The Pandemic, Agility, and Working Toward a More Inclusive Future

This is a guest post written by Ellie Tumbuan of The Justice Collective.

There is an African saying from the Akan tribe, Ananse Ntontan, which is interpreted as “being open to outcome.” This concept centers around the belief that strength comes from not knowing what will happen next—that uncertainty is not only where personal and collective growth happens; it is one of the essential tools required for growth. In other words, that uncertainty is the key to transformation. 

A year and a half on, and with conditions changing daily, it’s safe to say the COVID-19 pandemic has created a great deal of uncertainty—perhaps even trepidation—about what lies ahead. Amid doubts about the future, yet with an expectation to move forward, people have had to step up and show up—both personally and professionally—in ways that demand much of them, and often without time to absorb the significance of what is happening or properly adjust to new ways of coexisting in the world.

Those who have been fortunate enough to retain a job during the pandemic have been asked to respond to the moment by abandoning existing processes and establishing new ones. Office workers have become intimately familiar with Zoom, closed communication gaps using Slack, and relied on email and phone calls to address urgent needs. While pushing forward to complete critical tasks, meet relentless deadlines, and make the money needed to support individual livelihoods, many have found themselves more malleable than ever before. In short, people have become agile.

We generally think of agility—the physical and mental capacity to move, think, and understand easily and quickly—as a positive thing. But achieving agility can be a challenge at all levels of an organization. In this pandemic, individual contributors have had to create and adapt to entirely new workflows. And they haven’t always had the resources or guidance to implement necessary changes. Leaders, meanwhile, have been expected to stay ahead of whatever was around the corner and be prepared to offer the support and direction that might be needed of them. But in the midst of a global pandemic that none of those leaders have ever experienced, anticipating what challenges they might face next has not been an easy task.

The agility that has been achieved has helped keep family, social, and professional structures intact. However, the uncertainty that underpins it can still leave people feeling vulnerable and uncomfortable at times. That’s normal, according to David Rock, who discussed the associated “threat response” in Psychology Today. In his article “A Hunger for Certainty,” Rock explains the chemical reaction that takes place in the human body when someone experiences discomfort and vulnerability. As humans, we crave certainty; we demand it of ourselves and others. We are comfortable only when we know what to expect and feel confident that it will take place. Ambiguity about the future, on the other hand, tends to make us feel anxiety, stress, and anger, further perpetuating our discomfort. In the workplace in particular, this uncertainty and doubt can be a scary, threatening experience. 

But when we’re in such a state of discomfort, our walls are down—and that’s when we can start doing work that will really make a difference. 

The time for change 

So what does that mean for individuals, teams, and organizations? It might be that as we continue to make our way through a pandemic that has thrown everyone off balance and created a great deal of uncertainty about the future, it is the ideal time to make transformational change. That’s especially true for companies that want to develop or bolster diversity, equity, and inclusion programs.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion work requires us to make ourselves vulnerable, to peel back all the layers of ourselves and the systems in which we operate in a way that allows us to see what is working and what is not. Exposing this bare-bones structure allows us to recalibrate and rebuild personal, internal, and external systems that will be more productive, sustainable, and equitable.

Uncertainty enables us to get on the same level so we can grow together. It fosters unity and collaboration. It helps us get comfortable with being uncomfortable, and to learn how to navigate that discomfort. And it’s a way to bring every facet of an organization together to discuss all the things that haven’t been discussed before. 

Where to start

In the professional realm, there can often be an unspoken pressure to get things right the first time. Unfortunately, that ethos is neither sustainable nor realistic. That is why we at The Justice Collective believe in finding positive change through practice and revision. Not everything has to be perfectly planned from the outset, and trying new things is a great first step. 

There are numerous things that leaders—both current and aspiring—can do to step up right now and make small but powerful shifts toward equity in their organizations. We recommend the following steps:

  • Adopt a practice of culture sharing by implementing bite-size ways to iteratively get to know each other and share your culture in order to create consensual vulnerability, intimacy, and resilience to discomfort over the long term (e.g., inclusive icebreakers)

  • Assess the effectiveness of your feedback culture 

  • Evaluate your organizational culture to determine how equitable it is

  • Review your hiring practices and how they align with racial equity, diversity, and inclusion

This year’s SpringOne provides a great opportunity to start making those small shifts. The session I’m hosting with The Justice Collective, Building Resiliency to Discomfort, tackles the individual level by looking at the neuroscience of mindfulness, how it can mitigate bias, and how to self-regulate when you get hijacked by your nervous system. For organizations, valuable talks include one on designing for diversity, equity, and inclusion, another on how to build gender diversity, as well as a panel discussion called Engage & Empower: Creating an Inclusive Environment for Technical Roles, in which I and other experts will share how companies and leadership can create an inclusive environment for technical teams. 

The door is open

In the fast-moving world of technology, opportunities to make systemic and cultural change in organizations are often lost. But the pandemic has opened a door that will make doing this work easier and more effective than ever.

After all, agility is about more than just responsiveness and adaptability; it’s about anticipated iteration and learning. It goes against binary thinking, and it allows for endless, abundant possibilities. In fact, it creates those possibilities. And when embraced with equity and inclusion in mind, it is a tool that facilitates not only a more efficient and impactful process and product, but a more liberated, just world for us all. 

Ellie Tumbuan is head of strategy and culture at The Justice Collective. She has more than 15 years of experience as a diversity and inclusion strategist and management consultant. She helps organizations, entrepreneurs, government and community leaders, and philanthropists articulate and achieve their goals  by creating and executing strategy that aligns with their values, engages their stakeholders, strengthens their communities, and creates a bigger impact. She has been featured and quoted on various diversity in tech issues in The Washington Post, USA Today, Silicon Valley Business Journal, and Tech Inclusion's “Diversity & Inclusion Leader Spotlight.”

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