While organizations have sharpened their focus on diversity and inclusion (D&I) efforts in recent years, the current state of affairs in our country and the wider world has led to a heightened awareness of our differences and how they are treated in the workplace.
In response, many organizations have begun to shift their focus more heavily on the inclusion aspects of D&I, and the ones that haven’t will benefit from doing so. This shift does not mean that diversity is not still critical, but it is increasingly apparent that focusing on diversity alone is not enough. In a Randstad US survey, 78% of employees said that “a workplace where people are treated equally — regardless of gender, sexual orientation, age, race or religion — is important to them.”
Let’s make it personal: Imagine that you were invited to an event or a friend’s gathering, and as you started to talk with the other guests, they did not seem interested in getting to know you or involving you in the dialogue. Great — you were invited. Not so great — you don’t feel welcome.
That feeling of not being welcome is at the core of inclusion. By expanding their D&I efforts to focus more on inclusion, organizations can foster a culture where individual workers do not feel marginalized, unsupported or unwanted but, instead, feel they can show up to work and be themselves.
To develop this culture, company leaders must commit to empowering conversations that foster employees’ engaging with one another — and make sure their workforce does the same. Here are four tips to keep in mind during every conversation.
1. Interrogate Reality
Everyone enters conversations with his or her own opinions, beliefs and attitudes. These beliefs are created by our background, our cultural heritage, the part of the country we grew up in, our family of origin, the books we read, the news channels we watch … and so much more. Frequently, we use conversations to validate our beliefs about others and the topics at hand — but this behavior is dangerous for relationships and for our ability to solve obstacles and challenges.
The job of the leader is to get it right, not to be right. Getting it right, together, is inclusive. Being right is not. When it comes to addressing the issues that surround inclusion, leaders must consciously and intentionally pay attention to the fact that no two perspectives are exactly the same. Doing so requires curiosity and a desire to understand multiple — often competing — beliefs.
Leaders will only be able to understand what is going on — with a team, with a business problem or with a colleague — when they shift toward being curious and asking questions. This shift is hard work. It takes discipline and practice. But when held as a commitment, it profoundly impacts how leaders step into (and remain in) conversations that test their limits, their patience and their ability to understand what is going on around them.
2. Provoke Learning
Creating inclusion requires learning — from everyone. Organizations composed of individuals who do not want to learn will have a very hard time being inclusive, which is why training and creating behavioral expectations is key.
To provoke learning is to first and foremost approach conversations as an opportunity to learn. Leaders must realize that this process starts with them and be willing to be vulnerable when it comes to the things they don’t know. They must dig deep and look inward at themselves to uncover the behaviors and beliefs that may be hindering — or helping — inclusion.
Many first-time leaders make conversations about themselves. They are inward-centric, wanting to make sure they gain the right experiences and prove themselves. This behavior gets in their way on multiple levels and can severely limit their learning and growth.
This process isn’t just for first-time leaders. All leaders can benefit from recognizing the power of being willing to learn and make it a continuous practice.
3. Tackle Tough Challenges
When it comes to difficult conversations, the knee-jerk reaction is to avoid them at all costs — even though avoiding them takes up more space in our brains, drains our energy and disrupts our results. The longer we put off these conversations, the higher the chances things will only become worse.
There are generations of data in our country that validate the impact of avoidance — of not saying what needs to be said; of denying others the opportunity to be heard; and of not tackling the challenges before us in proactive, brave ways. Leaders must be willing to step into conversations instead of crossing their fingers and hoping the problem will disappear. They must be willing to tackle tough challenges in order to create the corporate cultures we all desire and deserve.
Knowing about an issue isn’t enough. Leaders must take action once they understand an obstacle to overcome or an opportunity to seize. Inclusion needs action. We can’t just talk about it.
4. Enrich Relationships
This objective, though undeniably important, is all too often the one that we forget or overlook. Offering D&I training without the critical emphasis on relationships ends up feeling like lip service rather than the authentic, significant and needed change we intend it to be.
If enriching relationships were the primary impetus of every conversation, it would be a much different world. Isn’t that what D&I initiatives and work are all about — the desire to create a different, and better, world where everyone feels included? Relationships — and the conversations that enrich them — is where we must start.
It’s no longer acceptable for organizations to focus on recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce. The world is demanding more. The workforce is demanding more. As you reassess your D&I efforts and start building the foundation to a better company culture, think about this question: What must you do to enable and sustain the change you want and need? The answer is where you start.