During this time of dealing with COVID-19, many organizations and teams may find themselves leaning away from fostering inclusive cultures. Now, more than ever, arguably having a more inclusive culture is important for our professional lives, whether we are working remotely or still in the office but practicing physical distancing with our colleagues. One thing remains true, however, especially during the existence of a global pandemic. It is this: No one can make an individual become or be more inclusive. It is something a person must do on their own. And truly, to be inclusive is to be intentional in our efforts towards one another.
Everyone, on some level or another, has an innate desire to belong to something larger than themselves. No one wants to be judged or made to feel as if they are left behind or alone to fend for themselves. Feeling left behind can be one of the worst and loneliest feelings, especially in a professional setting. What follows are a few simple techniques that can be used to help create, cultivate and maintain an inclusive work culture, whether in-person or virtually.
Choose to Initiate
For many, initiating conversation can be a big issue. This is not only true for self-professed introverts but also for newcomers to a group or office. It is natural to experience hesitation when initiating conversation (especially with a new person to the group or to the office). But, be willing to step out of your comfort zone and give it a try. Dare to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. If you are hesitant, dig deep to find and understand the source of that hesitation. Embrace and then challenge that hesitation. The more that is done, the less that hesitation will present itself as an obstacle. Despite whatever fear or hesitation you might have, in a professional setting, the majority of your colleagues will respond warmly. Choose to be inclusive by initiating conversation--whether it be small talk or something specific to work efforts/projects for the office. Choose to initiate by sharing in dialogue and camaraderie.
Choose to Share
Such an easy word to say, and is actually even easier to execute than most of us realize. Moreover, sharing can actually be one of the most effective methods for fostering more inclusion. Whenever you notice resistance or hesitancy to sharing on the part of peers and colleagues, consider going against that tide to see what you can share with those who might be left out or left behind. Perhaps you could share helpful tips or resources, words of encouragement or advice, or maybe just your time and presence as that person works through something. Don’t share things that you cannot or would not continue sharing beyond the current moment. So, start small. Share what you would be able to share even a year from now. As you share, remember to also empathize.
Choose to Empathize
One thing is true: Most people talk, but many do not empathize. Many talk (and share) without giving consideration to the other person. To be more inclusive one should empathize more. Simply put, empathy is the ability (or choice) to understand and share the feelings of another. Empathy is being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing another person’s feelings, thoughts, and experiences. Empathetic leaders and team members place themselves in the shoes of their employees and colleagues in efforts to understand things from the others’ perspectives. Instead of being judgmental, empathetic leaders and colleagues allow team members to feel more comfortable sharing ideas, thoughts, raising questions and even taking risks and making mistakes as part of a team. In essence, empathy towards one another can lead to more psychologically safe space and this can lead to more inclusive workplace culture. The act of empathizing actually can be seen as a set up for being open-minded.
Choose to Practice Open-Mindedness
Being open-minded does not imply that one is indecisive, wishy-washy, or incapable of thinking for one's self. Open-mindedness is a willingness to try new things or to hear and consider new ideas. Another way to put it is that open-mindedness is the willingness to search actively for evidence against one's own favored beliefs, plans, or goals, and to weigh such evidence fairly when it is available. Approaching open-mindedness can be as simple as taking these few steps:
Choose to Show Gratitude
The power of “thank you” can never be overstated. What’s more, appreciation in written form somehow seems to yield tremendous amounts of power beyond that of just a verbal expression. One of the greatest forms of appreciation I ever received at work came via a handwritten Thank You note from a senior executive in my management chain. I had not given much thought to the requested work I had completed--for me, it was just a natural extension of my already assigned duties. Nevertheless, the senior executive took the time to write out a Thank You note expressing gratitude for my efforts and time I invested to ensure the task was not only completed accurately, but also completed ahead of a critical deadline that was looming. Although only 3 short sentences were written on the inside of that blank card, that simple demonstration of appreciation left me feeling as if I was truly part of the team. I felt as if I belonged, and for the remainder of my time with that organization I was more inclined to always go an extra mile in contributing to whatever tasks or projects came my way. Because that leader chose to express gratitude in such a personal way, not only did I feel included, but I also felt as if I belonged to an incredibly inclusive group.
Realistically, it may not be easy or even feasible to know all of the details of someone’s specific contribution to a task or project. What can be done, however, is to lean on the specific knowledge of intermediary managers or other team members to find out about what employees are doing during the quarter or year. Write the reason for the acknowledgement (i.e., specifically mentioning the employee’s effort(s) and say “thank you.” Sign your name, and then personally deliver the thank you card to the employee. But, this isn’t just relegated to leadership. Peers can also share thank you cards publicly with their colleagues to show appreciation. When people feel appreciated, they feel included.
Choose to Invest in Inclusive Workshops
Many organizations view the cost of diversity and inclusion training and workshops as expenses rather than choosing to see them as investments. Realizing the value of such activities is to demonstrate a commitment and an investment in an inclusive culture and to the people in the organization. Choosing to think about long term benefits, diversity and inclusion workshops and efforts are not costly. Rather, if done properly and with purpose so as to be sustaining, they yield lucrative rewards for the organization.
The rewards of having an inclusive culture should not be considered lightly. Those rewards can include:
Indeed, workplace environments can be challenging spaces to be in. And experiencing a global pandemic certainly exacerbates those challenges. Now, more than ever, having a more inclusive culture is not only important for our professional lives, but also for the health and welfare of our organizations. An inclusive work culture requires intentionality on everyone’s part. We must choose to include.
Oftentimes, I'm asked for ideas that can help make a work center's environment more inclusive. The conversations have started like this: "What suggestions do you have that I can use, ya know, put in place now?" "Can ya give me some tangible actions I can employ to help the workforce feel valued and appreciated?"
Admittedly, these requests have often come from a leader who has found her- or himself in a bit of a panic and is merely trying to react as quickly as possible to an unpleasant situation in the workcenter that has probably been bubbling up for a while. Nevertheless, rather than chastise the poor leader in their moment of despair, there are a few impactful actions that can be taken--not just as triage actions for the panicky leader, but also as proactive measures that can be useful tools for the forward-thinking executive who may be looking to establish and foster an inclusive environment. And (bonus point here), they're actually quite simple to put in place and become normal, expected activity.
Here are a few of those ideas I've shared:
These are just a few tangible ways inclusion can be fostered in the workplace. These are relatively easy to do, don't cost anything at all, and can (and should) be done by leaders and team members alike. What others come to mind that you could share?
Thomas Edward Belo, my late paternal grandfather, was a man of very few words but was full of wisdom. For me, he is the best example of how to truly listen to people. (Although he passed away more than 20 years ago, I still refer to the example he represents for me in many areas of my life in the present tense because I have yet to identify anyone since him who exceeded the bar he set.) I can remember, as if it were just yesterday, the times we'd sit together on the front porch of his house in rural North Carolina, eating peanuts, waving at people as they drove by--whether we knew them or not, and they'd wave back. There might have been several of us sitting on the porch with him, or only a few; but, the scenario was always the same. It didn't matter who might be sharing their problem or issue or just merely openly recounting the events of the day; "G'anddaddy" (as i affectionately called him) did the least amount of talking. Oh, he might ask an occasional question here or there, but mostly, he'd just grunt or rub his chin or simply utter an "Um hum. And then, once whomever was talking had finished their tale or open-ended request for guidance, only then would Ed Belo speak.
One day I conjured the nerve to ask him why he would let the other person do more of the talking, even if he already thought he might have the answer for them. "Buddy, God give us all 2 years and one mou' fuh a reason. I s'pose it's on-a counta He want us ta listen ta what they's saying twice as much as He want us ta say sumpin' back ta 'em." [To be clear, those were not typos in my attempt to quote him phonetically. You see, he spoke in a distinct soft-spoken Carolina drawl that was peppered with mispronunciations and broken English grammar, indicative of limited formal education, such that "2 years" equated to 2 ears, "s'pose" equated to suppose, and so on.]
This post offers my reflection on some of my granddaddy's wisdom--particularly on the example he taught me about listening to others. And as I reflected on it, I came to realize that his was an example in helping to foster an inclusive environment. One thing I have noticed, and have come to understand as I've gotten older, is that the way we listen to others can have a profound impact on the relationships we have, both at work as well as outside of work. Active listening allows and can encourage people to recognize you as someone who not only can be trusted but someone in whom they would be willing to listen. (Such was the case with my grandfather. Not only did family members love, honor and respect him, but so did other Blacks AND Whites throughout all of the rural areas of Archdale, Trinity and Glenola, North Carolina--something not very common during the Jim Crow days, '70s and '80s in the Southern United States.) Active listening requires that one fully concentrate, understand, respond and then remember what is being said.
So, here's what I've learned from good ol' Ed Belo about why developing strong listening skills is important. Obviously, listening allows you to obtain facts necessary to make decisions. But since we're talking about listening in the context of developing or maintaining an inclusive work environment, listening is essential to building trust. In order to develop trust, attention must be paid to each other in order to understand and appreciate one another's strengths and weaknesses.
Another reason why developing strong listening skills is important in the workplace is that, particularly for managers/supervisors, morale and productivity can be improved by listening for and trying to understand what motivates each employee. Listening to employees can allow for discovery of what aspects of the job s/he finds most rewarding and challenging. Be advised, though, a single conversation won't allow for this level of understanding. Additionally, listening can reduce the severity of conflicts. Conflicts in the office can arise when employees feel misunderstood, mistreated or even neglected.
To be an active listener, a lot of concentration and determination is necessary. Here are a few techniques I've come across that can help develop, or strengthen active listening skills:
To "attend" to another person means to be present, give attention to, and remain ready to serve. Mentally screen out distractions, such as background activity and noise, familiar faces passing by trying to get your attention, etc., as much as you possibly can. Try not to focus on the speaker's accent or speech mannerisms (if such exists and is different from your own). Lastly, don't be distracted by your own thoughts, feelings or biases.
Show That You Are Actually Listening
I can remember being taught, as a child, that it's rude to interrupt. I'm not sure whether that instruction is being taught as much anymore today. Clearly, the opposite is being modeled in many areas of our lives, where loud, aggressive, in-your-face conduct is condoned, if not encouraged. Interrupting can send many messages:
Show whether you understand where the speaker is coming from by reflecting their feelings. "I bet you were thrilled!" "Oh, that must have been terrible for you." "I can tell that was probably disheartening for you." Or some other indication that can be relayed genuinely to show that you understand how they may be feeling. Or, like Ed Belo, you can just nod or utter an occasional "Hmm" or "uh huh."
Listen without judging the other person or mentally criticizing things they tell you. If you're alarmed by what is said to you, go ahead and feel alarmed; however, don't cast judgment, particularly when someone is confiding in you. Doing so seriously risks compromising your effectiveness as a listener. Listen without jumping to conclusions. The speaker is using language and wording to best represent the thoughts and feelings inside their mind. Only by listening can you know and begin to understand what those thoughts and feelings are. Lastly, don't be a sentence-grabber--that is, interrupting and finishing their sentence. Allow them to finish their own sentence(s) because they are the ones experiencing the thoughts and feelings they're having.
Try to Feel What the Speaker is Feeling
Empathy is the heart and soul of good listening. Try to put yourself in the other person's place and allow yourself to feel what it is like to them in that moment. This is not easy to do! It takes energy and concentration. But it is a generous and helpful thing to do, and it facilitates communication like nothing else.
Pay Attention to What ISN"T Said
The majority of what we say doesn't come out of our mouths. Excluding email, the majority of direct communication is non-verbal. Even over the telephone, almost as much can be learned about a person and what's being communicated from their tone, cadence of their voice and even their silence than from anything they might actually say. Face-to-face with a person, enthusiasm, boredom and even irritation can be easily and quickly detected in their expressions. When listening, remember that words convey only a fraction of the message.
I now understand why my "G'anddaddy" used his ears more than his mouth. There's so much involved that one mouth should not be engaged when 2 ears are there to help do the work.
Building and maintaining and inclusive work place environment and relationships requires good listening skills. I would argue that active listening is the basic tenant to interpersonal skills, which provide the foundation to effective and inclusive work places environments.