Want to master the art of being inclusive? Then don’t talk. Listen.

In today’s current political climate, now more than ever, conversations around how to include more diverse perspectives prevail, yet concrete action in the workplace and beyond remains limited. This may be due to a focus on only part of the equation — diversity. But companies who focus only on diversity, without tackling its counterpart, inclusion, are missing the mark by a mile, as well as a huge opportunity to create real impact.

So what is the difference?

It seems like many people aren’t sure. I’ve heard this analogy before and I think it’s a great one: diversity is like being invited to the party, whereas inclusion (the missing ingredient for many companies) is akin to actually being asked to dance.

The Diversity@Work panel, Life@Work Culture Conference 2016

For many companies, D&I initiatives are focused on the hiring pipeline almost exclusively. Like the affirmative action initiatives of the early 90s, these companies focus on filling a quota — though an often underwhelming one at that — and once they’ve achieved it, the effort is hailed as a success.

But while being “diverse” by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups onto your team is a start, without focusing on inclusion, it can quickly lead to tokenization. As a Caribbean-American woman who has worked in numerous white and/or male-dominated spaces, I know all too well the immense stress of being a “token” hire. In the past, working in the entertainment/music industry, I’d look around and wonder where all the women were. Conversely, now even when I’m in a room full of women, I’m still the only person of color. Constant explaining and fielding of unconscious microaggressions make every day a challenge, even in the most well-meaning of environments.

So what does inclusion look like?

To me, it’s about feeling like you can bring your whole self to work, no apologies necessary, regardless of what background you come from. When that happens, it’s beyond empowering and creates a safe space for everyone to participate without the fear of retribution or silencing. To know that your unique experiences and perspectives are being heard and valued leads to engagement and excitement.

That being said, inclusion can lead to discomfort, particularly for groups that are used to being in a position of power. It can be difficult to embrace differences if you are used to being surrounded by people who look and think like you. It’s the reason why so many hiring managers and gatekeepers of the pipelines hire people who have attended the same schools as they themselves attended, or come from a similar socioeconomic background. There is a perceived safety in surrounding oneself with sameness, because sameness allows one to avoid the potential conflict of acknowledging other perspectives, but that has to be done away with.

As workplaces get more diverse, leaders have an important opportunity to recognize that the path to bringing true humanity and equality of thought into the workplace is by listening to (and valuing) the experiences of others. It’s not by continuing to uphold the dominant culture’s oppression through systematic silencing, unconscious or otherwise.

The panelists (left to right): Maja Vujinovic (Global Strategy at GE), Melanie Oberman (Employee Experience at Greenhouse), Katie Burke (Chief People Officer at Hubspot), Mita Mallick (Diversity at Unilever), Willie Jackson (Abernathy Magazine & altMBA)

Katie Burke, now Chief People Officer at HubSpot and one of the panelists at last year’s Life@Work conference, delivered this powerful piece of advice, which I’ve been reflecting on as we begin to prepare for this year’s summer events:

“One of the things that you can do to be more inclusive is listen more than you talk and seek to understand versus seeking to explain.”

Way too often, when engaged in conversation, we are merely waiting for the other person to finish speaking so that we can respond. Instead, why not spend that time absorbing the unique perspective they are imparting?

Not having direct access to different perspectives is also not an excuse for ignorance. If you live in an area where everyone looks like you, go buy a book you wouldn’t normally read by an author that doesn’t look like you. Try watching a documentary about the immigrant experience and learn how history impacts our culture of division. It’s an easy first step to get out of your comfort zone and begin to explore the world through the lens of others. While at Wellesley, I deliberately enrolled in a Black Psychology course because, even beyond my own experiences, I knew that I had a lot to learn about the Black American experience. Furthermore, as a member of society and a proponent on humanizing the workplace, it was my duty to learn.


The images above are taken from last year’s Life@Work conference presented by Live Grey. Conversations like these and more will be taking place this fall in Brooklyn. To learn more or join us for this year’s Life@Work series, visit www.lifeatwork.co.

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