Inclusion As A Skill: How To Develop It?
What makes a successful leader in the 21st century?
While many have offered the latest leadership models and framework, we need to first look at the global trends and the business landscapes. Based on research by Deloitte, four global trends will influence and shape our business environment, which are the diversity of markets, diversity of customers, diversity of ideas and diversity of talent.
It seems that diversity is an inevitability in the workplace and business. However, relying on diversity to uplift business is insufficient. With greater diversity in almost all aspects of business, it is more urgent for us to leverage diversity to our advantage rather than squander the opportunity. We need to take a closer look at our leadership as well as the workplace and shape it to meet the needs of the future. One aspect is ensuring that our workplace and its people adopt inclusive communication and behaviours. What does this mean?
Inclusive environments and behaviours are required to leverage the diverse strengths and talents of each person. Inclusive environments can be fostered and inclusive behaviours can be taught. Inclusion as a skill is relatively new and there are not many established frameworks or tools in developing inclusion as a skill within individuals. However, capabilities such as Awareness of Bias, Inclusive Communication, Appreciating Differences and Managing Conflict, are essential skills in cultivating inclusive behaviours in the workplace and life.
What is inclusion?
When your workplace or community consists of people from diverse cultures, inclusion means ensuring that everyone’s needs, concerns, values, ideas, etc are acknowledged and taken into consideration. When an environment is inclusive, people who are part of the workplace or the community are valued for their unique characteristics, feel comfortable to share their view sand feel safe to show their true and authentic self. An inclusive workplace or community allows everyone to fully participate in discussion, decision making and in shaping the future.
It is much easier said than done. More often than not, people tend to stick to their cultural groups. Evolution has taught us that sticking to our tribe keeps us safe from natural disasters and predators. Anything foreign, whether people or events, are seen as a possible threat to our lives. It is etched into our genetics. Thankfully, our cognitive and social capabilities have evolved to accept a certain amount of diversity. Though, we still have a long way to go.
How does diversity differ from inclusion? Diversity focuses on the demographic composition of a community, such as race, age, gender, nationality, profession etc. While inclusion emphasises the interaction, engagement and integration of the people in the community. As our world becomes highly interconnected and increasingly diverse, it is more urgent that we develop inclusion as a skill to bring out the best in our community.
Diversity is the mix. Inclusion is making the mix work.
Why inclusion as a skill?
A skill is one’s ability to perform a specific action that leads to a specific result. The results of a skill may take some time and effort to achieve. For example, driving requires one to learn to take control of a vehicle on various roads and terrain to get from one destination to another in a safe manner. As a beginner, one might find it overwhelming to monitor the roads and while manoeuvring a vehicle. Over time and with many hours of practice, one can become a proficient driver.
Likewise, inclusion is one’s ability to foster inclusive relationships and cultivate inclusive environments. To do this, one will need to adopt a different mindset, gain knowledge, adapt communication styles and behaviours that embodies inclusivity. With time, effort and motivation, anyone can develop inclusion as a skill.
How to develop inclusion as a skill?
While there are many ways to develop this skill, we can start with these 4 areas which are:
- Awareness of Bias
- Appreciating Similarities and Differences
- Inclusive Communication
- Managing Conflict
Awareness of Bias
The first step to any personal or professional development is self-awareness. Self-awareness can include values, beliefs, strengths, weaknesses, etc. By becoming more self-aware, we can identify our innate barriers and biases that prevent us from practising inclusion. There are two actions one can take to increase awareness of our biases, one is to take the time to observe our thoughts and behaviours and the other is to recognise biases at play.
Observation is not just about “looking” at an object, person or situation and making conclusions. It is about getting as much information possible using all our senses of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch.
Is this a fragrant or pungent smell? Is the air humid or dry? Are the people speaking too loud or too soft?
As we receive the sensory information, we also need to observe the thoughts that appear and validate it with others who are going through the same experience.
I don’t like the smell, it is unpleasant. Do others find this smell pleasant?
As you practice observation more often, you’ll soon realise that people see, smell, hear, taste and feel things differently from yourself. For example, the viral video of a dress as depicted below. Some of you may view the dress as black and blue, while others see it as white and gold. This is not an illusion. Scientists revealed that this is a difference in human colour perception.
When we see, smell, hear, taste and feel things differently, we can assess whether this difference stems from our biases. When we learn to see things “as it is”, we get closer to the truth of the matter and that is not based on an inaccurate interpretation based on one’s past experiences or biases.
For example, one common scenario is in giving and receiving feedback between managers and employees. After a feedback session, employees may feel demotivated, choose to reduce their effort and believe their effort is unrecognised or valued by their manager. However, from the manager’s perspective, they believe feedback helps to improve performance, instil motivation and develop the employee’s skill. While both are involved in the same conversation, the perspectives that came out of it are different. Had the manager observed carefully, they might be able to sense employee discomfort, anticipate a misunderstanding and adjust their behaviours accordingly.
We are all living the same experience, just different realities.
Bias is an inclination towards a certain outlook, judgement or temperament, whether or not the inclination is just, fair or truthful. When we rely too much on our biases, there is a tendency to exclude ideas, perspectives, people and situations that go against our inclination, even if our inclination can be inaccurate or potentially harmful. For example, when meeting the CEO of a successful company for the first time, we might anticipate them to be an assertive male and it turns out to be a soft-spoken female. Subsequently, the way we respond to the CEO might be based on our unconscious biases of female leaders.
Biases can both be conscious and unconscious. There is no one easy solution to recognise biases because humans are full of them! Psychologists have studied and discovered a wide range of biases, and more is still to be discovered. A sampling of the unconscious biases can be found here.
What we can do is to continue to learn about the different biases and compare them with our observation and experiences. Here are a few reflective questions you can ask yourself to identify whether your thoughts, behaviours or situation has a biased influence.
- What are the facts? What is included and what has been omitted?
- Who is involved? What is their status and role in the situation? What are their perspectives?
- What are the different interpretations of this experience? What is the personal logic behind this interpretation? What are the emotions involved?
- What possible biases are at play within my thought process? How about the thought process of others?
But if we let it run our lives, it will be detrimental to our well-being, our performance at work, isolates ourselves from others, and prevents us from living a fulfilling life. When fear does arise, examine it and determine if it’s a real or imagined fear. Take small steps to confront it and prove that you no longer let fear control your life. Finally, with every successful confrontation, take the time to celebrate, for you have become more confident, resilient, and more open to new worlds.
Appreciating Similarities & Differences
As our workplaces and communities become increasingly diverse, we will all need to take the time to learn about each other and adapt to one another. You cannot expect this learning process to take place over a short time. With every new member, there will be multiple opportunities for continuous learning of each other’s similarities and differences. To do so, we need to adopt a growth mindset as well as appreciate and celebrate our similarities and differences.
Adopt a Growth Mindset
Dr Carol Dwek coined the term “Growth Mindset” when researching the difference between academically successful children and those who were not. In her research, she discovered that children with a “Growth Mindset” outshone children with a “Fixed Mindset”. Growth Mindset is an attitude and a way of looking at challenges as an opportunity to improve one’s abilities. People with a Growth Mindset believe that intelligence is gained through effort and are not inherent. Whereas, “Fixed Mindset” are people who believe that intelligence is an innate talent that cannot be improved on.
A Growth Mindset can help to accelerate your ability to become more inclusive. By adopting a growth mindset, our confidence strengthens and our relationships improve, A person with a “Growth Mindset” doesn’t feel stressed if they make a mistake or are faced with unfamiliar situations or persons because they see it as an opportunity to learn something new. When it comes to practising inclusion in your workplace or community, adopting a Growth Mindset will keep your mind open and curious so that you can continuously learn about people who come from culturally diverse backgrounds.
Celebration is a confrontation, giving attention to the transcendent meaning of one’s actions.
Abraham Joshua Heschel
Show appreciation and celebrate
When we maintain a Growth Mindset and practice our observation skills, we will begin to notice cultural differences and similarities. When similarities or differences are made known, more often than not, the similarities and differences are overlooked and we don’t take the time to appreciate or celebrate them.
Appreciations and celebrations need not be a grand gesture of organising parties, or buying extravagant gifts. An appreciation could be as simple as saying “Hey, I appreciated that you took the time to explain and share your thoughts on the issue, even though everyone else had a different opinion.” A celebration could be as easy as “Let’s grab a coffee and talk about our kid’s graduation!
As we uncover similarities and differences of the people we interact with, over time, we get a complete picture of the person, and not just a 2D caricature that is based on generalised stereotypes.
Communication is in everything we do. It is not only about what we choose to say, but also what we choose not to say. Communication is in ordering our coffee, drafting emails, responding to chats and even in the way we dress, our eye contact, hand gestures and so on. In our everyday communication, we need to be mindful about how our communication is delivered, received and perceived. On a practical level, there are many steps we can take to ensure our communication is inclusive. We can first start with these two actions.
Who’s in the room?
Communication is never a one-way, even if the other party remains silent. Communication is the act of conveying a message from one person to another or from one person to many or from many to many. When conveying a message, we need to be aware of who is receiving the message. Messages, while it might be intended for one person can be received and perceived by many in the room.
For example, your team is tasked to create a marketing strategy for a product that is to be launched in a foreign market. In the brainstorming session, everyone enthusiastically discussed different ideas. The conversation heightened as they discussed an outrageous and unrealistic idea which got everyone engaged except for a quiet team member. The quieter team member eventually raised a lacklustre idea and questioned the viability of the outrageous idea. In response, the team supervisor ignored the question and continued the conversation on the outrageous idea.
In this example, the team supervisor who ignored the question communicated a message to the quieter team member and to the others in the room, which can be interpreted in multiple ways, such as “your question is irrelevant.” or “your input is not important.” The team supervisor may not have intended to convey that message, as he or she might be too engrossed with the excitement that they might not have heard the question. Hence, it is good to take the time before a meeting to recognise who is in the room and be sure to acknowledge them.
Is it safe?
Not only do we need to make note of who is in the room, the tone and emotionality behind the messages can influence the quality of the communication as well. Safety, or rather psychological safety is where people feel safe to show and express their ideas, thoughts and opinions without fear of being humiliated or punished.
If we take the previous example, instead of ignoring the quiet team member, what if the response was a critical remark? How would the quiet team member respond? It’s not to say that you cannot disagree with another. However, there is a distinction between disagreeing with the ideas or opinions put forth by another and criticising or attacking the character.
To be inclusive in our communication, we need to ensure that every individual feels safe enough to express themselves. There are many ways to foster psychological safety. Some of the ways include asking questions curiously, promote healthy conflict, give voice to your peers or your direct reports.
Conflict is inevitable. It is part of life. Without conflict, we will not learn from each other and many problems might be left unsolved. Once we have accepted that conflict is unavoidable, we can focus our efforts in managing and resolving conflict. While many frameworks look into managing conflict, we’ll share two steps with regards to inclusion.
Learn about Cultural Values
Most conflict comes from misunderstanding. A word can carry various meanings. For example, the word “rubber” means “a latex commodity” in certain countries and “eraser” in other countries. However, if requested from an American, “rubber” can bring along with it potential trouble.
If a simple word as “rubber” can carry various meanings and possible misunderstandings, what damage can non-verbal languages bring! Behind the verbal and non-verbal communication are unspoken rules, the rules that are taken for granted and deeply assumed by a culture group. Cultural Values have long been researched by psychologists and social scientists, which can range from individualism vs collectivism, being vs doing, long-term vs short-term, competitive vs cooperative and many more.
Learning about Cultural Values requires many separate discussion as this is a wide area of research. To be a more inclusive person, we need to take the time to understand the cultural values that are behind the speech and action of others. Only then, we can appropriately extend our respect and adjust our actions and behaviour to include others.
Be Patient. Be Persistent.
In a culturally diverse environment, there is no one right way of managing or resolving conflict. Diverse stakeholders involved in the conflict come from different contexts, speak different languages, and even hold different beliefs and values. As you tease out the complexities of the conflict, one thing for certain is that you need to be patient and persistent.
A conversation held among native speakers may progress faster than among a group of non-native speakers. Among non-native speakers, you will need to exercise your patience as the people involved require the time and effort to find the right words to express themselves.
At some point, you might wonder whether managing or resolving the conflict is worth it and may choose to give up. Please don’t give up. Ask for help, advice or support where possible. While it can be challenging, as long as you stay persistent, progress can be made in resolving the conflict or at least, lessons will be learned from the experience.
The more you know yourself, the more patience you have for what you see in others.
Are you ready?
Practising inclusion is more important now than ever before, but developing inclusion as a skill is not easy. The skills of inclusion which are to increase our awareness of bias, appreciate similarities and differences, practice inclusive communication and manage conflict is often uncomfortable and challenging. As difficult as this can be, we all can learn, grow and become a more mindful, compassionate and inclusive versions of ourselves. While this is not an exhaustive list in developing inclusion, we hope that the approaches here will be a great place for you to start.
Ling Ling, Tai
Ling Ling is a seasoned Learning and Development Professional with a passion for supporting leaders and teams in leveraging diversity, increasing intercultural awareness, and cultivating inclusive workplaces. Her lifelong work spans across 21 countries and across various industries such as manufacturing, technology, travel and non-profit. Having lived and worked in 6 countries, she believes that openness, compassion and inclusion creates thriving and engaging workplaces.
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