Inclusion in the Workplace

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Inclusion Doesn’t Mean Including Everything and Everyone

Inclusiveness is not about thought policing. It’s also not about turning everyone into a liberal.

It’s a normal learning process for humans to apply our latest discovery to everything we encounter for a while.

When my former neighbor’s young daughter learned about the physical differences between boys and girls, for days she did nothing but talk about anatomy and ask adults in the supermarket about theirs. When my dad learned about the cultural differences between generations, he processed everything he observed from that perspective for several weeks. An incessant social scientist, I chuckle every time I notice the way I filter the latest current event through the lens of my “latest religion” with the zeal of a recent convert.

Typically, we integrate our latest discovery into a richer, more balanced worldview. But when it comes to diversity and inclusion, too many organizations stay stuck in their own “latest religion” with potentially dire consequences. They embark on the well-intended mission to create a more inclusive culture, and soon find themselves off the path hitting landmines or sinking in quicksand because they’re indiscriminately inclusive.

Creating a more inclusive culture is not about including everything and everyone. To obtain meaningful results that matter without causing more problems than it solves, inclusion must be strategic, rooted in your existing organizational identity, values and business goals. High-performing organizations and teams are effective because they have a clear sense of purpose, expressed in clear goals. Having a clear identity is necessary to fulfill those goals, and identity is influenced by values. Whether conscious or not, every organization has values that are expressed in rules that dictate which behaviors are rewarded and which are rejected.

Organizations should not abandon their values, identity or goals for the sake of inclusion; in fact, being serious about inclusion will hone them. This may result in new rules. Just as it’s OK to exclude employees who come to work inebriated or who punch customers in the face, it’s not just OK to exclude employees who speak and act in alignment with white supremacist, misogynistic or homophobic belief systems (if those are counter to your values). It’s necessary. Expecting employees to share a certain set of values and behave in a particular way is effective leadership and is not oppressive or exclusive. While it’s always critical to review policies with legal counsel, in general you’re not depriving anyone of their freedom or right to work by taking a clear stand on what’s acceptable in your organization, just depriving them of their freedom or right to work for you. You’re also depriving them of their ability to disrupt your culture and interfere with your goals. To allow such disruption and interference is poor leadership that lets down your high performers and loyal customers!

While taking a clear stand on what and who you will include, there are three important considerations.

  • Be clear and honest about your purpose, identity, values and goals. Such clarity allows you to be strategic in deciding which behaviors are acceptable and which aren’t, instead of making fear-based, knee-jerk decisions based on the latest media frenzy or trendy fad. It will also help you communicate the business-critical rationale for why certain behaviors aren’t acceptable. Be honest about your culture in the process. Many organizations espouse one set of values and goals, yet live another, leading to conflict, low morale, poor talent retention and reduced productivity. Have the courage and curiosity to see what your culture really is, and choose to either operate accordingly or commit to changing it.
  • Use a scalpel instead of a carpet bomb to differentiate what and who you will include. Conservatives are sometimes right to criticize liberals for our hypersensitivity to language. Even progressive darlings like Chimamanda Adichie experience what she terms the “cannibalism of the left” in how we excommunicate allies over petty, rigid notions of correct vocabulary. While words should be taken seriously for their power to shape reality through thoughts and behaviors, censoring all “non-PC” speech or controversial ideas not only reduces diversity, it creates a mistake-intolerant culture that interferes with the learning and relationship-building necessary for true inclusiveness. Too many incidences of one-time inappropriate behavior are mishandled by firing the person responsible instead of using the situation to reflect, examine the big picture, learn, and create more accountability and trust. Of course there are behaviors that require serious and immediate consequences for the actor. Even then, leaders should pause to consider the roles and identities of all actors, identify root causes, seek patterns and ponder consequences.
  • Focus on behavior. Cognitive diversity is what causes diverse teams to outperform non-diverse teams, and millennials are particularly keen on “diversity of thought.” People can, and should, have differing beliefs and ideas (religious, political, etc.) at work. Inclusiveness is not about thought policing. It’s also not about turning everyone into a liberal, since science shows diversity plus inclusion gets better results regardless of people’s political beliefs. The key is finding a balance between difference and similarity, with enthusiasm for the organization’s purpose and values held as an essential similarity. Ultimately, a person’s thoughts and beliefs only become problems once they translate into unacceptable behaviors. Having clarity around which behaviors are unacceptable and why (from a business standpoint) will allow you to think, speak and act more effectively. Then you can move beyond mere zeal and find success on your mission to create a more inclusive culture without losing yourself in the wilderness.

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