Intentionally inclusive: everyday actions to create more respectful and inclusive workplaces

Being an inclusive leader requires us to understand, and fundamentally challenge, the biases and privileges entrenched in dominant Anglo male work cultures that the #MeToo phenomenon has begun to uncover.
 

The #MeToo movement has shocked many by highlighting that making harassment illegal, and having policies and training, has not actually made workplaces free from harassment, let alone genuinely inclusive. 

It turns out that introducing anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies is much easier than challenging established practices. As we hear increasing allegations of ‘boys club’ work cultures and ‘lecherous’ behaviour by public figures, we often find that people have known about the behaviour for a long time, but haven’t felt able to challenge it.

Catherine A. McKinnon wrote in the New York Times last week of women alleging sexual harassment, over decades of her research, that ‘even when she was believed, nothing he did to her mattered as much as what would be done to him if his actions against her were taken seriously’. The women’s starting inequality made it hard for them to push for action and change. But, she says, right now, ‘power is paying attention’.

‘Perhaps it takes a moment like this’, as Australian journalist David Leser says, ‘for men to truly wake up.’

In workplaces, it has to be leaders – men and women – who drive greater inclusion. Beyond policy statements, it is a bigger and more challenging goal to create a psychologically safe, inclusive work environment.

How do you make your organisation a place where all employees feel they belong, can speak up about inappropriate behaviour they experience or observe, and feel valued for their unique talents and perspectives?

It doesn’t happen by accident, or through goodwill alone. Being an inclusive leader requires us to understand, and fundamentally challenge, the biases and privileges entrenched in dominant Anglo male work cultures that the #MeToo phenomenon has begun to uncover.

It’s up to all of us to challenge inappropriate behaviour and take action.

Leaders must intentionally choose to be inclusive in how they behave and the decisions they make. If we’re not consciously inclusive, as former Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick said, it’s likely we’re unconsciously or unintentionally excluding people.

This matters to organisations because diversity of people, background, opinions and ideas is proven to deliver better decisions and generate breakthrough insights. It’s why so many organisations are actively committing to being more diverse and inclusive.

But it is a challenge. The reality is that all of us can find it demanding to include diverse thinking approaches, or people of different gender or from different backgrounds, in our work activities. 

When people come from differing backgrounds, or put forward a different perspective to ours, it’s often uncomfortable. We naturally gravitate to people who are like us (called affinity bias), and we like to have our views confirmed rather than challenged (confirmation bias). 

In organisations, this plays out in a few well-worn habits. We follow what’s been called the ‘usual suspects bias’ to automatically hire or promote people who are like us, because we feel comfortable with them and trust them to get the job done. Groupthink is generated.

We wind up with ‘mirror-tocracies’, far from the meritocracies we all want, where the best skills and ideas flourish. And we can have workplaces where ‘lad cultures’, ‘pervy’ behaviours, dismissive comments, unconscious bias, and outdated stereotypes prevail.

Taking intentional actions to make your work environment more diverse and inclusive goes well beyond avoiding potentially costly harassment complaints. 

 

It’s up to all of us to challenge inappropriate behaviour and take action.

For those in leadership roles, here's some ways to practice intentionally inclusive leadership.

·     Invite feedback from peers and team members about your behaviours, so you know if people are feeling consistently included, and so you can adjust if you need to before problems potentially escalate.

·     Recognise personal biases that may impact your decision-making (remember we all have biases).

·     Make a positive effort to learn more about the experiences of people not in the ‘in-group’.

·     Actively seek out diverse views in your meetings – explicitly invite different perspectives, including from people who are usually quiet.

·     Consider where and when team meetings and social events are held, to avoid inadvertently excluding some people. For example, instead of always having team drinks in the evening, mix it up with some morning teas during the week.

·     Challenge stereotypical comments, assumptions, and language. If a woman manager is called ‘aggressive’, is that about her behaviour, or about someone thinking she should be warmer or softer because she is a woman?

·     Ask explicitly for diversity on recruitment shortlists, speaking panel representations, and in succession planning. 

·     Notice and call it out if some people are given nicknames but others aren’t. It’s an everyday way to make some people feel in and others excluded.

·     Provide flexible work options, using changing technologies, to give a more diverse team opportunities to be involved.

·     Talk with your teams about the proven benefits of diversity and an inclusive work culture (some organisations start meetings by highlighting positive examples).

For organisations, it’s also fundamental to refresh recruitment, promotion and other talent management practices that have typically privileged dominant Anglo male cultures in Australia.

Taking intentional actions to make your work environment more diverse and inclusive goes well beyond avoiding potentially costly harassment complaints. Numerous studies show the benefits include better decision-making, higher employee engagement, more innovation, and better financial performance.

What business leader wouldn’t want to achieve that?