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Blog Post

Rethinking Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace

By Matt Whiat, Founding Partner

Are you happy with your diversity and inclusion training efforts? More specifically, has the training you have invested in led to behaviors you want to see across your organization? If you are like a lot of organizations who are focused on diversity in the workplace and have invested in this effort with inconclusive results, keep reading because there is a different way focused not on the difference, but on the distance between people. The behaviors required to close that distance are what create a more inclusive workplace environment.

Let’s start with a short story of the power of this training. My consulting work takes me to client sites all over the world. I was recently leading a leadership training event just outside Detroit, MI. The group broke for lunch and we went to the company cafeteria. I surveyed the room for a place to sit. Normally, if I didn’t know anyone, I would sit alone and happily enjoy my lunch in private. On that day, and in that moment, there were two factors influencing my decision. The first: I was at a client site so it’s important for me to sit and talk with the clients so I get to know the organization better. The second: a recent conversation on diversity and inclusion with Fred Falker, a Saint Louis based consultant who has spent his life studying workplace dynamics, where he shared his ideas on this subject that were influencing my seemingly small decision such as who I should sit next to at lunch. 

I looked left and saw a group of people I knew from the event. They looked like me, they talked liked me, they were laughing and smiling. A group of men, my age, having a good time. I looked right and there sat a person alone. She did not look like me, she was not the same age, and she was not laughing or smiling. She was quietly eating her lunch (which was very healthy and not like mine) and reading something on her phone. Normally I would go over to the table that seemed less risky from a personal or social standpoint and simply appeared easier – that group of laughing men. But instead, I thought about my conversation with Fred and his thoughts on how the differences that we all see result in distance between ourselves and others. That distance prevents us from knowing the other person. The result of this distance is a perception of difference. 

So reluctantly I walked over to her. “Would you mind if I sat with you to eat my lunch?” feeling like my sophomore year in high school when I was turned down for prom. If I’m honest, while awaiting her response, I thought only one thing: “Damn you, Fred.”    

Training that focuses on building inclusive environments requires an honest and truthful look at ourselves first. Managing diversity in the workplace will most likely be uncomfortable and require some personal courage. However uncomfortable though, as leaders, creating an inclusive workplace is your job. 

As I stood there with my tray of food in hand, standing and waiting to sit, it was if I had made her feel uncomfortable and was feeling uncomfortable myself. I sat down and we ate together. What we talked about and the stories we shared are completely irrelevant. Call them preconceived notions, conscious/unconscious biases or stereotypes but I know that the lines I drew around her to quickly explain what I thought I knew had quickly disappeared in that hour of conversation. The lines were replaced with her stories and personality. The distance that existed between us was closed and the conversation that resulted remains in my memory as to why we need to teach a mindset of distance, not difference, alongside the behaviors that lead to more inclusive work environments.

Diversity is defined as a range of variety, different things. Based on this definition, every organization has elements of diversity in them: age, gender, education type and level, past experiences, sexual orientation, skin color, origin of birth, behavioral tendencies, religion, and many more. Hundreds of differentiators make up the diversity of your organization. As our world becomes global in all aspects of business, there’s been a focus on cultural diversity in the workplace. And with the recent emphasis on the different management styles Millennials want, the focus on age diversity in the workplace is ever present as well.

According to the Society for Human Resource Managers (SHRM), “having a diverse workforce doesn’t automatically translate into an inclusive culture. Rather it’s something that needs to be built intentionally.” Regardless of the diverse makeup of your organization, whether the focus is on gender diversity in the workplace or embracing the different talents of a diverse senior leader team, a change in behaviors is what leads to an environment where everyone feels included. Diversity in the workplace should enhance an inclusive, collaborative environment, one in which each person feels safe and inspired to share their thoughts and gifts and talents, it’s simply a group of people with differing attributes in the same company. Perhaps diverse but not inclusive. Yet the financial and performance motivation to focus on a more inclusive work environment is well-researched and published.

In 2013, a study by Deloitte found that diversity and inclusion led to better business performance (83%), responsiveness to customer needs (31%), and team collaboration (42%). Years later, McKinsey and Company found through their studies that organizations in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians. The motivation for diversity and inclusion training is clear. But is this training working? A review of the studies would suggest, at best, that the current effort is inconclusive.That’s a lot of time and investment for inconclusive results. Perhaps there is a better way.

Fred Falker has spent his life studying organizational effectiveness and the people science behind it. A studies major from Washington University in the 1970s, he’s spent his life dedicated to the relationships between people in the workplace. His work centers around the lines we draw around people and believe them to be real. This belief results in a distance we keep from the other person and we perceive this distance as difference. We draw lines every day for efficiency and sometimes we draw lines for safety. That’s okay. But how often do you draw a line when you don’t need to? When you draw lines around a person, you stereotype. You might think you know about them, but you will never know them. And knowing them is where relationships are formed. Your organization is made of up hundreds of thousands of relationships. It’s how business gets done. 

Chapman & Co. Leadership Institute found these ideas so inspirational that we combined them with our leadership training curriculum and created an inclusion course called, appropriately, Include. In it we teach not only a new mindset of the distance we keep, but also the behaviors that lead to a more inclusive workplace: empathetic listening; the skill of curiosity and the power of open-ended questions to understand someone greater; the technique of telling your story for others to understand you greater, and those seemingly small behaviors that make all the difference: how you behave in a meeting (who spoke the least, who spoke the most), how you on-board new talent, how you structure project meetings to take in a variety of viewpoints, and even where you sit for lunch. In those small decisions lie the feeling of people being included.      

As you work with your team to create a more inclusive working environment, consider the opportunities below and the questions to ask: 

During your on-boarding process:

  •       Do new employees ask questions? Ask open-ended questions such as “how did you make the decision to work here?”
  •       How much time have you spent with new employees at all levels? Schedule the time to sit and listen to new employees
  •       What questions did you have when you started and went through the on-boarding process? Answer those questions for your new hires.
  •       How do you introduce the new employee? Get to know your new employees deeper than their LinkedIn profile.  Share your personal story and understand theirs.

During meetings:

  •       Who talks the most and who talks the least? Before the next meeting send the agenda around and create the space for someone who hasn’t spoken to share their thoughts.
  •       Are there different perspectives represented? Determine what perspectives your current team brings together.
  •       Are people asking questions? If in a leadership role, break down your percentage of listening vs talking in meetings.
  •       Which department is not represented in this conversation and should be?

Client Engagement:

  •       What’s important to my client? Listen with the intent to understand their perspective.
  •       What’s personally meaningful to my client about their work? Invite them to share what’s important to them.
  •       What have you learned from working with this client? Share what the relationship has meant to you.

Team Members:

  •       How well do you know people from outside your team/department? Go first.  Make an appointment to meet with them and get to know their story.


Click here to learn more and register for our upcoming diversity and inclusion training course, Include, on December 15th.

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