Founder of Consciously Unbiased, an organization helping companies meet their diversity and inclusion goals.
It’s no secret that the culture wars are ramping up as we approach the 2024 presidential election. America is culturally and politically divided, according to a poll by NBC. In some places, diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives are also receiving criticism, with states such as Florida and Texas rolling them back in part due to the viewpoint that diversity programs amplify divisions.
But as the founder of a company that helps other organizations create more inclusive workplaces, I believe many of us have taken the concept of being inclusive and have inaccurately translated its meaning. From my perspective, many of us have lost the ability to see the nuances in another’s perspective, which is preventing us from being able to move forward.
It’s important to overcome false narratives or polarizing talking points about DEI that don’t speak to facts. To me, the reality is some people might be afraid they may not be able to compete from a skill-based perspective. However, the true underlying purpose of DEI is to let the best talent win. One could argue that being anti-diversity is anti-capitalism. By failing to put guidelines in place that allow the best product or person to rise to the top, we’re keeping some of the most talented people from the market.
Still, in 2023, it seems as though focusing on the “D” in DEI is deepening divides rather than building bridges, so I believe the key is for corporations to put the emphasis on the “I,” aka inclusion. This approach shouldn’t discount systemic equities some people face, but it is a way to help employees find commonalities.
Although our individual circumstances might be different, the commonality is that we all experience personal challenges. That is part of being human. This is at the heart of what inclusion actually is. We need to get back to a place where, at least in the work environment, we stop focusing only on our differences and start focusing more on where we have common ground and what we need to achieve together. Staying polarized and divided will hold us back from making meaningful progress, being innovative or finding the best solutions.
Here are three ways leaders can focus on the “I” in DEI to help create inclusive workplace cultures.
Seek out commonalities.
Often, we’re so focused on how we are different from others that we fail to see the many things we might have in common. I love the “All That We Share” campaign from Denmark because it so wonderfully illustrates how people who look different from one another on the outside have experiences that are similar—whether it’s falling in love, being bullied or having pride in their country.
One exercise to try is to think of a colleague who you perceive to be different from yourself—whether because of ideological differences, such as opposing political views, or various dimensions of identity, such as socioeconomic status.
Take a few minutes to brainstorm and list all the ways you are actually alike. This list could include surface-level things, such as being the same gender, or it could include information you either know or have actively sought out by having a conversation with this person, such as sharing the same hobby or growing up in the same area.
By proactively focusing on the commonalities you share, you’ll build a habit of making connections with those who you perceive to be different, which is an important step in creating cultures of inclusion.
Share a time when you didn’t feel like you belonged.
Here is another exercise you might consider trying in a recurring meeting (if you don’t lead the meeting, suggest it to the leader as a team- and empathy-building exercise): Share and ask others to share a scenario about a time when you felt excluded. It could be in the workplace, at school, at a party or anywhere.
For example, one team member at a partner organization practicing this exercise shared her story of coming to the U.S. from Asia, not knowing English and going to school where kids wouldn’t play with her and made fun of her name. Her team could feel her pain even though their backgrounds were different because almost everyone has had the experience of feeling like an outsider at one time or another.
Inclusion is a practice that can be strengthened by creating opportunities for people to share their stories. We might be able to rationalize our viewpoints when they differ from others, but learning about the stories of members of your team helps build empathy for one another. The result is it makes it easier to listen than to judge when you inevitably disagree.
Explain to your staff the facts-based narrative.
To build a culture of collaboration over competition and help team members feel seen and included, try practicing the “shine theory” at work. Coined by podcast hosts Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow, the premise is that when you help others on your team rise, you all shine. Kindness creates connections and allies, which builds feelings of inclusion. Make it a habit to look for an opportunity to help another person shine, therefore building a culture of psychological safety. A few ideas to get you started:
• Amplify someone’s voice in a meeting who you believe is not being heard.
• Tell your boss about something positive that a co-worker did.
• Offer to help a colleague who is stuck on a project or process.
• Congratulate a teammate who got a stretch assignment (even if you’re disappointed it wasn’t you).
• Publicly praise a teammate, whether via message or in a meeting.
Even small moves can have a big impact on culture over time. By focusing on the “I” in DEI, people of all backgrounds will feel more motivated to build inclusion at work rather than getting stuck on divisions. While it might feel like polarization is tearing our workplaces, seeking out and remembering our commonalities can ultimately help us move forward—together.
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