Think back a few years to when you were in elementary, middle or high school. The dynamics of navigating the playground and hanging out around school was often just as much of a challenge as mastering your classes. Sure, for some it seemed easy. For others, it was fraught with social stress of making friends, keeping friends, avoiding bullies, trying to be the bully, finding acceptance and developing trusting relationships.
I recently read an article about a bullied woman’s experience in school. This, along with other aspects of her personality, contributed to psychological trauma as she grew up. Years later, she decided to reach out to her childhood classmates to interview them about what they were experiencing during those years. This wasn’t an attempt to cause them any distress, but simply to understand how they viewed the same experiences.
Her findings were surprising. Many who seemed popular and well-adjusted told stories of their own stresses. The athletes used their physical capabilities as a protective factor to manage their social pressures. Some girls were going through tough times at home and taking out their frustrations on classmates. Other girls did whatever seemed to be necessary to have friends and avoid loneliness. One girl was a team captain in gym and used her first pick on someone normally chosen last. The vision of that girl’s face lighting up was memorable decades later.
Some apologized for the trauma they caused, sharing their own pain from those days. And many of the women shared lasting emotions about that time in their lives. They wanted others to value them. They wanted their friends to include them in activities. They were seeking validation and acceptance.
From school to work
That desire doesn’t really change with age. We grow up, leave school, transition to work, and underlying all the busyness of getting our job done, seek the same validation and acceptance. We want our colleagues to see the significance in what we do. We want our hard work to be recognized, our ideas to be executed and our contribution to be appreciated. We want to be included.
But sometimes the past pressures of building relationships at school also show up in the current work environment. Different cliques and alliances form in departments. Certain individuals seem to get the high-profile assignments. Some employees struggle to have their efforts noticed, while others’ ideas are readily accepted and acted upon. At times, promotions seem to come easier for people who went to the right school, hang out with the right leader or share similar views as the decision makers. Some might suggest that differences in performance account for perceived differences in treatment. Still, think about which is the cause versus the effect.
Ultimately, leaders are responsible for establishing an environment where all employees feel included, identifying the value-added contribution of everyone on the team and understanding their different needs in order to provide equitable solutions. This creates an atmosphere where employees can perform at their best. They can collaborate, contribute ideas, work collectively and celebrate group wins. They can learn the organizational culture and understand how to thrive in it.
Leaders can create an environment of inclusion in several ways.
- Have purposeful interactions with others. This includes taking the time to engage a variety of team members in conversation, and strategically recognizing behaviors and contributions of people to encourage them.
- Be curious about personal biases and blind spots. We all have them. We just aren’t aware of what they are. We make assumptions and categorize people and situations based on past experiences. If we instead ask questions, seek to understand and listen more than we speak, we will learn more, engage deeply and value others.
- Communicate clear expectations on team dynamics. This includes expecting mutual respect, demonstrating trust, modeling listening to a variety of viewpoints, encouraging debate yet expecting support for group decisions, demonstrating trust and accountability.
- Celebrate diversity. Create opportunities for employees to share their unique gifts and talk about the diversity on the team. Make it clear that differences of all types are welcome and contributions will be valued.
Leaders can only take these steps when they’ve done their own work first by engaging in deep reflection on their values and behavior. They must take the time to understand that inviting diverse people into their organization, without ensuring they feel valued will inhibit individual and team performance. They must understand how their own values and behaviors can be a roadblock or enable progress. They must understand and leverage the potential contribution of each person.
Applying inclusivity techniques at work
I met with a leader recently to discuss some information he proposed to share with his team. Having seen several of his slides in advance, I knew they would be misunderstood. I needed to better understand the message he wanted to convey and help him retune his pitch. As we talked, I used the competency of curiosity and asked questions not only about his communication but about his life experiences.
Midway through, there was a point where I could have stopped and made a recommendation. Instead, I continued the conversation as he shared his experiences and information more deeply. By the time we were done, I had a much greater understanding of his intent and was able to make a more meaningful recommendation on how he could communicate with his team. I knew that he felt heard as a result, and it strengthened our relationship. His background was very different from my own in certain respects, but we bonded over that discussion and my value for his contribution increased.
I learned that when I lead with respect and curiosity, my behaviors are more inclusive, everyone learns more and engagement increases. I invite you to try it too.