Inclusivity manifests itself in the way your people perform.
What do I mean by this? The way you address performance in your organisation is a clear indicator of what you value and respect in an individual. The environment you create is key to drawing out people’s strengths and setting them up to succeed. Inclusivity is about making that environment work equally well for everyone. And herein lies the big challenge, because leaders can say that they want a more inclusive culture within their business - they can challenge their HR teams and people managers to make it happen - but it only manifests itself in the experience of the people. If your people don’t feel valued, respected and listened to, then your much-vaunted inclusivity initiative isn’t worth the digital paper of its PowerPoint deck.
Seeing the world in an inclusive way
Inclusive leaders listen without judgment and embrace diverse thinking. They understand that a broad experience of the world - as captured by people from various backgrounds, creeds, cultures and personal circumstances - will open up innovation and spark new ideas. We all know that working solo (or in silos) tends to confirm biases. We all know that capturing a broad cross-section of opinions will give you a more helpful perspective than relying on the experience of one or two people. Promoting inclusivity gives you that vital perspective.
To take an example: Pellegrino Turri invented one of the first mechanical typewriters at the start of the 19th century. He was motivated by concern for a blind friend and his desire to free her from having to dictate letters. He looked at the world and saw a design gap: that it worked far better for some people than for others, and the result was a step-change in communication which led, two hundred years later, to computer keyboards and the smartphone. We still face these problems today. The world is not optimised for everyone. Just as a wheelchair user faces a daily struggle to ensure that they can get around safely, easily and quickly, so a certain type of business environment may be unknowingly hostile to people from certain backgrounds, be they cultural, educational or whatever else. And if some of your people face an obstacle from the moment they step into the building, they’ll be at a performance disadvantage. Is it their job to overcome it? Or is it the job of the leader, who rightly expects that everyone brings their best self to work every day?
Further to this, we need to remember that equality - giving everyone the same tools to succeed - can work against us. It sounds obvious, but what we need are the right tools to succeed. An expert with wide experience will need less time than a junior to complete a certain type of project. A worker’s cultural background - or age, or physique, or any one of a dozen differentiators - may place different demands on how they achieve a certain goal. Perhaps we should be thinking of equity: of making allowances for our differences so we all have the chance to excel.
Setting the right conditions for success
Leaders can put clear strategies in place to limit bias and promote clarity, and these will help to level the playing field. Obvious examples include rigorous goal-setting, which helps to ground the evaluation of performance in fact rather than opinion. They can also ensure that they capture feedback from a broad array of sources: again, this will mitigate or eliminate unconscious bias. If diversity is the mix, then inclusion is making that mix work effectively, which leaders can do by promoting inclusive language, reinforcing and supporting inclusive behaviour and setting an example through their own behaviour. And then there’s the crucial workplace tool by which almost any problem can be articulated, addressed and solved; perhaps the most powerful weapon a manager of people can employ. It is, of course, the conversation.
Why? Because no one expects anyone to know everything, and not every advantage or disadvantage is immediately obvious to the manager. And any given worker will understand that if their manager or leader is a white man (which, statistically, it’s likely to be) then they’ll probably have a certain experience of the world. But if that manager shows that they’re open to other points of view and actively seeks out perspectives from their team, it will go a long way to demonstrating that inclusivity is important and that it has an active part to play in how the business conducts itself - how it aims to deliver equity. And when it happens in those all-important 1:1s, where the employee has a chance to connect with their manager and air concerns, share opportunities and discuss goals, it feeds back into the relationship and promotes trust. As a worker, there are few things more empowering than to raise a point with your line manager, hear them take it on board, then show how they’ve addressed it. The solution may not always be perfect - often we need to compromise or adjust based on circumstances - but the point remains: I asked, you answered, and in answering you showed me that my opinion and my needs are valued. It’s a thousand times more effective than telling your people that inclusivity will be an important issue over the next financial year.
Getting to the heart of the matter
The 1:1 can also be used to address inclusivity concerns in a more direct way. Managers can work specific questions into the conversation: perhaps along the lines of “Do you feel that others make assumptions about your strengths or weaknesses because of your background/gender/sexual orientation?”. “Do you feel you have to conform, or disguise aspects of your personality, to be successful here?”. Sometimes, it’s worth tackling these questions head-on, particularly if you feel that there’s a specific problem.
Having these frank conversations is the mark of a people-centric organisation - and we are all just people, trying to do our best and make a success of our working lives. Managers should strive to create that personal employee experience, levelling out bias, promoting equity and giving their employees the best environment possible to succeed. But you do it by doing it, not by saying that it’s important. You gauge the employee experience by asking them. If your people feel respected as individuals, they’ll feel confident and valued and then you’ll see them bringing their best selves to work. And that, surely, is the goal here, for the leader, the business and the people.