Psychologist logo
Nadia Nagamootoo
Leadership and teamwork, Race, ethnicity and culture, Work and occupational

Beyond discomfort

Chartered Psychologist Nadia Nagamootoo with an adapted extract from her new book, ‘Beyond Discomfort: Why Inclusive Leadership Is So Hard (and what you can do about it)’.

01 March 2024

The Beyond Discomfort® model that I present in my book doesn’t come from formal research. It comes from a lived place in the DEI field and insightful conversations on my podcast, Why Care?, interwoven with my professional experience as a chartered psychologist and accredited coach. When reflecting on my experience of working with leaders, I realized that these two concepts – Receptiveness to Learn and Willingness to Act – are related continuums, and I had met a variety of leaders operating at different points on them. These continuums make up the axes of the model.

For simplicity, I offer these to you in the form of four Ways of Being: Disconcerted, Proof-Seeking, Cheerleading and Beyond Discomfort. In reality, we know that humans are far more complex than this. But I hope that the stories and examples I share throughout the book, showing what leaders have told me they struggle with the most, will help facilitate your own thinking and help you unpick the complexity in your own head.

What makes leaders who have a Beyond Discomfort Way of Being unique is that they have broken free of society’s traditional stereotypes of what a good leader should be. Their high Receptiveness to Learn about themselves, their privilege and their beliefs and biases means they understand the lens through which they see the world is different to everyone else’s. They are prepared to tune in to their inner voice and challenge any unfair judgements and assumptions they are making about other people. They are open to having new conversations and, even though they might not fully understand every aspect of what they are told, their high Willingness to Act equitably and inclusively means they are prepared to be guided by what others tell them. They recognize the personal risks that showing this vulnerability carries and the often intense discomfort that this path takes, and they take it anyway.

It’s worth noting that this doesn’t mean that leaders with a Beyond Discomfort Way of Being won’t at times be exclusionary. There will always be gaps in knowledge, understanding and analysis of actions. The difference, though, is that they are more likely to spot gaps, more practised at navigating the discomfort this presents and more adept at accepting the change they need to make in themselves and in their leadership.

In this chapter, I explain the courage and skill required to challenge systems of inequity effectively. I also discuss the courage needed to look inward and the psychological work required for continuous self- evaluation, showing vulnerability and being open to learning. I go on to explore what active allyship looks like and offer some tools to support a Beyond Discomfort Way of Being.

It takes courage

When my eldest daughter was six years old, I collected her from a playdate at a friend’s house. On the way home, she started telling me about a game called ‘Black Man’, which her friend had taught her. The basic premise is that the children had to pretend there was a Black man hidden in some trees – or whatever suitable place was nearby – and as they walked towards the trees, someone would call out ‘Black man’ and they had to run away as fast as they could. I had to fight all my instincts in order to remain calm and curious. I enquired why they would run away. She responded: ‘Because the Black Man is a villain, and he was trying to get us.’ Tough parenting moment. We had a conversation about why associating the colour black with being bad, even as a game, might make some people with that skin colour feel upset and hurt. She listened and seemed to process this, and I silently congratulated myself for a conversation well handled. But then, after she shared this with a friend, came a question from the parent: ‘Does the conversation need to extend beyond your daughter? Will there be more playdates?’ I knew what they were getting at – I needed to have a conversation with the White mother of the child she had been playing with. But it wasn’t that simple. If you have a child of primary school age, you’ll know the politics that play out amongst parents. It can get surprisingly nasty, with each parent creating a protective barrier around their child. I wondered if this parent would likely interpret my words as ‘your child is racist’, which would not to go down well and could negatively impact how our family integrated at this new school. It was risky... too risky. I didn’t say anything. If I had the chance, I would coach my former self to find the courage to speak to the mother and call in the game her kids were playing.

Challenging the system, whether it’s one person or an organization, is scary, and often there is a lot at stake. Imagine you’re a senior leader attending an industry dinner event with important clients. Wine is on tap and the drunken behaviour includes inappropriate sexual comments about the waitresses. What do you do? The discomfort often plays out on two levels: firstly, trying to find the best form of words to address the behaviour; and, secondly, the internal struggle of potentially jeopardizing current and future business relationships. It takes courage to say something, which will likely mean you will stick out and be on the receiving end of aggrieved and possibly aggressive people who will simply push you out of ‘the circle’ – you no longer belong because your views are different and you can’t take a joke. It is also a developed skill to be able to select the most effective method to challenge in a given scenario.

In 2022, American music artist Lizzo made headlines when she used the term ‘spaz’ in her single release ‘Grrrls’. The disability community called her out on this ableist term, which stems from ‘spasticity’, a medical condition where people lose control of their muscle movements. She responded immediately with an acknowledgement of her mistake and apology and she re-recorded the song with different lyrics. She explained: ‘As a fat black woman in America, I’ve had many hurtful words used against me so I understand the power words can have.’ Her PR and media team were no doubt in a frenzy as a result of this call out, for fear that it would be the end of her career. However, Lizzo’s courage in accepting her error coupled with her empathy of what it feels like to be abused and discriminated against made her more popular than ever.

Often, though, we don’t have the luxury of having whole communities of people to back us up when we call out exclusionary behaviour. I recently facilitated a session for a group of 70 predominantly White, male senior leaders, some of whom knew each other very well and so there was a reasonable amount of comfort and lightness in the room. During a whole-group debrief, one male leader directed a heightist joke towards a fellow male colleague who was reasonably short in stature.

They both laughed, but I felt instant discomfort. As the facilitator, there was pressure to role model calling out exclusionary behaviour, but doing so in an environment with 69 of his peers might not go down so well. Admittedly, it was also a personal trigger for me, as being 5 foot 1 inch tall has made me the target of many height-related jokes in the past. So I had empathy. The conversation continued along the following lines.

‘How might Paul [I checked his name tag] feel about your comment about his height?’ I asked.

‘Oh, Paul and I have worked with each other for 15 years; we know each other well. It’s how we are with each other. He makes fun of me being so tall’, he explained.

‘How do you know that he doesn’t feel hurt? It could be something he has constantly faced in his life and has learnt to brush off. But should he have to?’ I challenged.

I looked at Paul, who was still smiling but in an awkward sort of way. He didn’t step in to offer a contrary perspective, which I took as his way of confirming, at least in part, what I had said.

‘He knows I don’t mean anything by it. We are always making jokes at each other’s expense.’

‘And that might be OK if it’s just the two of you. But what is the impact of doing it in front of all your peers?’ I enquired.

He paused for a moment and said: ‘Everyone here knows us well. They know what we’re like.’

At that point, a female colleague challenged: ‘Yes but what about all the other people who are short in this room. You don’t know what people are carrying with them. Even though your comment was directed at Paul, it may have hurt others without you knowing.’

Boom. The penny dropped. I could see the intense discomfort in his face. He suddenly recognized the indirect consequences of his words and probably wanted the ground to swallow him. I noticed my own discomfort had presented in a rise in body temperature, beating heart and slightly shaking hands. That was tough. It had been risky. I was so grateful to the woman who had found the courage to be an upstander (as opposed to a bystander, only observing) and share her own views in validation of mine.

Whilst I don’t profess to get this right all the time, it would be worth unpacking what I did on this occasion and why I chose the method I did. Let’s first understand my options. We can think of addressing exclusionary behaviour on a continuum which spans from subtle to very direct. Very direct would be calling out what someone has said or done in the moment in a way that explicitly says what they have done wrong. The people who called out Lizzo were very direct, as are many of the examples you can think of where high-profile people have made inappropriate comments. In a business context, however, this very direct approach may be politically unsavvy, especially if you are a junior colleague calling out a more senior one or if you want to maintain positive relations. I chose not to use this method, out of respect for the public forum we were in as well as the sensitive position I was in as an external facilitator.

I follow the work of Loretta J. Ross, Professor at Smith College, who has started a ‘calling in’ movement, which offers a much more subtle way of challenging in order to create a learning opportunity rather than ostracize. Calling in is done in private and with curiosity and respect. It is more of a two-way conversation of inquiry to help facilitate people’s thinking about why their act could have been perceived as exclusionary. For example, imagine you’re in a meeting to decide who to put forward for a new project, and a colleague makes a comment suggesting a team member, Gieta, who recently returned from maternity leave wouldn’t be interested because it required a lot of travel. Calling in would be asking your colleague for a private conversation afterwards and saying: ‘I’m interested in that comment you made about Gieta not wanting to travel. What makes you believe this is the case?’ The open question is subtle and therefore more likely to provoke thought rather than create a defensive response. So this may reveal a valid reason, based on what Gieta has said to them, or it may highlight that the person has made an assumption.

With Paul’s colleague, I decided this calling in approach would be a less valuable learning opportunity for the whole group, as it would mean they wouldn’t get to see how exclusionary behaviour could be addressed in a constructive way. Plus, I wasn’t sure if I’d get an opportunity to speak to him in private afterwards. The approach I took was somewhere between subtle and very direct. I chose to role model inclusive leadership in the moment, in front of his peers, but did so with curiosity through my open questions, respectfully inviting him to reflect on his comment.

Regardless of the place on the continuum you decide to act from, it always involves discomfort and therefore always requires courage. A quote by Brené Brown, Professor at the University of Houston and author, says it all:

The greatest barrier to courageous leadership is not fear – it’s how we respond to our fear. Our armor – the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that we use to protect ourselves when we aren’t willing and able to rumble with vulnerability – move us out of alignment with our values, corrode trust with our colleagues and teams, and prevent us from being our most courageous selves.

It is psychological work

In the context of inclusive leadership, showing courage isn’t just about calling in or calling out other people. It’s about having the courage to look inwards with a deep curiosity to understand yourself. I’m not just talking about your personality type, food preferences or where you like to hang out on the weekend. This is about really seeing yourself – your values, your beliefs, the things that tend to annoy you and the things you admire or respect in others – recognizing your emotional triggers and asking yourself why you feel that way.

There’s an activity we use in one of our workshops to help leaders with this process. We ask people to spend a few minutes thinking about the things they see in other people that really frustrate them, to a point where it becomes a distraction from what the person is saying or offering. Through the years, I have heard quite an eclectic list, from people not paying attention to grammar and punctuation before they send through their work to people who give a loose handshake, people who show up late for meetings, people with a visible tattoo and job candidates who walk into an interview with brown shoes! Whilst many of these are common ‘niggles’ for people, I had not been aware of any issue with brown shoes so I proceeded to find out more through three simple questions:

I started by saying to the participant: ‘That’s interesting. Where does that belief come from?’

‘When I first started in the company, it just seemed to be a commonly held view. If a candidate had worn brown shoes to their interview, it was viewed as poor judgement and they wouldn’t be taken seriously with brown shoes. And I noticed that all the sales consultants wore black shoes, so I guess I just adopted that perspective.’

My second question was: ‘Is it possible that this belief doesn’t apply all the time, every time?’

‘Yes, I am sure there are very talented sales people out there who wear brown shoes and are great at their job.’

The third question I asked was: ‘What might you be missing as a result of this belief?’

‘I have probably missed out on some good people for my team.’

These three questions are powerful because they invite the person to pause and consider the roots of their beliefs. Often people respond by saying that it was something a parent or role model instilled in them as a child (for example, a work ethic or what it means to be professional) or it was drilled in at school. If you traced back the company view about brown shoes, it may have started with one senior leader having a bad experience with a new recruit who happened to wear this item of clothing – who knows? The point, though, is that it encourages the leader to question the validity of their beliefs, which turn out to be less grounded in fact than they might have previously thought.

By the end of the third question, if the person is open to self-evaluation, there is inevitably a level of discomfort through the self-acknowledgement that they haven’t acted in a fair way and this has impacted someone else. That doesn’t sit well with most of us. However, when I see a high Receptiveness to Learn in leaders, self-evaluation becomes part of their daily lives, in all their interactions and with a degree of scrutiny that doesn’t paralyse them but offers continual insight into who they are. Leaders with a Beyond Discomfort Way of Being know that this process of digging deeper can uncover some aspects of who they are that don’t necessarily align with their perceptions of self. They manage their fear of not being good enough, push away their ‘armour’ of self-protection and boldly self-reflect anyway.

Devi Virdi, Group Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Centrica, explained in our podcast discussion:

Look, inclusion is actually tough, and it is a complex journey of truths. Because the reality is we still don’t face those truths. And let’s be honest, we are really uncomfortable with the truth and we are really uncomfortable with difference. This is important because in society, and in business, the reality is we need to own that truth as part of being human, as who we are, because if we don’t own it, frankly, we’re not going to get over it.

Let’s think about some of these complex truths that Devi is talking about here:

  • the truth that I hold biases and I regularly act on them without knowing;
  • the truth that the beliefs I hold and the stories I hold run my life;
  • the truth that I will tend to hold negative judgements about people who are different in some way;
  • the truth that, every day, I contribute to the inequities in society and in my organization;
  • the truth that aspects of my background and who I am have influenced my successes and failures in life;
  • the truth that I am not always a good person.

It takes psychological work to process all these truths and what that then means. It can leave people in a place where they are questioning themselves as leaders and as people with integrity and morals. They may also be questioning whether their wins in life were really wins at all or simply the result of privilege playing out. Bear in mind that these questions don’t invite ‘once and done’ answers. The more a leader enters this space of self-reflection and self-evaluation, the more discomfort they will feel as they realize how prevalent their bias and complicity in exclusion and discrimination is. Inclusive leaders need to sit with the constant discomfort that this awareness brings and resiliently continue down the never-ending path of deep inner work.

Marta Pajón Fustes, Head of Technical & Inclusion and Diversity at innocent drinks, summarized her experience of this on the Why Care? podcast:

The moment you start thinking about biases, you start triple thinking and, especially for people like me who tend to overthink, that is a challenge. Am I being fair here? Or is this my bias? You start questioning yourself more and more, and you have to be ready for that.

- NADIA NAGAMOOTOO (she/her) is the founder and CEO of Avenir, a Chartered Psychologist, MBA and accredited coach with 20 years’ experience in the field of systemic culture change, leadership development and organizational strategy. She has worked globally to provoke powerful Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) conversations at all organizational levels and develop sustainable inclusive leadership practises. 

As host of the podcast Why Care?, she delves deeply into the complex and uncomfortable world of DEI.

Nadia continues to be publicly recognised for her passion, drive and thought-leadership, and was listed as HR Most Influential Thinker 2023 and awarded HR Champion of the Year at the European Diversity Awards 2023.

Beyond Discomfort is released on Tuesday 26 March and available to purchase at £9.99 on Kindle, £16.99 in paperback, and £24.99 in hardcover on Amazon and most good bookstores.

On Monday 25 March, there will be a special one-day offer of the e-book version which will be just 99p/99c. 

Go to www.beyond-discomfort.com to take the free Beyond Discomfort questionnaire and join the community.