had longer arms, greater or lesser muscle strength or different levels of coordination. The more you think about it, the assembly line is a great example of why, even there, knowing about diversity and inclusiveness would be really important…because in fact, no two people are the same. And, your challenge as a leader or manager is to optimize your most valuable resource, your people.
So you would have to think through who is best suited for what task on the assembly line, how long they could work without a break and maintain quality performance, how you could keep them motivated, focused and retained so you would not have to train new people. You’d have to make sure that people were close enough, tall enough, nimble enough…to do the task…and you might want to have some additional resources like footstools, arm rests, etc. so you could increase your hiring pool and still be sure that they were able to do their best work.
Now consider that most of today’s employees are not on an assembly line. We ask them to bring their whole selves to work, to provide excellent customer service, to use critical thinking skills, to solve problems, and to represent our organizations well.
These requirements ask us as leaders and managers to consider what our employees need to be their most effective…and what our customers want in order to be satisfied with our products. Inclusiveness is the tool to address these considerations.
Inclusiveness is the organizational practice that recognizes and values the knowledge, skills, experience and perspectives that employees (and customers) bring to the workplace. It is created through effective relationships and communication. It requires leaders to be learners; to recognize that they need the perspectives of other people to have the full picture of what is possible.
In fact, current research indicates that the most effective, successful businesses are those that are also the most inclusive. Optimizing the diverse perspectives, skills and experiences of their people allows for the greatest innovation, productivity and risk-control. Yes, leaders NEED to pay attention to diversity and inclusiveness.
A culture change takes intentional and strategic action. Contact Rory Gilbert for more information on how your organization could benefit from a partnering relationship to make such a change work for you.