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Cara Struthers

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How to include every one – without involving them

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Firstly, the challenge…

You are director of a small, creative start-up. You have a last minute opportunity to pitch for a sizable piece of work and must pull together a group of people to write a winning proposal overnight. You need your best creative minds in the room as well as people who can work quickly – and late into the night. You know most people will be keen to be involved in such a high-profile project. You know diversity is key to generating the most varied concepts.

So you invite the entire office – fifteen people – to be involved. What better way to leverage a diverse workforce?

What happens when you try to solve it…?

Instead of fostering innovation, creativity and a sense of teamwork, the result is a clash of personalities and ideas, and fundamental disagreements on the best outputs. Sub groups form, excluding others. People’s contributions are carelessly dismissed, withdrawn or even brutally criticised.

As businesses continue to globalise and search for the best talent, it’s never been more important to manage a diverse workforce successfully. We’re increasingly told to foster an ‘inclusive culture’ – one in which individuals feel they can bring their true selves to the workplace, freely express opinions, be respected. A culture where people feel a sense of belonging. But it’s no easy feat.

Now it’s time for you to make a decision

Go-along with others’ opinions, even if you disagree, for fear of being adjudicated? Hold back from voicing alternative suggestions for fear of being judged? If so, you’re in the majority. In fact, 61% of employees commonly feel the need to bend themselves out of shape at work to fit in. In this case, an involved but conflicted team resulted in wasted energy and a poor outcome (they didn’t win the pitch).

When it comes to being inclusive, often people mistake this to mean involving others.

Another pertinent example

Imagine you are a board member at an engineering company. You work hard and are respected by your peers. Over time you’ve noticed the CEO is selective of board members he involves in specific projects. People have different expertise to offer, sure. But he never communicates the rationale behind his decisions.

How do you feel? Probably like you don’t know where you stand. Situations like this can cause discord and tension at the highest level. The crux of the issue here lies in communication. It’s okay to be selective, meritocratic even, but keep people feeling included by explaining why you have chosen a particular group of contributors.

When it comes to being inclusive, often people mistake this to mean involving others.

What can we learn from all this? You can be involved but not included. You can also be included, but not involved. 

So, inclusion isn’t the same as involvement – what’s the difference?

Inclusion is a psychologically safe workplace where everyone is free to express who they are without fear of prejudice or exclusion. An inclusive workplace is one with a sense of belonging and acceptance.

Involvement is about participating in a given activity or situation without consideration of a psychologically safe environment or appreciation for individual uniqueness.

Inclusion can be thought of as something we do (to others) and something we feel (ourselves). We can be inclusive and by doing so help people feel included. Demonstrating inclusion is about displaying a range of behaviours that help people feel valued for their uniqueness as well as part of a group.

The feeling of being included is one of safety, where we’re able to be our best selves and do our best work.

When we involve everyone in a decision or a piece of work we risk threatening individuals’ ability to ‘bring their whole self’ to a situation (opinions, approach and points of view). The focus shifts to appeasing everyone. We may also be involving people for the sake of it rather than bringing them in at times that would add value.

On the contrary, when we involve too few – or fail to communicate the reasons for choosing a certain group – we run the risk of others feeling left out.

Surely people won’t feel included if they’re not involved?

An inclusive culture doesn’t mean involving everyone in everything. This is the myth. If that is the expectation, people’s egos go on the rampage if they aren’t involved in everything and the organisation slowly grinds to a halt.

An inclusive culture is one where everyone feels valued for their uniqueness (beyond role, race or any other type of categorisation of difference); everyone feels they belong because of their differences. 

If the director of the creative agency had involved fewer people in the meeting but communicated the pitch as a company-wide opportunity everyone was part of, everyone would have felt involved regardless of their actual input.

If the CEO had still been selective but hadn’t avoided those he decided not to include, they would have felt better about the situation.

Ultimately, it is about getting the right people in the metaphoric room for the right reasons, at the right time. An inclusive culture is one where actions and decisions can be taken by the right group of people without negatively impacting the degree to which others feel valued or feel they belong.

Employees working in an inclusive culture are more likely to show greater discretionary effort and intent to stay, agree they work in a high-performing organisation, and foster innovation. So it’s worth getting right.

Here are three tips to get you started:

  • Don’t avoid it. Research shows ostracism (no attention) has a greater negative impact on well-being and sense of belonging than harassment (negative attention). Talk to your people and encourage shared accountability. Highlight similarities and differences in the right way.
  • Be explicit. Inclusion does not imply consensus on all decisions. If you’re choosing to involve some people over others explain why. It’s likely there’s a good reason. But still make sure every person and idea is heard. This avoids employees second-guessing the reason for not being ‘picked’. The key is to decide who are the right people? What perspectives do I want to hear? Who can add value? 
  • Pay attention to the small things. Each day we relay thousands of tiny messages through subtleties in our tone of voice and body language. These micro-behaviours, driven by our deeply held beliefs, can reveal how we feel and may reveal our unconscious bias. Promote a positive, inclusive work environment by making contact with others, nod your head when they’re presenting an idea. Talk to your team about how these subtleties might show up in the office, their impact, and how to be more inclusive. 

2 Responses

  1. Great Article! I’m personally
    Great Article! I’m personally going to apply your point around clarification of inclusive culture,”An inclusive culture is one where everyone feels valued for their uniqueness (beyond role, race or any other type of categorisation of difference); everyone feels they belong because of their differences”. Amazing!

  2. Good article, it would be
    Good article, it would be great to be a fly on the wall as teams try to follow your advice. Office politics would soon surface and that’s where real leaders emerge as they battle the bullies and shirkers to create a team environment.

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