Do you see me now?

Culture Check's Nathan Hall explains that DEI starts with recognizing the fundamental human need to be "seen."

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By Nathan Hall

This story originally appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of strategy.

“I see you” – a seemingly innocent acknowledgement, greeting, or gesture of praise commonly used in the Black community. For instance, you walk into the room wearing a nice outfit and you might hear, “Okay! I see you!” in recognition of your style. However, beneath the veneer of this colloquial expression is something that extends far deeper into the psyche of us all: it is felt to a greater extent by those of us whose differences have relegated us as outsiders within the greater society and our workplaces.

To be seen is a fundamental human need. Psychologist Susan David says, “When we are truly seen, we become.” Regardless of who you are, we have all wrestled with notions of being seen and belonging. However, our society has been built off of the unequal distribution of power and access for certain demographics. As a result, in just being, some of us are innately considered to be more standard deviations from the norm compared to others.

By the time we enter the workforce, we already have decades of experience finding the right balance of masking our true selves and assimilating to fabricate a sense of pseudo-inclusion, where our success is not contingent upon the hard skills that are highlighted on our resume but on our mastery of knowing how to play the game.

When it comes to the topic of DEI in the workplace, I can understand why people believe it is a hard and difficult subject to tackle, because inequities have been entrenched into all aspects of our lives and our businesses. However, it’s really not that complicated; at the root of all this, is that we just want to be seen.

During the height of the #MeToo movement, I would hear of men being scared to be alone with women in a room, to mentor or promote them because they “didn’t want to find themselves in a compromising position.” This is complete nonsense. This is an example of deflecting and redirecting the problem to protect these men’s interests. Effectively, men were not held accountable for their gratuitous behaviour and, when they were, they tried to turn the table to penalize women by suggesting that their very presence is the issue.

Some leaders are apathetic to issues of DEI because they do not see us. Denial, dehumanization, deflection, redirection – these have all served as tools to construct the insulating barriers that keep “diverse” employees marginalized or tokenized and keep us from being seen. Barriers such as racism, sexism or classism serve to protect current structural hierarchies and those who benefit from them. Companies that are struggling with these concepts are struggling because they are trying to appease the external pressures to be diverse and inclusive, while trying to not disrupt how they already do things.

This is a culture problem. If your organization or your leadership fails to see me, establish clear values, set behavioural norms and embed mechanisms of accountability, then your organization will continue to be a hostile environment for those of us who are “diverse.”

When something is considered mission critical for a business and that thing breaks, or the organization experiences some sort of issue like a data breach, no single company would respond by forming a volunteer committee with little to no budget and have them create a five-year plan to address the problem. Yet, this is exactly how many companies have approached the issues of DEI in their workplace. So, what message are they sending? That these “issues” are not really issues for them. That our pain, and our mental, emotional or physical well-being, is less valued. That we do not matter.

In his Are You an Accidental Soul-Sucking CEO? blog post, Garry Ridge, the CEO of WD-40, wrote, “We know better than anyone at any time in the history of humans what it takes to create a workplace where people want to come to work, joyfully invest their efforts and talents into a cause greater than themselves, and go home happy to children who are learning from their examples. And yet we’re still screwing it up.”

Tackling DEI is not complicated. Leaders and organizations have more support and knowledge to address these issues than ever before, but knowledge is not the issue here. Leading these changes takes leadership, courage and vulnerability. It requires leaders to sit and listen in their discomfort, to create space, practice empathy and build a connection. We need leaders who care.

You cannot lead me if you don’t care about me and you cannot care about me until you see me.

Nathan Hall is the founder and CEO of Culture Check, an anti-racism support centre for the workplace.