Meaningful Diversity: Creating Cultures of Inclusion
In the fitness room the other day, I caught a glimpse of a movie trailer on television. A father spoke very open-heartedly with his son about his work as a fireman. He acknowledged the fear that welled up in him when he looked into a small, dark room filled with life-threatening heat and flames, and described the instinct to run in the opposite direction.
He had to pause in a safe hallway and assess the situation, the father explained, consciously remember why he had chosen his work - and why he must go forward into the fire despite his fear. Strange as it may sound, I find creating a culture of inclusion to be a lot like this.
People differ in so many ways that wherever two or more are gathered "combustion," in one form or another, is likely to follow. Although they may be uncomfortable at times, these differences are vital. Our challenge is to understand this sometimes fiery vitality and, despite discomfort or fear, make a conscious decision to move forward anyway. If we can do this, the invisible walls that divide people begin to burn away and the benefits of their shared presence and participation can emerge.
As H.E.B. grocery spokesperson Winell Herron, Group Vice-President for Public Affairs and Diversity, noted at a recent presentation before the Texas Diversity Council, U.S. businesses initially accepted cultural diversity initiatives because it was the legal thing to do, and only later because it was the right thing to do. Now, as our language is shifting from diversity to inclusion, people are discovering that creating environments where differences are actively sought out and everyone is valued is also a smart thing to do. This grocery chain's business case for embracing diversity has focused on increasing innovation, attracting and retaining top talent, accessing a larger supplier base, retaining and expanding existing markets, and increasing revenue.
How do you motivate leaders and their teams to begin the long journey toward a true culture of inclusion when they haven't even glimpsed, much less experienced, what is possible? Again, this is like asking someone to leave what is safe, comfortable and known and walk into a fire - for no apparent reason. Then there are those who have been working to bring about change for a long time and are overwhelmed by the challenge and "underwhelmed" by the results. How do you help keep everyone moving forward when they're feeling weary and unrewarded? Here are some tips from my work at Highest Vision to help you foster a culture of inclusion in your workplace:
UNDERSTAND THAT CULTURE SHIFTS TAKE TIME. Working with people is an incredibly complex and rewarding task: the greater the preparation, the higher the potential for big pay offs. Like gardening, creating a culture of inclusion is an organic process. You must plan what you want to grow, till the soil, provide water and fertilizer, select and plant a variety of "seeds," and nurture them along. Storms will sweep through and you'll have to protect your seedlings, and do some replanting. And just like in gardening, the timetable and precise form this new culture takes will be beyond your control. Be patient and have faith.
BEGIN BY FOCUSING ON COMMONALITIES. Stabilize your current environment by ensuring that everyone feels valued and is united in a shared purpose - when this is compelling enough, differences are transcended. Take this further by helping your staff see each other as human beings, rather than simply human "doings." Create opportunities for people to talk and socialize together beyond their work duties, around issues that apply to a broad range of people. Topics like parenting, providing care for an aging parent, coping with illness and death, and financial management help people to realize that we're all in this thing called life together.
WORK WITH YOUR GROUP TO DEVELOP YOUR OWN "BUSINESS CASE." Saying that a culture of inclusion is simply a good thing to do or promising it will produce immediate business success will set the initiative up for failure. Change requires energy, and generic statements won't provide you with enough fuel for your journey. Create discussion forums. After talking about what you believe is possible, invite people to talk about their ideas, values, concerns and fears. Ask thought-provoking questions, such as: what might be possible if we didn't put limits on people based on our own needs, perspectives, fears, and comfort zones? What do we need so everybody can thrive here?
RE-EVALUATE EXISTING SYSTEMS AND BUILD NEW ONES. Once your staff understands the potential benefits to creating a culture of inclusion -- increased staff morale and more innovation powered by diverse perspectives to name but two -- you're ready to enter the fire. Use this as an opportunity to review processes in your organization, like hiring practices, sourcing your goods and materials, marketing, meeting management, mentoring, and compensation. Leave no stone unturned. Just because that system, language, or set of decisions used to serve the organization well doesn't mean it continues to do so. Then, figure out what new efforts are needed to get you where you want to go.
Our work world has the capacity to close the gulfs that separate people - and demonstrate the great value of doing so. Creating an inclusive culture requires first opening our own hearts and then extending invitations to others to do the same. What we can count on is that our minds will follow. By showing up as willing students and teachers for each other, our wisdom and productivity increase exponentially. As business leaders, we must continue to consciously enter the "fire." The rest of the world is counting on us.
Susan J. Schutz founded Highest Vision in 1999. Highest Vision services - executive coaching, leadership development, and team building -- reflect her deep conviction that professionals can be attentive to their "bottom lines" while also creating lives worth living and businesses that contribute to the good of all. For a free subscription to VantagePoint, Highest Vision's free E-zine for trailblazers in life and business, go to http://www.highest-vision.com.
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