As we’ve mentioned on this blog before, the act of establishing a successful diversity and inclusion initiative is no simple task. But when you stop to think about the concept of workplace diversity and inclusion, it can be broken down into a fairly simple three-part framework:
1. Diversity describes who is working in your organization, and inclusion describes how those people are working.
2. You’ve achieved true inclusion when each employee is valued for who they are, is able to fully contribute, and feels comfortable sharing their ideas, perspectives and opinions.
3. The value of different perspectives is that, when managed well, they improve problem solving and drive innovation which, in turn, boost profits.
There’s a beautiful logic to this sequence of ideas, and a lot of compelling research (explored in previous blogs) to back it up. But it all hinges on point number two: You’ll never be able to take advantage of different perspectives if employees don’t feel comfortable enough—consistently and across the organization—to share them.
This brings us to the central question of this post: How do you foster a safe, inclusive environment that inspires employee participation? Here are eight tips to get you on the right track.
1.Offer diversity and inclusion training. As I discussed in my last post, forced diversity training often leads to negative results. But that doesn’t mean that training isn’t a crucial foundation for all inclusion efforts. Offer diversity and inclusion training, and lots of it, on cross-cultural competencies, decision-making skills, implicit bias, personality and more. Such training will help employees learn how to better understand themselves and others, so they’re more likely to acknowledge and accept differences.
2. Manage workplace conflict effectively. If you’re going to encourage everyone to share their diverse ideas and perspectives, you have to accept that some conflict is inevitable. Conflict is often seen as a negative or even destructive thing, but it can actually be positive and productive. The difference is in how conflict is seen and managed. To manage conflict effectively:
· Focus on a common purpose. When you want sushi and she wants falafel, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that you both want lunch. Focusing on the shared goal invites other suggestions and encourages compromise. It’s often the same in business.
· Focus on facts, not opinions. Basing decisions on hard data helps lower the emotional temperature of debate.
· Refuse to tolerate personal attacks. Conflict can be healthy as long as it’s about a course of action. It’s never healthy when it gets personal.
· Listen without judging.
· Be open to new ideas.
· Have leaders speak last. Few people are willing to challenge the leader, and that’s especially true in hierarchical cultures. So if you really want to hear what everyone thinks, leaders should speak last.
3. Establish a zero tolerance policy for unacceptable behavior.Publish and enforce standards of acceptable behavior. I’ve seen too many organizations in which management looks the other way when star performers break the rules. Trust me: No matter how much revenue someone generates, it isn’t enough to compensate for what it will cost you when a racist remark goes unchallenged or there are no consequences for an expletive-filled tantrum.
4. Try not to favor one cultural norm over another. I don’t see much overt discrimination in workplaces, but unfortunately I see a lot of signals that reinforce imbalances. For example, I can’t remember the last time I went into a US business at year-end and didn’t see a Christmas tree. That said, I rarely see those same places decorated to honor other holidays. The message, however unintentional, is that some cultural or religious traditions are more important than others. I’m not against Christmas trees, but I do believe that giving employees permission and flexibility to express themselves fosters trust. Try encouraging your employees to decorate for other holidays, or grant employees “floating” paid holidays that can be used to celebrate what matters to them.
5. Tactfully expand comfort zones. When visiting other cities, I often research exhibitions at local museums and go see the one that sounds least interesting. As much as my instinct tells me to go see another exhibit of French impressionism or early 20th century photography, I’ve discovered a lot of wonderful art by going out of my comfort zone.
Face it: Most of us seek the familiar in business, too. We might use the same people over and over as a sounding board for our ideas, for example. Instead, try seeking opinions from those you’re least likely to talk with. And encourage those you work with (or who report to you) to do the same. The more often we seek the unfamiliar, the wider our comfort zone gets, and the more open to diverse perspectives we become.
6. Consider how physical space impacts inclusivity. Which is the more powerful statement? Saying that you like to read or having a floor-to-ceiling bookcase in your living room? Space matters. So, when companies make space available for nursing mothers, those seeking to pray, or introverts who want to recharge, it reassures people that it’s OK to be themselves. And if they can be themselves, they are more likely to fully participate.
7. Listen to employees. The fastest way to kill trust in any inclusion initiative is to tell employees that their perceptions are invalid. Yet I’ve often seen senior leaders argue with employees who don’t attribute progress to the same metrics. The whole point of inclusion is to see other points of view. If employees are telling you that they still don’t feel heard at meetings, for example, do some serious thinking about why they feel that way. And then observe the next meeting as dispassionately as possible. What do you see?
8. Make inclusion everyone’s responsibility. It’s tough to establish an inclusive workplace if the entire responsibility falls on one person’s—or one team’s—shoulders. In fact, isolating responsibility is counter to the whole concept of inclusion! Instead, encourage all employees to hold each other accountable, to express themselves, to speak up, and to challenge conventional wisdom.
Inclusion is a process, not an event. I believe these steps will further the process, but they are far from definitive or exhaustive. Besides, any approach to diversity and inclusion wouldn’t really be inclusive if it didn’t reflect other thinking, too. Would it?