“Creating and managing a diverse workforce is a process, not a destination.”
—R. Roosevelt Thomas Jr., Beyond Race and Gender
The Benefits of Inclusion
In a workshop I lead entitled “Inspiring a Collaborative and Respectful Work Environment,” I have participants split into groups and answer the following question:
“What are the benefits of a work environment in which diversity is valued, differences are respected, and staff members exhibit inclusive behavior?”
Most participants offer the same set of responses to this question: “increased creativity,” “improved problem-solving skills,” “a better reflection of our customer and client bases,” “a better representation of the population at large,” and “boosted morale” are just a few of the most common answers. Other benefits mentioned include improved retention rates, increased productivity, better customer relations, and reductions in employee complaints and grievances. In short, because greater diversity can lead to a better understanding of those one works for, with, and around, it can help companies increase their profitability.
My workshop attendees usually agree that these are all very compelling reasons to support diversity and inclusion, but they often have difficulty articulating exactly what it means to have an inclusive workplace. To help them reach this understanding, I point out that every person present is probably judged on a daily basis: the moment someone walks into a room, people make assumptions about that person based on his or her physical attributes. Then, to underscore this statement, I point to myself and say (with a sneer on my face):
“Her suit’s too dark and conservative for our company.”
“What’s with her hair? It looks a little crazy and all over the place.”
“Why doesn’t she have makeup on?” (Or “Boy, she has too much makeup on!”)
“Her voice is so deep–is she a man?”
“She has a funny accent.”
I then reveal that I know these things are said about me because I’ve read them in after-training surveys (where anonymity can encourage people to be brutal). When I ask my workshop participants how they would feel if someone said those things about them, they typically respond with sincere outrage.
The goal of this exercise is to draw attention to the fact that at any moment, someone is making judgments about people that have no relevance to their abilities to do their jobs. Everyone experiences being stereotyped and judged based on a variety of attributes and features (e.g., hairstyle, height, ethnicity) that differ from person to person. And although we are all different, we have one thing in common: at some point in each of our lives, we’ve all probably been judged based on our age and have encountered some (if not all) of the following statements:
“Not hip enough.”
“We want someone with more energy.”
“I don’t want to have to hold someone’s hand–I want someone with more experience.”
Sometime during our professional lives, we’ve probably all been judged and characterized without regard to our knowledge and abilities, because someone made decisions about us based solely on our physical attributes. The point of this workshop exercise is to get people to realize that this sort of thing happens all the time–and that it’s awful to be on the receiving end of it. Once that realization sinks in, they understand how important it is to stop doing this sort of thing themselves in their own daily management practices.
Thanks to shifting economic realities and societal expectations, companies need to be more inclusive if they want to maximize their competitiveness in the marketplace. The message is clear: it’s time for managers (and employees) to stop instantly judging others based on their age or other physical characteristics.
Breaking Bad Habits
In his 2005 bestseller Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell wrote that people hold two levels of attitudes about ethnicity and gender:
“First of all, we have our conscious attitudes, this is what we choose to believe...[O]ur second level of attitude...[is] on an unconscious level–the immediate, automatic associations that tumble out before we’ve even had time to think.”
Harboring such associations (which also hold true for other physical traits, such as age) is a habit–something that people do repeatedly, usually from childhood. (After all, people’s attitudes toward different cultures and people are based in large part on their experiences while growing up.)
Habits can be hard to shake–but with effort, they can be altered. First, change your inner voice by becoming more aware of your thoughts when you first meet a person. What is the first association that goes through your mind? If it’s negative, figure out what would be a better (and more realistic) association to have. Repeat that process each time you meet new people who share similar traits. Practice by doing some people-watching on a busy street and running the new positive association through your mind as people walk by. Verbalizing such associations can also help solidify them in your mind. (Although, if you’re talking to yourself on a street corner in some cities, don’t be surprised if a police officer stops by to check on you!)
The key to breaking a bad habit is to notice when a negative thought goes through your mind about someone you meet and then immediately replace it with something positive. The more you practice awareness of your thoughts, the better control you will have over them–and eventually you will replace the old habit with a far more productive one.
Valerie M. Grubb of Val Grubb & Associates Ltd. (www.valgrubbandassociates.com) is an innovative and visionary operations leader with an exceptional ability to zero in on the systems, processes, and personnel issues that can hamper a company’s growth. Grubb regularly consults for mid-range companies wishing to expand and larger companies seeking efficiencies in back-office operations. She is the author of Planes, Canes, and Automobiles: Connecting with Your Aging Parents through Travel (Greenleaf, 2015) and Clash of the Generations: Managing the New Workplace Reality (Wiley, 2016). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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