IBM: Three Ways Leaders Can Start Building a Culture of Conscious Inclusion

Early in my career, while working at a prior employer, I had a difficult experience with a white co-worker who complained to HR about having his picture published with a black female, me, standing with my arm around his shoulder in a team photo. The company I worked for at the time took all the right steps to reassure me that I had done nothing wrong. But what if they had ignored this situation or had chosen to take no action? The memory of how hurt I felt about being shunned in the workplace because of the color of my skin is something I’ll never forget.

That event was a catalyst for my own diversity and inclusion advocacy. Since that moment, I’ve been committed to embracing every type of person and building teams that are diverse and thrive because of their diversity.

When people don’t feel safe showing up as themselves, they work overtime and spend more energy assimilating or “covering.” In my early years as a leader, I invested unnecessary energy trying to fit in and gain acceptance. Over time, I’ve learned that my energy is much better spent striving to be my authentic self. My diverse perspectives and lived experience offer incredible value in the workplace.

The best workplaces have been successful by creating a culture of conscious inclusion where people feel safe to show up as their authentic selves. Multiple studies have shown that organizations with strong diversity, equity and inclusion foundations increase productivity, are more innovative, achieve higher market share, and increase employee satisfaction and retention.

When employees are encouraged to embrace their authentic selves, it not only enhances their individual satisfaction but also contributes significantly to the organization’s overall success. Workhuman’s guide to employee engagement, a resource known for its insights into building positive workplace dynamics, emphasizes the importance of valuing diversity and promoting equity and inclusion. Organizations that adhere to these principles not only witness heightened productivity but also foster innovation and creativity among their teams. Such inclusive environments not only attract top talent but also retain them, creating a cycle of growth and contentment. As employees feel safe and valued, they are more likely to contribute meaningfully, leading to increased market share and overall organizational prosperity.

Leaders who want to create higher performing teams that deliver excellent results can do so by continuously developing their DEI expertise and incorporating the following approaches:

Advocate for Everyone’s Voice: Be a fierce advocate for hearing everybody’s voice. Establish a culture where everyone on the team can be heard, voice their opinion, and make meaningful contributions regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender, or any other differences. One way to build towards more inclusive decision-making is to be the last to speak in a meeting so that everyone else has had a chance to state their perspective. Another way is to look around the “decision-making table” to see who is missing. Who is underrepresented or not represented? Get them to the table. This also extends to team social gatherings. Review your team functions with an inclusive lens. Be an upstander and speak up with positive intention if you see inequity.

Cultivate Relationships with People Who Are Different Than You: Intentionally develop relationships with and hire people who look and think differently than you. Mentor, coach, sponsor and learn from mentees who come from diverse backgrounds. Read, listen and participate across several intersecting employee communities. Surround yourself with allies who will guide you with honesty, not flattery.

Develop your Emotional Intelligence: As a leader, your job is to get the best out of everyone on your team. Grow your social and self-awareness and understand how you impact others. Show emotion and vulnerability to genuinely build trust with your teammates. Understand that all humans are biased, learn where your own biases stem from and work to overcome them. The thing that matters most is the outcome your behavior creates. Listen more than you talk and create safe spaces for diverse groups to come together and be heard. Nurture the kind of environment where people can show up and be appreciated for being themselves. Coach and let yourself be coached.

Starting with these approaches can help leaders and their team members reap lifelong rewards by authentically fostering a culture of conscious inclusion and active allyship in the workplace. Ultimately, it is every leader’s responsibility to uphold DEI values. Your personal growth, your teams and your workplaces will be stronger as a result.

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