What inclusion means to me

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By Aduke Onafowokan

08 Oct 2019

Beyond diversity, inclusion is the idea that we can transform the modern workplace into a place where everybody can show up confidently to do their best and contribute to collective success.

As someone who intersections being female and being black, I am often asked about what inclusion and diversity means to me - whilst it is impossible for me to give a response that fully captures what diversity and inclusion means for all women and all women of colour, I often focus on what I think inclusion should be.

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As we celebrate Black History Month in October, it is the perfect time to step back and reflect on what our teams and organisations look like from a diversity perspective and to identify key areas of learning that can be built upon to ensure our people feel safe, valued and engaged.

This is why for me, Inclusion is more than just having access - it’s about having a sense of belonging. Psychology Today states that “a sense of belonging to a greater community improves your motivation, health and happiness” and new research by Harvard Business Review shows that fostering a sense of belonging helps reduce stress levels and consequently improves physical health, emotional well-being, and performance.

Belonging is where people feel truly embedded in your organisation and it’s psyche, to the point where they too are proud to live and breathe your much-adored organisational ‘values’ and become ambassadors.

Often people struggle to distinguish between belonging and inclusion, and one of the easiest examples I use is the family Christmas dinner. We all have relatives that we begrudgingly invite for the family Christmas dinner, often the invitation may even contain the dreaded words - “you don't have to or we know you are busy”, and if they make the unforgivable mistake of indeed attending, we serve them a side of micro aggressions, passing the very clear message - you are here but you are not here. For some, this is how they feel turning up to work each day, like they got the invitation out of courtesy and not because they were really needed or wanted.

This is not necessarily by design, but when organisations focus solely on inclusion and diversity, they may end up playing a numbers game, assuming quantity as a measure of success and focusing on feeding the recruitment pipeline rather than creating a work culture that encourages belonging across the board.

Leaders Go First

The days of directive leadership characterised by command and control are coming to an end. It is no longer good enough to just tell people what to do from the top. Leaders instead must set an example, visibly living their values and holding themselves and others to account. The journey starts at the top, what does the culture look like up there?

The management team often reflects the culture in more ways than one. If you want more belonging and inclusion in your organisation, the first place to look is the leadership team where organisational culture is driven on a daily basis. If your leaders are not living your values, then your wider organisation cannot model the relevant culture and behaviours.

Communication and Trust

To improve employee experience, communication must be guarded vigilantly. When there are gaps in communication, we often fill such gaps with assumptions and even worse false information. These mistruths erode trust which is critical for successful relationships.

When there is a sense of mistrust we end up in situations where people feel micromanaged, unvalued and communication further worsens. This is why leaders have to tackle issues like unconscious bias which may contribute to a lack of trust at work; having open conversations about how these concepts can affect our workplace experience may not fix all the issues but it paves the way for solutions.

Know Your People

You will be amazed by how little you know of your people when you try to get to know them. For example, 121 meetings should not just be about work and performance - it should also be a place to understand each other better. These meetings provide invaluable insights into what motivates and empowers people and offer leaders a real opportunity to connect creatively. Moving from a purely task-driven approach to a more person-centred approach builds a stronger sense of belonging and understanding.

Be Deliberate

Human beings often build a sense of belonging by excluding others. The challenge for leaders is to create work environments where people feel safe, but that sense of safety does not mean excluding others. Deliberately building rapport and actively managing the impact of our actions empowers conscious leadership with people as the focal point. We should constantly look around meeting rooms, team coffee mornings and even office floors and ask, where are the others and how does this make them feel?

Utilising these key concepts will contribute to promoting belonging within our workplaces.

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