Author: Farzeen Mawji
Inclusion and diversity (I&D) are more than a simple box organizations can check off their list. They form a foundation that is embedded into the culture or the "corporate DNA." As organizations scramble for top talent, employees will be more likely to work for an organization that aligns with their own values. And it is the same for customers.
With I&D being an essential component of the employee value proposition, how can organizations translate these words into something meaningful that their employees and customers will feel and experience?
Recognize diversity and intersectionality
Diversity is a fact: it exists no matter what we do. When looking at diversity, it is also important to consider inclusion through intersectionality. Intersectionality consists of the unique attributes of an individual that overlap to make us who we are. It can include gender identity, sex, religion, physical appearances, cultural affiliation, nationality and more. A person's intersectionality informs and shapes how they interact with the world, thereby creating their lived experience.
When you think about it, do most people you know use these elements to describe themselves in professional settings? The answer is often no because we've been trained to share only some parts of ourselves in particular situations and hide other parts that make us feel vulnerable. And unfortunately, this training has to do with the inclusion deficiencies of the past and present.
Our intersectionality shapes the way we engage with the world around us, what we do and how we show up at work. If diversity lives within an organization without inclusion, we are missing the mark.
Choose inclusion intentionally
We all share something in common, despite our intersectionality. Every human being wants to be "seen." We thrive when we feel valued and acknowledged. It is as simple as that. Consider the following:
- Have you ever felt left out?
- How did this exclusion make you feel?
Your answers most likely takes you back to a time when you felt vulnerable. Now, imagine someone who is not feeling included at work because of their intersectionality. This reverse approach helps build empathy towards others and informs you of the actions you can take to foster inclusion.
A simple change we can make is to be intentionally inclusive when speaking. Words have so much power over our emotions. Changing how you greet people at the beginning of a meeting from "Hey guys" to "Hey folks" can go a long way for someone. Another suggestion is to transform a local expression into something that everyone will understand across a multilingual / multicultural team. For example, replacing "we knocked it out of the park" with "we did a great job." If someone feels included by the way you have welcomed and communicated with them, they are more likely to participate in the conversation, which can lead to greater innovation. In addition, adopting inclusive language can help promote allyship.
Allyship is a word of action
Being an ally goes beyond tolerating or accepting someone else's identity. A true ally fully supports, accepts and celebrates that identity. With allyship comes action and accountability. Allies are not afraid to explore, challenge and mitigate their own biases. To become an ally, we must start with educating ourselves. Listen to a podcast, watch a documentary, sign up for a class, increase your circle of influence, etc. Organizations may promote education through activities and programs, but ultimately it is up to the individual to put in the work.
Allies also interrupt inappropriate actions of others without being confrontational. For example, a leader may say something offensive to a group during a meeting. Being an ally, you want to speak up, but you might be uncomfortable confronting the leader in front of everybody. So, you wait until after the meeting and ask them if you can speak with them. Start by explaining that they said something that did not quite land with you and that you would like to share some feedback. By taking this approach, the leader will likely be less defensive and you will ll have the desired impact for change.
There are many things an individual can do to take accountability. Approaching allyship from a place of understanding and education is key, whether it's educating yourself or the people around you.
Nurture empathy in leadership
Empathy is the ability to share and understand what others are going through. Unfortunately, studies1 have shown that empathy has eroded over the last few decades. Typically, empathy decreases when it becomes too hard for people. For example, if we are having a bad day and someone disagrees with us, we might just think that they are wrong and write them off. When we do not have the capacity to take on emotions, we tend to lack empathy.
Now, here is some good news. Empathy is a skill that can be learned, developed and nurtured. And there are some great benefits to being an empathetic leader. Studies2 have shown that empathy can spark creativity, boost innovation and help when solving problems. Empathetic people tend to be happier in life, attract friends more easily and report lower stress levels. They excel at work involving people. These benefits make it clear why we need more empathetic leaders in the workplace.
If you are looking for ways to nurture empathy, start by taking small, yet purposeful steps. When walking down the street, instead of ignoring homelessness, make eye contact with people living in a difficult situation, smile and perhaps talk to them. Make it a conscious effort, and it will soon become unconscious. Another tactic can be to employ humility or curiosity. When someone disagrees with you at work, try asking why and give them space to provide their perspective. In doing so, you open yourself up to understanding a different point of view, and the other person will be more inclined to do the same with your perspective.
Leaders do not need to know everything about I&D. Empathetic leadership is not about having all the answers. It is about being open to conversations and creating a psychologically safe environment. By demonstrating that you do not have all the answers, you can lead with vulnerability and showcase your commitment to learning and becoming a better version of yourself. From this comes teams that flourish and are engaged at all levels.
Drive systemic inclusion
Going a step further than education and leadership development, organizations need to embed I&D into their systems and processes. Those systems and processes need to be adapted to make I&D efforts experienced and lived by others. Without systems, culture is just an ideal, without meaning and purpose. To reinforce cultural change, organizations must work on the 4 Ps: Policies, Programs, Processes and Procedures.
Whether you are working in HR, Marketing, IT, Operations, or elsewhere, all departments must have the right elements in place to reduce bias, reinforce diversity and foster inclusion. Policies, programs, processes and procedures are ultimately what hold an organization accountable.
Accept that I&D is a journey
A significant shift towards I&D won't happen overnight. It's a journey that is not only organizational in nature but a personal one as well. As with any change, it takes time, effort and dedication. Small milestones should be celebrated. And remember, it's not a race. The purpose of I&D is not to point fingers at anyone; it is to grow collectively. As long as there is openness and transparency on your I&D journey and the goal is to do and be better, you are on the right path.
I dream of organizations where people can bring their whole selves to work, without fear of judgment. I wish for everyone to feel seen and to be acknowledged for their whole authentic selves. This recognition will create richer connections with one another that ripple outside of our corporate world, creating more meaningful life experiences for everyone. We spend a third of our day at work. Everyone should be recognized and celebrated for who they truly are. Together, let's make our world better, one workplace at a time.