“Inclusion is a verb. A conscious act that requires ongoing implementation,” says inclusion thought leader and Axiom associate, Jiten Patel, in this special article to mark National Inclusion Week in the United Kingdom.
“When organisations talk of inclusion it’s easy for our takeaway to be that it’s a state of being, a passive descriptor for a harmonious culture.
But nothing is further from the truth. Conscious inclusion is ever-evolving, never-ending, always-active – it’s a ‘doing’ thing.”
Aristotle is accredited with having said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit.”
Inclusion then is like that. It’s about all those everyday actions that become habit-forming. It’s something we must keep working at, which is why inclusion is a verb – and why we must each take action.
So, whether you’re aiming to be a more inclusive leader or striving to establish a culture of inclusion across your organisation, here Jiten discusses the steps and missteps he sees leaders and their organisations making. Most importantly, he shares pragmatic ways you can embrace inclusion and avoid common pitfalls.
Diversity does not equate to inclusion
The single biggest mistake an organisation can make is to equate diversity with inclusion. They’re not interchangeable.
One lovely, often cited, quote to help illustrate the difference is that, “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion being asked to dance.”
Just take neurodiversity as an example. There’s a profound difference in experiences between those who are neurotypical and those who are neurodiverse.
And research* shows “onlyness” increases stress. Being the only one in a team with any given diversity characteristic – be it visible (or not) and declared (or not) – can significantly impact someone’s sense of belonging and their productivity.
Diversity matters but it is acceptance, followed by how we actively accommodate it, that results in inclusion.
The importance of inclusive leadership coaching
To genuinely understand others, leadership skills must evolve.
The most transformative step a leader can take? Engage with an inclusive leadership coach. Why? Because the subject matter is both nuanced and evolving, and the required learning a personal journey.
Not every leader’s journey begins in the same place or evolves in the same way – our beliefs, experiences, and awareness (both of ourselves and others), all impact it.
What many leaders do share is a deep-seated fear that they will say or do the wrong thing. Yet few want to admit their knowledge gaps, for fear of being seen as not knowing (particularly by their peers).
Building a relationship with an executive coach who has a strong understanding of inclusion offers a private, safe space, where leaders can be vulnerable and let their guard down. It’s a place where they:
- Don’t have to be perfect.
- Can be open, without fear of judgement.
- Can bridge their knowledge gaps with tailored support & learning.
Asking and assessing ‘Am I truly an inclusive leader’?
Self-proclaimed inclusivity isn’t enough. It can even be a sign that someone is talking a great game but isn’t genuinely engaged – sometimes referred to as ‘virtue signalling’.
Enlightened leaders continuously assess and reassess to glean insights as to where their knowledge gaps are, and where their behaviours fall short. I’ve yet to meet a leader who doesn’t have any gaps – me included.
Self-awareness is at the heart of effective leadership. But awareness only morphs into inclusion when we act to close those gaps. And that’s the skill of a great coach – they not only hold up a mirror but empower a leader to think through what action they can take to bridge those gaps.
The most powerful traits of inclusive leaders: Courage, compassion & empathy
Time and again we see leaders focused on task management rather than people management. But when we shift the focus to people, the tasks tend to look after themselves. This requires courage to move out of our comfort zone; to empower our people to deliver. As Brene Brown has said, courage involves uncertainty, risk and personal exposure. Do you, as a leader, have the courage to trust the people in your teams to deliver?
The more senior a leader you are, the greater the responsibility to make your teams effective. One of the unlocks to a high performing and effective team is to create a culture of psychological safety for them. Doing so requires both compassion and empathy, alongside courage.
Inclusion’s emerging trends
Inclusion is ever evolving. In the last year there have been two significant shifts – certainly in the USA and UK anyway. While neither has just ‘popped up’ they’ve certainly gained traction these last 12 months.
The first is a greater acceptance of neurodiversity. The other is an understanding that cultural norms influence communication styles – that one size won’t fit all.
With hybrid working, new challenges have surfaced – particularly for those who started their careers in lockdown.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this young generation of professionals are finding communication and interaction more difficult than those more seasoned to an in-person workplace.
They too could benefit from an executive coach and additional communications skills training. This would supplement the support they receive from their leaders, since these leaders are still too adjusting to new ways of working and managing. We are indeed in unprecedented times.
Today’s leaders need to agilely adapt to a fast and ever-changing business environment. They have increased responsibility to coach and mentor their teams – and to nurture those who are struggling to find their place and feel included.
Again, it comes back to this idea that inclusion is a verb.
Technology’s role: a bridge to understanding
Inclusion has found a new ally in tech. Virtual reality, for example, offers unprecedented opportunity. Imagine a world where leaders experience life through different lenses – be it gender, race, age, or physical ability.
Stepping into someone else’s shoes, albeit virtually and temporarily, is a powerful way to show rather than tell someone how difference and exclusion feels. It’s a bridge to fostering compassion, empathy, and understanding.
3 practical things every leader can do to build an inclusivity habit:
1. Establish a team charter for inclusion. A co-built team charter is a great way to encourage open conversations about inclusion. It starts building a Psychologically Safe environment – where team members feel safe enough to voice concerns, contribute, and offer praise, without fear of retribution.
2. Seek feedback. Ask your team to point out exclusionary behaviours and be clear with them about how to do so. This takes courage – both for you and them.
There’s much research to show that people emulate their leaders so show courage by saying:
‘I have biases that I don’t always see, and I’d appreciate it if you could call me out when you see it’.
Doing so makes it far more likely they too will find the courage to respond.
Come on, is it really possible for my team to ‘call me out’ when I display exclusionary behaviours or biases?
It is. And, let me explain how you can encourage it with an example. I’ve chosen this given I’ve recently watched the Barbie movie with one of my daughters.
Let’s say in my next work meeting I use a microaggression by referring to ‘dumb blondes’.
I need to go further than having already asked my team members to ‘call me out’ if they hear me using such microaggressions – I also need to make it safe for them to do so.
That means shifting my behaviour from reaction to reflection and response, when they give feedback. Then giving them examples of how they can constructively offer it.
“Jiten, you know that was an interesting term you just used – what does that mean, or can you tell me more about why you used the term ‘dumb blondes’?”
I’d also tell them if they don’t feel comfortable raising it in the session, it’s fine to catch me afterwards and say:
“By the way Jiten, I wasn’t comfortable with you using the term ‘dumb blondes’ in that meeting because it’s pejorative, and you asked us to call you out if you use microaggressions.”
This becomes even easier when there’s a co-built team charter already in place. All a team member then needs to do is bring attention back to it and say: “I personally feel the term ‘dumb blonde’ doesn’t align with our team charter”.
3. Take an assessment and work through the results with a coach. This will help you understand where the gaps in your current knowledge, skills and behaviours are.
There are numerous assessments available, such as the Harvard Implicit Association Tests (IATs), which is free to take. IATs have been around for the better part of 20 years and millions have taken them.
They aren’t a perfect science, providing a snapshot in time. Still, they give an indication of where a person sits on an inherent bias spectrum and self-awareness is the springboard to ongoing, habit forming, action.
Actions speak louder than words and the actions of leaders echo throughout an organisation. They become habitual, eventually dictating ‘the way we do things around here’ to form culture.
Inclusive cultures are leader-led, evolving, and driven. They are always active, which is exactly why inclusion is, and always will be, ‘a verb’.
Jiten Patel partners with leaders to create high-performance cultures of belonging, by maximising workforce diversity through conscious inclusion. He is an equity diversity and inclusion strategist and practitioner, consultant, coach, and mentor.
* McKinsey&Co, One is the loneliest number, 29/01/19, K Sneader & L Yee.