Why it’s time to have a conversation about workplace inclusion

The high level of diversity that an increasing number of organizations are seeking equates to a lot of differences, including with gender, ethnicity, age, experience, educational background and more. Without finding a way for those differences to meaningfully co-exist, the result can be discontent, including low work satisfaction, high turnover and an increased risk for bullying and harassment.

But consider the enticing result of proactively combining a high-level of diversity with a high-level of inclusion: a creative and innovative work culture and environment with increased work satisfaction, “healthy” employee turnover, and greater adaptability and agility.

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At an Inclusive Leadership Workshop,  the team discussed techniques for fostering constructive dialogue.

Such an inclusive culture needs to be fostered, and that’s why Skanska USA has launched a series of Inclusive Leadership Workshops aimed at starting a discussion for everyone. These workshops, created to break down what inclusive leadership really means and provide concrete tools for teams to adopt in their everyday interactions, have been going on throughout Skanska’s Diversity & Inclusion Week (October 19-23) and will continue over the next year.

These workshops are designed to be exploratory, bringing together broad groups of employees to have frank and confidential conversations about the challenges and opportunities of inclusion. For example, one session at a Skanska New York City office included male and female participants from the U.S., Sweden, Syria and Lebanon. In their conversation, the team dove in to how to facilitate openness. “We need to learn what makes people click versus shut down,” said one participant. “How can we approach people and connect to people different from ourselves? We need to recognize that we all have implicit biases and they shape how we approach people.”

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Inclusive Leadership Workshops are designed to bring together broad groups of employees to have frank and confidential conversations about the challenges and opportunities of inclusion.

An important part of these conversations is the recognition that some biases are completely normal! Implicit biases start developing at an early age, through life experiences and through exposure to direct and indirect social messages. They are based on the basic human need to create categories – of people, places and things – to make sense of the world around us. While it is impossible to completely avoid implicit bias, it is important to know that they have a significant influence on our attitudes, actions and decisions, and that bringing them to the surface will enable us to make more conscious choices. As one Inclusive Leadership Workshop participant said, “It is a constant issue because we need to combat our own internal biases. The workshop explored these natural biases and how we have to be cognizant of that. We need to realize we categorize certain people and we need to know when it’s right and when it’s wrong.”

One way of assessing implicit bias is to take the Implicit Association Test. The IAT is an online assessment for measuring the strength of the associations we make between different concepts – such as sexual orientation or race – and positive or negative evaluations or stereotypes. Using the IAT website, you can measure your implicit associations in such categories as weight, disability, race, and gender-career. After having taken the test, it’s worth reflecting on how your life experiences might have impacted the results, and how these associations might affect your interactions with others. Inclusion comes from being aware of your own unique frame of reference and knowing how it influences you. In addition to understanding yourself, this is also about adopting a curious and open-minded stance toward the other person’s frame of reference. Think about ways that you can approach situations differently, armed with the knowledge of where you might be tempted to make assumptions.

Another important area for discussion is the impact of insider/outsider dynamics. The insider/outsider experience is very situation and context dependent. You can be an insider as a member of your local soccer team, for example, but feel like an outsider at work. People often have vivid memories of being an outsider due to the strong negative feelings that are associated with the experience. An outsider will often experience a lack of control, and feel weak, confused, vulnerable and frustrated. Outsiders are expected to adhere to the rules set by the insiders, and have to work harder than insiders for the same opportunities. They will spend a lot of energy trying to be accepted by the insider group, and they are often less engaged, motivated and satisfied.

The insider experience, on the other hand, is very different, since most insiders might not even realize their insider status. The insider group has the formal or informal power to create the rules, and will be the ones reinforcing compliant behavior. They are often unaware of outsiders and their perspectives and don’t prioritize understanding the impact that this dynamic brings. In fact, not feeling valued and included has a deteriorating effect on performance as well as commitment and company loyalty. Research has shown that when  less favored employees are treated with the same level of attention and interest typically invested in favorite employees, the former’s performance can substantially increase – even up to 30 percent!

Conversations about inclusion require an open mind and the willingness to take a critical look at your own beliefs, assumptions and behaviors. It’s not always easy. But without these kinds of tough conversations, there can be no progress and no true inclusive leadership. How can you foster this kind of dialogue on your team?

Maja Egnell

Maja Egnell

vice president of talent development and diversity

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