3 actions that create an inclusive culture

A few weeks ago I was staying in a hotel in central Amsterdam. I had just gone out for breakfast and strolled back into the hotel to go up to my room. I stepped into the elevator and a young woman followed me in. The trip up to my 5th floor room took around 10 seconds. Within 5 seconds, I had summed her up. I started to panic thinking, oh no, she’s a drug addict, she’s going to steal my purse, I won’t make it to my business appointment this afternoon and I won’t be able to fly home tomorrow without my passport !!!!

All of that in 5 seconds. Of course she did nothing of the sort. She was a 26-year-old (I think) Italian tourist who had just been out partying all night and forgot to take her key-card out with her. So why did I, in less than 10 seconds, judge her so harshly?

That was my unconscious bias talking. I was piecing together information that was missing. And I pieced it together wrongly. I had 5 pieces of information; 1. She had droopy looking eyes at 7.30am. 2. She was very skinny. 3. She had a bad complexion 4. She hadn’t pressed a floor button when she entered the elevator and 5. she said to me in a strong-accented, broken English, while bringing two fingers up to her mouth, “I need cigarette.”

I pieced together what I had and all of a sudden, I thought I had a starving drug addict who need a quick fix and was following me to my room to steal all my money.

I only realised my mistake when we finally reached the fifth floor and I insisted she exit the elevator before me, I almost pushed her out and she resisted, shaking her head. Finally she found the energy to lift 4 fingers and say in Italian, “Quattro”. So, I pressed the fourth-floor button for her and stepped out. I started laughing at myself, terribly embarrassed for making all of those assumptions about her in 5 seconds and vowed not to do it again.

Our unconscious bias works in many ways, and one that is common is when we don’t have much information, we usually fill in the gaps however we feel makes sense. If I had an affinity towards her, I could have made her into an ‘Amy Winehouse-style-rockstar’ and would’ve probably asked her for an autograph. But I couldn’t “see” any affinities, (until she spoke Italian), so I invented the worst.

We do this all the time, day-in, day-out, with our diverse colleagues at work. Diverse teams can be stronger, more creative and more high-performing than homogenous teams[1], but they are only stronger and more effective, if we as team members and team leaders leverage on that diversity and create an inclusive environment. Which means:

  1. being aware of our biases and avoid making assumptions
  2. discovering where our diversities can be complementary rather than a threat and
  3. using small conscious actions to ensure everybody on the team feels valued.

What is Diversity?

Diversity is everything that creates differences between us that can generate a different mindset. It can refer to our age (millennials have a different way of looking at productivity than baby-boomers, believing more flexibility means being able to be more productive[2].) It can refer to our ethnicity, our national culture, our sexual orientation, gender, different physical abilities, the region we were brought up in, our socio-economic background, our education… the list goes on. Have you ever tried to interview a young engineering student and then followed that interview with a communication student? They seem to be planets apart in the way they describe their attributes and skills and how they demonstrate motivation for the job. Unless you modify your listening skills to take in more than just the words they are using you might miss out on hiring the best person for the job.

Diverse teams can take a little longer to become high performing than homogenous teams[3], but once they get past the initial stages of prejudging, stereotyping and making assumptions, they can be more effective. We cannot assume though that just because we hire the eight most creative diverse team members for our next project that we are going to reach our objectives easily. Diversity without inclusion can lead to underperforming teams[4].

 How can we create an inclusive culture?

Avoid exclusion. Not all differences are visible. The invisible ones are generally the ones that generate filling in the gaps with prejudgments and we start labelling our colleagues as ‘unreliable, lazy, not long enough in the company, too long in the company, wants to be noticed, shy…’ . If I see that you have a different skin colour to mine or I hear that you have a different accent, I will put two and two together, ask you questions and eventually will know where our differences lie. This will help me understand how I may have to modify my communication with you or think twice about interpreting what you say. Maybe I will consider the best way to give you feedback in order to not offend you.

When the differences are not so obvious, we don’t realise that we need to modify our behaviour because we don’t ask the same questions. Imagine you have a team member who doesn’t hear very well. You don't see the tiny hearing aid she wears, so it is difficult for you to be aware of this disability. If you don’t know, you won’t make any changes to the way you communicate with her. She may end up feeling a little excluded from the team because she isn’t able to leap in and exchange ideas as freely at meetings, feeling she may not have understood all the details. You also note that she doesn’t offer many suggestions at meetings and you write her off as not very interested in the project and you end up hardly ever asking her for input. In the end run, she will likely feel excluded and lose motivation. However, if you know she has a hearing disability, you start to consider how you can include her more in the team meetings. ‘Should I look at her when I speak so she can read my lips? Should I use Skype with camera rather than just the phone when we speak to help her get the message? Should I ensure the whole team knows about this so that when we have team meetings everybody is more careful?’  That is Inclusion. Making every team member feel valued.

Inclusion means avoiding making assumptions that we are all the same. We are all different and we need to be treated differently. We think differently, behave differently, react differently and therefore we need to communicate differently with each of the people on our team. Inclusion is about modifying small actions to make everyone on the team feel valued and feel as though they belong. This allows everyone to feel they can be themselves. A person who feels they belong, will be more motivated to participate in reaching objectives of the team. A person who feels they belong will feel they have everything to gain in being creative and the team spirit will soar, meaning more retention and better collaboration[5]. Inclusive teams make better business decisions up to 87% of the time and take decisions two times faster with half of the meetings.[6]

What kind of small actions create inclusiveness? They are simpler than you think. Open up, be curious about your colleagues and think before you speak. Say good morning to everyone when you enter the office. Occasionally go and have a coffee with someone you normally wouldn’t share a coffee with. Ensure you give the opportunity to introverts to speak up in meetings. Be aware of your biases when interviewing job candidates or when considering who to promote. As a test, write a list of the people you promoted last year. How similar were they? Were they all men, all women, all white, all engineers, same age, same culture, same education background, same outgoing personality? If so, why?

Even when we have good intentions, our assumptions get in the way, so don’t be too hard on yourself if you occasionally say the wrong thing. Put the error into your bag of 'things to be aware of'. I was at a networking conference in Zurich a couple of years ago where I met an Australian woman who had just moved to Switzerland. She was wearing a wedding ring and carried a beautiful black, patent-leather Prada handbag over her wrist. While chatting to her I asked, “Did you move to Zurich with your husband?” “Actually”, she replied, ‘I moved here with my wife.” Oops. There I was telling her I train D&I and I am the first to make assumptions. I made a mental note to myself to avoid using the word husband and wife in the future and just use, ‘spouse’ or ‘partner’. In English these words are genderless. But we forget our good intentions. Six months later I was talking to a young British man who had just moved to Central America. I saw he was wearing a wedding ring and I was curious how he and his family were integrating, so I asked, “Did you move here with your wife?” “Actually,” he replied, “I came over with my husband.’’ Grrrr….

 

 

[1] ‘Unravelling the diversity-performance link in multicultural teams: meta-analysis of studies on the impact of cultural diversity in teams’, by Günter K. Stahl; Martha Maznevski; Andreas Voigt and Karsten Jonsen, 2007.

[2] ‘Millennials at work’, Bentley University/ November 2014

[3] ‘Unravelling the diversity-performance link in multicultural teams: meta-analysis of studies on the impact of cultural diversity in teams’, by Günter K. Stahl; Martha Maznevski; Andreas Voigt and Karsten Jonsen, 2007.

[4] Idem

[5] Diversity Matters, McKinsey, 2015 Inclusive Leadership: The View From Six Countries, Catalyst, 2014, Driving Retention and Performance Through Employee Engagement, Corporate Leadership Council, 2008 ;

[6] Diversity + Inclusion = Better Decision Making at Work, Erik Larson, Forbes Magazine, September 2017

 

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