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You say you want to be more inclusive? Prove it.

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Well-meaning people (yes, I am referring to myself here, too!) talk a lot about the need to be more “inclusive” when it comes to important conversations, but how many of us are really living up to our virtuous proclamations? If we were completely honest, I bet most of us would admit we could be doing much better. I know I could.

In this edition, I’ll offer some concrete steps all of us can take if we’re serious about acting on our intentions to be more inclusive. First, I suggest using this definition of inclusivity from Merriam Webster: Allowing and accommodating people who have historically been excluded (as because of their race, gender, sexuality, or ability). I might add to this list: age, social strata, educational background, access to technology, national culture and native language. You may have other examples, too.

Let’s imagine you’re planning and leading a vitally important series of conversations where big decisions will be made affecting a critical mass of stakeholders in your organization, and possibly beyond. Where to begin?

  • Let’s start with the invitation list. Given a choice, do you typically gravitate to those you know well, or those who look or think like you? Or perhaps you revert to asking those in the same time zone, or those who speak your native language? Maybe you prefer inviting those who are adept at using virtual collaboration tools and won’t need a lot of handholding. Instead of thinking about what might make the meeting go more smoothly for you, consider whose perspectives will enrich the conversation with new and divergent perspectives that will lead to better outcomes for all. Include more of them.
  • Create psychological safety pre-emptively. When you’re inviting someone outside of your usual “orbit,” take the time to make a personal connection, or ask someone to act as a “buddy” to reach out ahead of time. Provide the context for the conversation, as well as expected outcomes, and let them know how their perspectives will contribute to the conversation. If you plan to ask for their input in certain areas, give them a heads-up so they don’t feel put on the spot in front of people who don’t know them very well. In short, make it safe to them to fully contribute, before the meeting even begins.
  • Ensure accessibility. Discover in advance whether participants have any barriers to participation. (This can be done in a meeting invite, a registration form, or simply by asking.) For example, it’s helpful to know whether closed captioning might be needed. Those who have any kind of visual impairment may not be able to easily read small text or certain colors. Some may have painfully slow internet access, which may mean they can’t easily use video, and others may be simply uncomfortable using any technology. Still others may have a work-from-home environment that can be chaotic and unpredictable, making full participation difficult. Planning around these constraints will help you design a meeting that enables participation by all.
  • Respect language differences. If some participants aren’t as proficient in the shared language as others, design your conversation accordingly. Build in extra time to allow for reflection and translation into and out of their native language. Plan on paraphrasing every now and then to ensure shared understanding, rather than asking whether everyone understands what’s been said. Enable people to communicate in ways most comfortable for them by inviting both written and spoken responses. If you have trouble tuning into another person’s accent, own the responsibility by saying something like: “Sorry, I think you just made a really important point, and I want to make sure I heard it correctly. Would you mind repeating it a different way to make sure I have it?” Finally, take the time to learn at least a few words in other languages, especially greetings and expressions of encouragement and gratitude. It goes a long way to making everyone feel welcome.
  • Reflect cultural differences. For example, if your goal is to reach consensus or make a decision, consider how cultural differences might affect the way you elicit opinions and ideas. If it’s a culture where harmony and hierarchy are prized, then you’ll probably want to make use of breakout groups, anonymous postings, or other ways of minimizing power differentials. As people join the meeting, ask everyone to chat in the phonetic spelling of their name, even if it may seem obvious to most. (Check out Erin Meyer’s excellent book, The Culture Map, to learn more about which dimensions of teamwork are most affected by cultural differences, and how to close the gap.)
  • Be sensitive to working hours and time zones. If you’re inviting people to join outside of their working hours, acknowledge how much you’re asking of them, and offer other ways to participate if they can’t easily be present in real-time. For example, you may set up an asynchronous conversation area where people can participate at any time, or set up a second meeting or a 1:1 at a time that’s convenient for them. If this is an ongoing meeting, try rotating the inconvenience at least every so often.
  • Use preferred pronouns. One easy way for everyone to be aware and respectful of pronouns is to ask everyone to rename themselves (if using Zoom) to include their preferred pronouns along with their names. If you’re using another meeting app, you can do the same via Chat. This makes it unnecessary for people to correct others if they’re using the wrong pronouns, and it acknowledges that many people use pronouns that may not be obvious from their names or appearance.
  • Make it inviting for quiet voices to be heard. You may want to reach out to reticent participants ahead of time to specify how and why their perspectives and experiences will be valuable. Let them know you may ask for their views on X or Y during the meeting, so they won’t be caught off-guard later. During meetings, pay attention to who’s holding back, and find safe ways to draw them out. For example, ask a specific question for which you know that person will have a ready answer. Or ask people to type in responses, and then encourage those who have said little to expand on their comment. Build in time for silent reflection before asking people to respond. In general, avoid the element of surprise when asking people for their ideas or opinions.
  • Make location a non-issue. If some people work in a central location while others work remotely, plan your meetings to that everyone joins the same way. To create a truly level playing field regardless of location, design your meetings with virtual participation as the default. Even when the worst of COVID seems to be behind us and we can once again gather across a conference room table, resist the temptation to do so if multiple team members are remote. (Note: Zoom recently announced plans for a product that can integrate in-person and remote team members, which I am eagerly awaiting.)
  • Create an environment where all views are valid and valued. If you are working with a group of participants where power differentials (real or imagined) may get in the way of open participation by all, plan accordingly. For example, encourage the group to adopt a ground rule that acknowledges that all opinions and perspectives are just as valuable as others, regardless of title, seniority, location or organizational affiliation. You might try setting up anonymous contributions, if possible. If using chat, ask people to type in comments and to hold off hitting Enter until you give the signal, to minimize opportunities for undue influence by some. If you suspect that some people may feel uncomfortable speaking openly, you might try setting up an asynchronous conference area where people can weigh in anonymously prior to the meeting so you can summarize all viewpoints without having to identify individuals. Be prepared to remind people about the need to respect all voices, if certain people try to hold sway over others.

Whether people are convening in person or virtually (or a combination), in real-time or asynchronously, team leaders and meeting conveners need to find demonstrable ways to act on our intentions to be more inclusive, starting with the people we invite to the table.

Links

Past Communiques from Guided Insights

How Inclusion and Integrity Foster More Productive Conversations, Reduce Bias in a Virtual World (guidedinsights.com)

The Dangers of Empathy Unexamined (guidedinsights.com)

Unconscious Bias: Just Because You Can’t See It, Others (Almost Certainly) Can (guidedinsights.com)

How to Make Introverts and Extroverts Happy, and How to Drive Them Crazy (guidedinsights.com)

Head Off Problems Up Front, Before Cultural Differences Can Get in the Way (guidedinsights.com)

Other articles of interest:

Why Inclusive Leaders Are Good for Organizations, and How to Become One (hbr.org)

To Retain Employees, Focus on Inclusion — Not Just Diversity (hbr.org)

The Day-to-Day Work of Diversity and Inclusion (hbr.org)

Erin Meyer’s book, The Culture Map