Inclusion Isn’t Innate. Here’s How Anyone Can Build an Inclusion Mindset.

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Photo credit: Charles Deluvio

Being “the only X” (insert: woman, Latina, first-gen immigrant kid, mother…on the team) is lonely. In my 15 years working in tech, business, and finance, I rarely had a manager or senior reporting leader who shared my same identity. Nevertheless, I have progressed thanks to some managers who were true allies — and despite other managers who were at times barriers to my progress.

The good news is that a single manager or colleague can make the world of a difference to their diverse teammates, and anyone can become more inclusive if they work at it! Like psychologist Carol Dweck’s thesis in Mindset notes, capabilities are not fixed or innate, but rather must be developed intentionally through dedication, hard work, and self-awareness. I’d like to share a few anonymized examples that prove the point.

Positive examples of inclusive mindsets in action:

  1. Colleagues who build confidence in seeing others for who they are and their potential, even if different from themselves. “Walter” was a partner at McKinsey, a top-three strategy consulting firm known for being elite and stodgy. I was a new management consultant, just fresh out of college and unsure of myself in such a polished corporate environment. I grew up poor, still broke from student loans, donning ill-fitting Target suits because of my short stature. Walter was the opposite: a tall, grey-haired white guy who “looked the part.” But as my assigned evaluator, he always conveyed a strength-based leadership model, where he said after my first review cycle, “You can be a partner here one day. You would be a partner who is deeply trusted and loved by their clients.” From that day, I walked a few inches taller, feeling I had the endorsement I needed. I felt like I belonged. We were so different, but he believed in my potential.

2. Colleagues who roll up their sleeves and give their time. Another inclusive supervisory figure was a professor at Stanford named “Professor K.” Professor K taught an elite seminar of 15 students, selected among hundreds who applied. A microcosm of my Stanford experience generally, I was elated to be accepted, but immediately upon arrival, I was intimidated beyond measure. On the first day of class, one classmate spoke about her dad being faculty friends with Professor K, and another spoke of meeting the professor through her dad’s work on the university board. I sank back into my chair, feeling as small as an ant, and said little. But during our first office hours, he learned my story and fears as a first-gen college kid, and he rolled up his sleeves to make extra time in weekly office hours to give me extra feedback and help on my essays, bolstering my confidence.

3. Colleagues who listen more than they talk. Another inclusive colleague was “Andy”, a co-worker at a company that was particularly non-inclusive and very much a “brotopia.” Andy saw that I felt slighted and talked over in several meetings — and stood up for me when my own manager didn’t. He warmly checked in with me after rough meetings and became a close confidant and unofficial mentor on how to gain more influence despite the adversity. Even when he couldn’t have clear answers to fix broader organizational problems, he at least always listened. Sometimes, we would go on hour-long walks just to help me process and regain perspective.

If you have a lone Black or Brown, woman, or underrepresented person in your workplace, and especially if the culture is not particularly inclusive, you can have an outsized impact just by listening to them. They may be carrying a heavy burden, and even making space to listen is hugely supportive. The more you listen, you will gain a more empathetic perspective, and the less likely you are to sound tone-deaf on topics of inclusion at work.

Counter examples of non-inclusive mindsets in action:

  1. Colleagues who are insecure (Understandable but unhelpful). I once had a close colleague (a white woman) who was so uncomfortable whenever I tried to foster a conversation on Inclusion opportunities or proposals. She was more senior, and thoughtful, so I wanted to solicit her input to advance the ideas. But whenever broaching the topic, she visibly withdrew and shut down. She nervously twitched with discomfort, speechless, perhaps because she was worried about saying the “wrong” thing. She made it about herself, vs. taking a bid to learn, grow or support others. We both missed out! As another example of insecurity here, in one of the diversity initiatives I participated in, my views were shunned by a white colleague, who condescendingly touted that they had a Ph.D. and since I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to contribute meaningfully to the discussion, and it would “take too long to bring me along”. Ironically, this scenario occurred within a diversity and inclusion forum, go figure! No thanks, I stepped back and bowed out.
  2. Colleagues who pledge to be “colorblind” and deny diverse experiences (Worse). Some leaders are uncomfortable acknowledging that differences in race or gender even exist. In another workplace, I faced resistance in carrying out my Executive-designated mandate. I faced what felt like a firing squad of skeptics, criticism, and micro-aggressions from an all-male cross-functional pod. I brought it up to their team lead (whom I worked with closely in the trenches, and hoped would be a sounding board to enlist solutions). Instead, when I raised my concerns and requested his thought partnership, I was flat-out dismissed with great defensiveness. “Nothing is wrong with my guys. They are good guys, I know them, and they have supported women-led teams before. Everyone is treated equally here.” Cringe-worthy…not a helpful, inclusive-mindset response.
  3. Colleagues who are inappropriate & hostile (the Worst). In one project my objective is was to grow app downloads by testing new visual variants in our App Store. A supervisor gave me perplexing feedback that I needed to choose “more hot girls” to feature in the screenshots to better merchandise our app. I was stunned, it felt like a terrible joke but he was serious. He then called other men to huddle over my laptop to review the A/B visuals I selected, to see if the women were “attractive enough”. He often casually debated who were the hottest models he followed on social media (over awkward team lunch chats), but this encounter invoked next level disgust.

In closing, here is the “starter pack” to building an Inclusive mindset, today.

Inclusion is not fixed, it’s a muscle. You can be inclusive if you commit to building it. Just like we’ve learned in the now-famous “Growth Mindset” text, Carol Dweck explains how:

  1. Acknowledge that Inclusion capabilities are everyone’s job to develop — not relying on HR for “band-aid” fix diversity programs. Ad hoc mentorship programs and annual reports aren’t enough. We also need every single founder/CEO, C-suite leader, and P&L owner to be open to building an Inclusive mindset, setting the example for mid-level leaders throughout the organization. Just as customers will judge your company by their front-line service experience, so too will diverse employees judge their employer by the actions of their mid and front line managers. Completing a one-time unconscious bias training is not sufficient. We need leaders to be evaluated on their ourcomes for inclusion, like developing, retaining, and supporting diverse colleagues. (I’ve heard countless colleagues mock of these trainings, and even more common, is viewing trainings as a one time “to-do list” item without sustained follow through).
  2. Practice engaging in authentic, awkward, and difficult conversations. Surround yourself with colleagues, executive advisors, and friends who can help you see past blind spots. Hire senior executives to emulate the behaviors that set the culture. Don’t expect HR or D&I teams to fill the gaps. Instead, hire key talent who sets the bar that it is every single VP’s job. Select your board to be filled by thoughtful leaders who infuse this thinking among the management team. Taking meaningful D&I actions may be uncomfortable, but that’s a sign that you are breaking past the superficial status quo. And as a beneficial side effect, this discomfort may give you some empathy for how your diverse colleagues feel every other day.
  3. Embrace the “trial and error” mistakes on the path towards inclusion, there will be failures & missteps. One Engineer came up to me and asked “I don’t know how to say this, but I want to check in on how you’re feeling about our workplace diversity efforts. Are they resonating for you, and if we can do more”. A brilliant and easy way to start a conversation without having the answers, I would rather see a colleague “try and fail”, than not try at all.

Finally, I wish to acknowledge that the most inclusively-minded managers I had have been white men, even though I spent a fairly equal amount of my years working for women managers. Maybe the women were all too busy trying to survive themselves, and lacked the capacity or privilege to effectively advocate for others.

Those who enjoy the most privilege perhaps have the most capacity to be empowered “majority” allies to advance inclusion for others.

Join me this Wednesday, 9/2 at 6pm PT for an event with the Chairman Mom community to discuss being a good workplace citizen by developing an inclusion mindset. http://events.chairmanmom.com/inclusionmindset

Product Manager by day. Mother by evening. Advocate for tech/corporate inclusion 24–7.

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