While many have offered the latest leadership models and frameworks, we need to first look at the global trends and the business landscapes. Based on research by Deloitte1, four global trends will influence and shape our business environment: 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 and the workplace and shape it to meet future needs. 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 in 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 views and feel safe to show their true and authentic selves. An inclusive workplace or community allows everyone to participate fully in the discussion, decision-making and shaping of 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 demographics, 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 to develop inclusion as a skill to bring out the best in our community.
Diversity is the mix. Inclusion is making the mix work. Andres Tapia
Why inclusion as a skill?
Skill is one’s ability to perform a specific action that leads to a particular result. The results of 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. After many hours of practice, one can become a proficient driver.
Likewise, inclusion is one’s ability to foster inclusive relationships and cultivate inclusive environments. One will need to adopt a different mindset, gain knowledge, and adapt communication styles and behaviours that embody inclusivity. With time, effort and motivation, anyone can develop inclusion as a skill.
How to develop inclusion as a skill?
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 natural 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 as 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 sensory information, we also need to observe thoughts and validate them with others 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 is 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 perception2.
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. Subsequently, they may choose to reduce their effort and believe their action 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 viewpoints might be different. Had the manager observed carefully, they might sense employee discomfort, anticipate a misunderstanding and adjust their behaviours accordingly.
We are all living the same experience, just different realities. Anonymous
Bias is an inclination towards a particular outlook, judgement or temperament, whether or not the tendency is just, fair or truthful. When we rely too much on our biases, we exclude ideas, perspectives, people and situations that go against our inclination, even if our tendency 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, which turns out to be a soft-spoken female. Subsequently, how 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 unconscious biases can be found here3.
We can continue to learn about the different biases and compare them with our observations 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? What was 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?
If we let it run our lives, it will be detrimental to our well-being, our performance at work, isolate ourselves from others, and prevent 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, take the time to celebrate with every successful confrontation, 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. There will be multiple opportunities to continuously learn each other’s similarities and differences with every new member. We need to adopt a growth mindset and appreciate and celebrate our similarities and differences.
Adopt a Growth Mindset
Dr Carol Dwek4 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 believe that intelligence is an innate talent that cannot be improved on.
Growth Mindset can help to accelerate your ability to become more inclusive. By adopting a growth mindset, our confidence strengthens, and our relationships improve. People 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.
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. A celebration could be as easy as Let’s grab a coffee and celebrate your kid’s graduation!
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.
As we uncover similarities and differences of the people we interact with, we get a complete picture of the person and not just a 2D caricature based on generalised stereotypes.
Communication is in everything we do. It is about what we choose to say but what we choose not to say. Communication is in ordering our coffee, drafting emails, responding to chats, and even how we dress, our eye contact, hand gestures, etc.
We need to be mindful of how our communication is delivered, received, and perceived in our everyday communication. 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 one-way, even if the other party remains silent. Communication is the act of conveying messages. It can be from one person to another, or from one person to many, or from many to many. When sharing a message, we need to be aware of who is receiving the message. While they might be intended for one person, many in the room can receive and perceive messages.
For example, your team is tasked to create a marketing strategy for a product launched in a foreign market. In the brainstorming session, everyone enthusiastically discussed different ideas. The conversation heightened as they debated outrageous and unrealistic ideas that got everyone engaged except a quiet team member. The more silent 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.
In this example, the team supervisor who ignored the question communicated a message to the quieter team member and 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?
Safety, or psychological safety, is where people feel safe to show and express their ideas, thoughts and opinions without fear of being humiliated or punished. And so, we need to make a note of who is in the room. The tone and emotionality behind the messages can influence the quality of the communication.
For example, instead of ignoring the quiet team member, what if the response was a critical remark spoken in a harsh tone? How would the quiet team member respond? How will the others in the room perceive this response?
It’s not to say that you cannot disagree with another. However, there is a distinction between disagreeing with the ideas or opinions 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 methods include asking questions curiously, promoting healthy conflict, and giving 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 on managing and resolving conflict. While many frameworks look into managing conflict, we’ll share two steps concerning inclusion.
Learn about Cultural Values
Most conflict comes from misunderstanding. A word can carry various meanings. For example, the term “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 verbal and non-verbal communication are unspoken rules taken for granted and deeply assumed by a cultural group. Cultural Values have long been researched by psychologists and social scientists, ranging 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 discussions as this is a vast area of research. To be a more inclusive people, we need to take the time to understand the cultural values that are behind the speech and actions 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. Various stakeholders involved in the conflict come from different contexts, speak other languages, and even hold different beliefs and values. As you tease out the complexities of the conflict, one thing for sure 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.
Are you ready?
Practising inclusion is more critical now than ever before, but developing inclusion as a skill is not easy. The inclusion skills consist of increasing our awareness of bias, appreciating similarities and differences, practising inclusive communication, and managing conflict are often uncomfortable and challenging. As difficult as this can be, we all can learn, grow and become more mindful, compassionate and inclusive versions of ourselves. This is not an exhaustive list. Though, we hope that the approaches here will be an excellent place for you to start.
- Bourke, J. (2016, April 14). The six signature traits of inclusive leadership. Deloitte Insights. https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/topics/talent/six-signature-traits-of-inclusive-leadership.html
- Rogers, A. (2015, February 26). The Science of Why No One Agrees on the Color of This Dress. Wired. https://www.wired.com/2015/02/science-one-agrees-color-dress/
- List of cognitive biases. (2021). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=List_of_cognitive_biases&oldid=1052318561
- Dweck, C. (2014, November). The power of believing that you can improve. https://www.ted.com/talks/carol_dweck_the_power_of_believing_that_you_can_improve