Inclusion but on whose terms?

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

There barely goes a day without hearing a corporate announcement to do with inclusion (and diversity) in the workplace. Whether it be a strategy, a charter, a statement, a pledge to do better or a consultation; there is some sort of activity that shares promised future activity.

As I look at some of these announcements, I wonder if they will enable and implement meaningful change. Or will it be a performative, superficial action that ticks a box and makes an organisation look good. Or is it going to get to the root of the exclusionary activities in the organisation, dismantle them and create an environment that is inclusive by design?

Recently I read this article: To Tackle Inclusion, We Must Be Honest About Exclusion by Sheree Atcheson and it brought back to the front of my mind recurring thoughts I have. “On who terms is the inclusive environment being built? Does it actually centre the needs of the groups you wish to help, or is it based on what you think it is they need?”

When I’m facilitating inclusion discussions, workshops or leading training, I always tell my clients that whatever work we do in that session is just one part of what is required. Inclusive leadership is a journey, a toolkit that you keep adding to. I encourage them to go, continue learning, self-educate and to go and listen and understand the needs and terms of others.

I also remind them that we all hold bias. We have to take pause to challenge ourselves to dig into the decisions we make, to check we are being equitable in a situation. The benefit of bringing together representative groups allows consideration of all perspectives, as we can tap into each other’s knowledge. Thus, filling any gaps and completing the picture.

Inclusive for who?

Imagine an office where it has been decided to do a team building exercise. There are 2 teams. The official communications received by both teams tell them it will be a full day activity and to expect to be on their feet. They need to meet in the company car park at 7am on Wednesday morning, to meet the minibus that will transport both teams. So far it seems fairly inclusive.

What if I tell you that Team A has been informally consulted and involved in the planning and decision process. Members of Team A regularly speak with or have coffee with the senior management team that has set the team building exercise. The influence of these relationships leads to the decision that it will be an outdoor navigation challenge. (Each team has to navigate to a set location within a time limit). Team A knows how to dress because they indirectly picked the location area, as one of Team A mentioned knowing it well to one of the senior managers. They know to bring maps, compasses, supplies, and things needed. The exercise is familiar to them. The official communications are clear to them because they have been fully included at all times, so they know what to expect, have a plan and have on team experience to help them. The senior management team setting the exercise assumes that because they know members of Team A love this sort of activity and they regularly talk about it in the office, then others will too.

Team B was not consulted (formally or informally) or included in the process so they have vague details at best about what is planned. Luckily a member of Team B overhears 2 Team A members in the office kitchen discussing the need to wear walking shoes, layers and waterproofs. Team B shares this information in time with fellow teammates. They are grateful as they can plan to bring and wear suitable clothing.

The day of the exercise arrives.  The minibus sets off. The activity is explained during the journey. For the first time Team B has full information about the task at hand and they now have to figure out quickly the tools they need to complete the task. They know there is a time limit and they don’t want to be penalised or be accused of underperforming or not showing willing. Unlike Team A none of them are particularly skilled at orienteering as their after-work activities are focused on different interests.

Team B decide to download an orienteering app and hope they have sufficient mobile phone signal to get to the target destination. They also ask to borrow a map from Team A.

Team B is between a rock and a hard place. The rules don’t ban them from following Team A; however, it means they will definitely come in second place and lose the task.

Team B need to decide on their plan. Should they take a chance to use the app and borrowed map to get to the destination? If they get there first, they will have succeeded.

Team B decide to go for it, challenging themselves and throwing themselves into an unfamiliar task.

At the start point each team is given a safety locator and an experienced independent outdoors person is assigned to each team. The independent is only allowed to intervene if they get so far off course, they won’t complete in the time limit. Or if someone gets injured and needs rescuing.

The task commences. Due to being fully included and aware and knowledgeable on how to navigate the landscape Team A ‘wins’.

Team B finishes just within the time limit, which is a commendable effort considering how new this was to them all. However, in the eyes of senior management all they see is a team lagging behind. From their viewpoint the task was clear, this sort of activity is the talk of the office after all; so, Team B simply did ok.

The point of my example story (yes, it is deliberately extreme) is you can see that Team B was excluded and the impact that exclusion had. They did not begin on an equal footing, they were not consulted formally or informally, it was assumed that the views and knowledge of some of the office, reflected the whole office. In reality, Team B had less information and experience. Yet Team B was expected to perform at the same level as Team A. You can see the flaws in the whole approach.

This is akin to inclusion strategies or plans that are drawn up by some and then applied to others. In the example inclusion was on Team A’s terms, lacking true understanding of all of those due to be involved.

How you can avoid this scenario in your workplace (moving from exclusion to conscious inclusion)

1. Engage, listen then act.

Engage all voices and actively listen. Check and challenge you are recording what has been said and not what you think has been said or you wish to hear. Armed with this information you are now in a position to act.

2. Co-create

Co-create the plans with the range of voices represented in the organisation (include majority groups and underrepresented groups). Keep them at the table, listen to them. Have a mechanism in place so they can indicate if things are not working or veering off course. Respect their input. Act according to their needs, not to the needs you think you see.

3. Communicate, then communicate some more.

In the story I shared, vague and inconsistent communication made it difficult (and unrealistic) for Team B to perform on an equal basis. It was assumed they were knowledgeable and in the loop. In reality they were not.

Great communication, and consistent access to information via their networks enabled Team A to thrive.

From this point forward remind yourself that everyone is your Team A. Make sure information is clearly and consistently available to all. Check it is understood. Take on feedback and seek to reduce and remove gaps or flaws in the system. Monitor performance and continually improve to ensure it is meeting the needs.

Final words

Ultimately you are seeking to recognise and manage the moments of exclusion. As a leader, work to remove exclusion by design.  Aim to include by default and remember the nuances of what inclusion is, feels like and propagates, is different across your teams.  As I stated earlier, use listening to inform this work and co-create solutions that align with and address what the different groups have identified and asked for. Remember this is a continual journey, and consistent action is required to make progress.

When you start to do the above, you begin to move from inclusion being on the terms of a select few, to it truly being on the terms of all.