How can we embrace conscious inclusion?
By Jo Faragher on 13 September 2021
Being called out for saying the wrong thing or misunderstanding a situation at work will generally be a negative experience, even for someone whose intentions were entirely positive. Anu Mandapati, vice president of inclusion at coaching company Talking Talent, believes organisations should be taking a more collaborative approach to building an inclusive culture. “Inclusion takes every single one of us, it’s about co-creation, it’s not led by the CEO or the DEI department – it’s about calling people in, rather than calling them out.”
Mandapati describes this approach as “conscious inclusion”, an antidote to some diversity and inclusion activities where the focus is on identifying what groups are doing wrong or ensuring legal compliance. “If someone gets called out they will experience feelings of blame, shame or guilt,” she adds. “If we focus on building inclusion together, all of this is just practice. So you might give feedback in a different way or take a more collaborative approach.”
Approaching inclusion this way creates that vital psychological safety that employees need to explore their behaviours and modify if they feel necessary. If someone used language that offended a colleague, for example, the conversation might focus on what they could say instead rather than ‘punishing’ the person for using it. “You don’t have to be perfect every single moment of every day. If you’re taking some form of action you weren’t before, that’s practice. You’re building that muscle,” adds Mandapati. And when we praise positive actions, words and behaviours, this reinforces them and they’re more likely to happen again. “Micro-actions and our smaller interactions have a huge impact on culture – this doesn’t have to be a big organisational initiative,” she says.
Neil Piper, chief people officer at food chain KFC, says sometimes organisations with a strong culture can have “blind spots” that convince them they are inclusive when that’s not necessarily the case. “The truth is that having an engaging place to work doesn’t always mean you have an inclusive place, one where everyone can belong,” he explains. KFC uses a number of tried and tested strategies to overcome this, including transparent communication, supporting network groups, expanding recruitment to ensure greater representation and through learning. But there are other actions that can make a meaningful difference, he adds: “The first is grounding our approach in data. We make it a priority to take the time to establish the right employee listening tool and rhythm, so that we’re able to use those insights to build our approach and progress inclusion. This is critical to holding an organisation and its leadership accountable for action and continuous improvement.
“The second is embedding a programmatic approach to education for all when it comes to understanding the multi-facets of equity, inclusion and belonging in a safe and accessible way, free from fear of judgement and criticism,” he adds. “I passionately believe that when you are genuinely rooted in a growth mindset and can encourage curiosity and engagement with – at times – sensitive topics for some people, it reaps the most effective benefits and culture.” Over the past year, the company has explored activities around neurodiversity, impostor syndrome, understanding privilege and microaggressions. “What’s been noticeably appreciated is the fact that these sessions have been supplemented by real life examples of lived experiences that often prompt powerful reflection that causes someone to want to engage more and lean into often avoided topics. As a result, this has led many to apply positive changes to their own personal approaches.” KFC also runs a development programme known as Heart Styles, which focuses on character development rather than leadership development, ensuring people feel comfortable to be their authentic selves at work.
At Bank of America, the global nature of the business means it’s crucial to have a multifaceted approach to inclusion. Alongside commitments to improve diverse representation in the workforce and work with clients and communities, efforts happen daily to ensure employees feel they can bring their whole selves to work. Katy Ingle, head of diversity, inclusion and learning, leadership and development at the bank for EMEA, explains: “We have policies and codes of conduct but it’s more than that. Diversity is personal to everyone as we’re all individuals. Our 11 employee networks increase awareness between different groups and encourage people to engage in courageous conversations on difficult topics.”
Employees can access an inclusion action toolkit to test any biases and highlight moments in the employee cycle where bias might creep in. There are also various inclusive learning opportunities, including bystander training and working groups made up of people from diverse backgrounds, to help inform our D&I initiatives and actions. Taking an intersectional approach and being open about how some discussions can be difficult helps to build a more inclusive culture, she adds. “We know talking about certain issues might not be comfortable for everyone, but people feel they can say ‘I might not get this right but I want to support and engage’. It’s all about empathy, asking questions, and keeping things open.”
Promoting smaller, positive actions such as this can work alongside other diversity initiatives and will likely amplify them. Mandapati adds: “One might not work without the other. This ensures that you tackle something at individual level, team level and organisational level with the right support, rather than making it the diversity team’s role to do something.”
Becky Willan, CEO and Co-Founder of Given, the agency for purpose-driven brands, argues that conscious inclusion happens when leaders see it as “a strategic business priority, and not purely a compliance issue”. It also needs to be seen as part of a wider societal picture rather than on its own. She adds: “In fact, with a growing understanding of the intersectionality of environmental and social issues, it’s right that businesses should be thinking about issues of diversity, equity and inclusion in a joined up way with how they think about sustainability.
“Getting this right involves moving beyond diversity, equity and inclusion as a workplace issue. Businesses need to take a comprehensive and systemic perspective to integrate inclusive business practices across the whole value chain – from supply chains, to operations, to culture, to branding, marketing and customer experience and in that way they engage with the communities they are part of.”
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