Incivility, micro-aggressions, disrespect and discrimination (behavior tied to biases) all have wide-ranging negative effects on organizations and employees, including lost time, money, and productivity, decreased brand loyalty and morale, lower company attractiveness for potential employees, and legal risks.

Inclusion = Habits of Inclusive Behavior

Instead, organizations want their leaders and employees to be inclusive — to develop habits of inclusive behavior. When organizations talk about inclusion, what they’re talking about is a set of respectful behaviors that ideally, over time, become automatic. Behaviors that become habits. How we behave with each other during team meetings. How we give each other feedback and how we take feedback. How leaders and managers run meetings, decide who gets promotions, who gets assigned high- versus low-status work. How we talk to each other when we disagree. How we manage conflict.

Habit change can be hard, and motivation and persistence are key, as new habits override old ones. New habits for inclusive behavior require three crucial elements:

    1. Motivation to develop new habits.
    2. Understanding, specifically, what the new habits should be and when the corresponding behaviors should be expressed, so that they become automatic in those contexts, over time.
    3. Assistance, over time, in keeping those new behaviors “top of mind” so that they can become automatic.

Motivation for Habit Change

Developing new habits is hard work. If you’ve ever learned to drive a car, you know how many hours of driving it takes until it becomes automatic. Or remember when the pandemic rolled into your neighborhood? You had to develop a new habit of wearing a mask when you were around others.

It’s likely that, if you learned to drive a car, you wanted or needed to learn. If, during the pandemic, you wanted to enter a store or building, you were motivated to remember to have a mask with you. Motivation helps us develop new habits. To create a more inclusive workplace, employees need to be motivated to develop new habits.

That’s where empathy comes in. When we learn—deeply, with emotion—the impact of (often unintentional) disrespectful behaviors, we are more motivated to develop new habits that treat our colleagues with respect and convey our appreciation for their ideas and perspectives. Various methods can provide emotional learning, such as certain types of virtual reality content, readings, video content, and listening to friends and coworkers who share their experiences.

What Are Those New Habits?

Habits involve specific behaviors. Inclusive behaviors range from specific ways team members interact during meetings (e.g., whether interrupting others is discouraged, how note-taking or other “housekeeping” tasks are assigned, whether all ideas are welcome and appreciated) and more generally (e.g., what kind of jokes are okay and not okay to tell, how are high and low status tasks assigned and why).

For employees to develop new habits, they need to learn, explicitly and specifically, what the new habits should be. For instance, does your organization have guidelines for inclusive team meetings? Do leaders get training in how to lead inclusive teams? Employees need guidance on what, specifically, inclusion means in your organization  and within your team.

How New Behaviors Become Habits

We can learn a new behavior, but then forget to use it. If you’ve learned a stress management technique like meditation or diaphragmatic breathing, it can be great to use, but until it becomes a habit, you’re likely to forget to use it when you’re stressed. You need help turning a new (or old) behavior into a habit—something you do automatically in particular contexts.

Practice + Awareness

Fundamentally, for a set of behaviors to become automatic, we need to practice, practice, practice. Maybe we get help (e.g., coaching), may not. Even repeated practice by imagining behaving inclusively will help turn those behaviors into habits. So, whenever you are about to enter a real conference room or video conference call, imagine the inclusive behaviors you want to become automatic and look for opportunities to practice.

Practice requires awareness. We need to be aware of when to practice, and aware of how we’re doing when we do practice, so we get feedback about whether we need to adjust our behavior. We can also be aware of others’ inclusive behavior and learn from them — what to do and what not to do, what seems to be effective and what doesn’t seem to be effective.

Organizational Help

Organizations can help provide cues. Cues are reminders, signals about what should happen. For instance, if teams create guidelines for respectful, inclusive behavior, an abbreviated list of those guidelines can be attached to each meeting’s agenda. The best cue, of course, is seeing others’ inclusive behavior.

Organizations can create incentives for people to behave inclusively. Imagine if the degree of people’s inclusive behavior were part of their performance review (and related to their bonus or salary bump, or opportunity for promotion)?

The Special Role for Leaders and Managers

Leaders and managers play a critical role in employees developing new habits for two reasons:

    1. Employees will model what leaders do more than what leaders say. (Words alone are helpful, but if leaders only talk the talk without walking the walk, pretty soon employees learn to do the same: say one thing, do another.)
    2. To the extent that leaders actively coach for inclusive behaviors, employees see that such behaviors are valued. Even more powerful is whether inclusive behaviors become part of what is discussed during performance reviews.
    3. When leaders explain why they, personally, care about inclusion, it is powerfully motivating, the first ingredient of habit change.