If you're trying to get it right, you're probably not.
The more I observe organisations trying hard to get diversity, inclusion & wellbeing right, the more I reach the conclusion that even when we try and get this right, we’re still getting it wrong.
Here’s my personal perspective . . . For the majority of my life I had no experience of prejudice as a problem. As a white male; middle-class, with a university background and a decent income I would have never pretended to have the experiential qualifications to completely understand what life is like on the wrong end of prejudice. I had not witnessed overt prejudice over race, gender, sexuality, socio-economic background, religion and so on. So, naively, I hadn't seen it as a significant problem in current times. My personal experience of prejudice came in my forties when I found myself living life dragging around the millstone of a mental health condition. This illness arose following the tragic death of a child, in traumatic circumstances. Awful though it was (and is), the illness was nothing compared to the uncaring, brutal and destructive prejudice that came with it.
"Compared to those that suffer a lifetime of prejudice, my experience was not a lengthy one. But it lasted long enough to give me an insight into the grotesque world of prejudice."
I got a glimpse into what life is like for those who look down the wrong end of the barrel of a stigmatising gun. I have since dedicated a major chunk of my life to creating and running Evenhood; a social enterprise whose purpose it is to help organisations improve the support they offer for wellbeing. Through Evenhood I’ve worked with various organisations - workplaces, universities and schools - providing talks, wellbeing coaching, resilience training and a range of books. The main thrust of my approach is twofold. First (and not particularly relevant to this article), we need to learn how to talk differently about wellbeing. The message I aim to convey here is that, outside of therapy, the best conversation about wellbeing is one that focuses on the practical things that people can do to offer support. I call this having “mentally healthy conversations” which gave rise to the title of my first book; “The Art of the Mentally Healthy Conversation”. This message is accompanied by a second one. This second message seems more subtle; but in fact is of much greater importance. And it strikes me as particularly relevant in a diversity & inclusion context too. Effective support can, I argue, only happen when organisations treat all people who exist within the organisation with kindness, respect, humanity and compassion. I know that the training I offer to help people strengthen their resilience, manage their wellbeing and have mutually supportive mentally healthy conversations is of limited value if they operate in the wrong cultural setting. There’s no point having a mentally healthy conversation, if the person you have it with has a judgemental mindset that is likely to regard you as weak or incapable and inferior to them. Even a good quality conversation in that situation is unlikely to help. And so the far more important thrust of my work has been on promoting a culture of mutual support and mutual respect. If you happen to operate in any sort of environment - a home, university, workplace, school or even a social environment - where some people are thought of and treated differently; with less respect, with less compassion, with more pressure to be something that they are not because they don’t fit with someone else’s definition of ‘normal’, then you operate in an environment where the culture will never fully succeed in overcoming the brutality of prejudice - whether it be prejudice about your mental health, the colour of your skin, your gender, your religious values, your sexuality, your personality, your core identity. The culture needed to overcome this sort of prejudice is something that I call evenhood, hence the name of my company. Evenhood is a word that for some bizarre reason fell out of common use in the 16th Century and I don’t know why - because it’s such a wonderful word for a wonderful concept.
"Evenhood promotes a sense of togetherness that - much like brotherhood, sisterhood or neighbourhood - creates an invisible but unbreakable connection between us all. And this connection drives mutual respect, kindness, compassion and a desire to offer support."
It’s different to equality which is now often thought of as a right. Evenhood is a gift. A mindset. A culture. Evenhood can exist regardless of hierarchy, age, wealth, intelligence or any other characteristic. In evenhood we are all wonderful human beings - entitled to be who we are and we don't have to pretend to be anything different. In evenhood there is no ‘normal’ except in one respect - it is ‘normal’ that everyone is different. Call it whatever you like - I’m not trying to sell a word here; but this culture that I call evenhood is an absolute necessity to overcome prejudice. That’s because prejudice is produced when one person thinks of themselves as superior to another by reason of characteristics such as their gender, the colour of their skin, or because they think that they have a better personality (is your ENFP better than my ISTJ?!), or they have no apparent mental health condition, or they think they are more intelligent, more worthy because they are richer, better educated and so on. My recent increased interest in diversity and inclusion followed, of course, the George Floyd murder and the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. After this I read and read. I watched and watched. And I had innumerable conversations in various settings. I learned four things. First, that I was wrong to take reassurance from the fact that I had not witnessed overt prejudice outside of the mental health arena. I have since discovered multiple tales of “covert prejudice”, “clever prejudice”, “intelligent prejudice”, “micro-aggressions” and so on. Not my quotes. These are from people I have spoken to or who have written about their own experiences. Many also speak of having to pretend to be someone that they are not, just so that they can fit in.
"They speak of this smart 'deniable prejudice' that can be dismissed as a misunderstanding but which is too common to be unintended."
Second, I discovered that despite my poor qualifications, it is absolutely wrong for me to do nothing. I need to be an active participant in defeating prejudice. Third, I observed that various organisations and promoters of diversity and inclusion have recently been more active in their development and introduction of new initiatives, new policies, new events and so on - to increase the effort they put into promoting the benefits of diversity and inclusion. From observing these initiatives I could see that these great things are not enough to cure the problem. They are worthy sticking plasters. They obscure the wounds, but don't heal them. So fourth, I reached the conclusion that I opened with. That even when we try to get this right, we still get it wrong. Initiatives, policies and events are wonderful, admirable and absolutely to be encouraged. But they are of limited value if they are not accompanied by the right cultural changes. It is cultural change that we need here. A change of mindset. A change of being. And I’m not seeing so much of that. Without these cultural changes we will, I fear, slip into old behaviours. So, by all means keep it going with the new initiatives. Let's have more of them. But let's also double down on the cultural changes that are absolutely necessary so that everyone can be themselves without having to continually exhaust themselves by being someone or something that they are not, just to fit in.
"Quite simply - let’s create a culture in which people can be themselves and still be valued. Let’s show respect and treat others with kindness, compassion and humanity. When we all do this; then we will succeed in defeating prejudice."
If any of this resonates with you; by all means, keep going with the initiatives, the policies, the events and so on. These are wonderful. But remember this compelling thought. The organisation that succeeds in conquering prejudice, is the organisation that no longer needs initiatives. More initiatives is not exactly a mark of success. It is a sign of a problem.
Instead, success flows naturally from an embedded culture. So, above all else, please do your bit to create the right culture.
"Promote, share and be what it takes to treat others with humanity, kindness, respect and compassion and live in evenhood with others in whatever environments you operate in."
I shall do my best to do the same. About Jonathan Phelan
Jonathan is the author of “The Art of the Mentally Healthy Conversation” which tells the story of how Jonathan learned to manage the challenge of a mental health condition following a child bereavement. The book helps the reader discover how to have mentally healthy conversations, which are more likely to result in support, rather than stigma. It also promotes the benefits of workplaces, universities and schools nurturing a culture in which it is normal for people to talk about their mental health and to offer mutual support for wellbeing and resilience.
Jonathan has held a senior leadership position in a large financial services organisation since 2004, with a long-term career in law, law enforcement and consumer protection. When he went through the trauma of a child bereavement he gained an insight into the obstacles people face when they have mental wellbeing challenges. More importantly he learned how to overcome those obstacles by improving the way we talk about our wellbeing and resilience.
Through his talks, workshops and book Jonathan shares his personal story. Using the drama of how mental health has been portrayed in film, and his own particular take on how our brains process information, Jonathan guides the listener to discover more effective ways to talk about mental wellbeing. Jonathan also promotes the concept of mutual support for wellbeing; based on the belief that we should all aim to make it normal for people to talk about their mental wellbeing, just as we are already willing to talk about physical wellbeing.