The events of this year have pushed diversity and inclusion (D&I) to the forefront of many conversations both inside and outside of work. Diversity and inclusion can no longer be seen as a ‘nice to have’. It is of huge importance to any successful business and something that cannot be ignored. Research shows that businesses who embrace D&I are more profitable, innovative, and attract the best staff.
Recognizing the need for improvement in this space, companies have started to promote diversity and inclusion topics through financial investment, education, and commitments to cultural change. However, to many employees this is only half the story. Staff are looking to leaders to truly embrace inclusion, without which a company’s good intentions can easily be seen as a box-ticking exercise.
As a business leader what does promoting inclusion mean for me?
Creating inclusion as a leader is like coaching a football team, we need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of all our players to truly succeed. We need to acknowledge that all our players will have differing opinions, skills and ways of doing things, however it is our job to create an environment where they feel confident and can play at their best and come together to win.
Speaking to many professionals throughout my career in D&I, one theme is common: Leaders want to make a difference, they want to promote diversity and inclusion. However, either they feel they don’t have the knowledge to confidentially speak about the topic; are worried about saying the wrong thing; or can’t see how to apply the D&I conversation to their own business area. If that description resonates with you, then hopefully the below will help reassure and guide you.
Find your motivation
The most important thing you can do is to find your own motivation to promote diversity and inclusion. What are the reasons it is important to you? This might be an inherent sense that it is the right thing to do, or it might be purely the business case.
Finding this motivation is key to being authentic when you champion the topic with your co-workers. Your motivation doesn’t have to be the perfect example of why diversity and inclusion is important, it just has to be personal and authentic to you.
D&I is like many things, only when you truly believe in it will you drive it with the energy and dedication required. Whether it is at work, at home, taking something personally allows us to tap into a different motivational gear.
Confront your fear
When we have found our personal motivation to promote diversity and inclusion, it is fundamental that we overcome our fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. This fear is the product of an environment where people feel they will be judged harshly on what they say, rather than their honest intent. The chances are that if you are feeling like this, then your staff are too.
Therefore it’s essential to cultivate an atmosphere of psychological safety, a safe environment where people feel comfortable speaking openly. As a leader you can create this environment by starting conversations with your team and simply listening to what they say.
5 D&I topics to discuss with your team
As an athlete, if you are training to be your best then you also need to identify your weaknesses. At times you need to analyze your performance and understand where the problems are. To perform at our best in the D&I space we need to do a similar thing, through education, self-reflection, and in conversation with our colleagues.
Discussing the five topics below is a great starting point to promote diversity and inclusion, and a good way to understand how certain D&I concepts influence the behavior of you and your team. These discussions act like the performance analysis. They will show you and your team where your blind spots and shortcomings are, so that you can structure your personal improvement.
1. We are a product of our upbringing
The culture we are part of and raised in shapes our identity and then in turn shapes our frames of reference. This can cause us to only view the world from our own perspective. Our frames of reference are our own individual ‘system of meaning’, or, in other words, the way we view the world and how the world views us back. This determines how we perceive, evaluate, and relate in a social context and at work. We are often not aware of our frames of reference, nor the impact they have on the way we see the world – and the extent to which this influences our lives.
For example, you might have grown up in a culture where after-work drinks on a Friday night is an important part of team bonding. But is this practice excluding team members whose cultural or religious upbringing means they don’t feel comfortable drinking alcohol?
2. The danger of affinity bias
We make decisions and judgements in life based on visible and invisible cues. This in itself is not bad, because it is how we have survived as a human race for so long. For millions of years, as the hominid brain was developing, our ancestors were less hunters and more hunted, meaning they had to make quick decisions to survive when being chased by a saber-toothed tiger.
Luckily, we are no longer in mortal danger, however our brains are still programmed to make quick decisions. These impulses can create biases based on gender, age, race, ethnicity, language, educational institute, interpersonal or work style etc. We must ask ourselves do we tend to engage more with people who are most like us? When you select somebody to work in your organization, do you promote someone like yourself?
However, this can quickly produce professional teams who are all producing similar ideas. It will ultimately impact the diversity and inclusion you were consciously hoping to achieve.
3. Why you need cultural agility
As part of our focus to promote diversity and inclusion, we must start to develop our cultural agility: the ability to effectively navigate, communicate, interrelate, and function well within diverse cultural settings.
Culturally agile leaders are adaptable and flexible. They create an environment that allows others to be their authentic selves within the workplace, where their differences are respected and understood.
Developing cultural agility starts with an open attitude. Ask yourself, how well do you understand the cultures of those people in your team and in the wider company? Are you or your team making assumptions about people based on their race and culture that have a negative effect on team productivity?
4. Personal behavior is critical
It is also important for leaders to focus on their micro-behaviors. These are small, subtle, often unspoken and unconscious behaviors that communicate dispositions, attitudes, biases, and sentiments.
Imagine a male-dominated team environment where the manager always asked the female in the group to take notes at meetings. This immediately creates a divide between that individual and the other team members. Sustained acts of micro-aggression, even if they are unintended, can easily affect a team member’s confidence and their happiness in the workplace.
5. How insider-outsider dynamics effect a group
Last for consideration in how to better promote diversity and inclusion is an awareness of the ‘insider group’ – where advantages are enjoyed by the largest cultural group. The ‘outsider group’ is then left behind through a lack of access to power and economic resources such as promotions. The effect of such dynamics can be amplified if the manager of the team is part of the ‘inside group’.
This could be a culture dynamic in the traditional sense where all but a few team members are from the same nationality requiring the minority to always work in their second language and to struggle with social exchanges. It might be a group of co-workers where the majority are parents and conversation is always focused on children. Perhaps it’s a group dominated by sports fans who constantly talk football to the exclusion of those who aren’t supporters.
As leaders it is impossible to know everything about how best to promote diversity and inclusion. However, if your intent is honorable, you consider the impact of your words, and strive to create psychological safety for your staff then you will be taking great steps in the right direction.
Remember diversity is not a problem we are trying to solve but an opportunity we are trying to embrace.
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