If diversity is the invitation to the party, inclusion is feeling comfortable enough to be in the middle of the dance floor, dancing full out—no matter how the music moves you. Sadly, almost no one dances full out in our organizations these days, not even the people throwing the party.
It’s time to stop and really ask ourselves, why is that? And what does it cost us when people focus more on protecting themselves than being themselves?
According to this 2020 McKinsey & Company report, in most organizations, overall sentiments about diversity is more positive than negative (52% positive), but sentiment about inclusion is the opposite (29% positive). Why do we struggle so much with supporting people feel like they belong?
Inclusion Begins with Your Leadership Style
While the answer to that question is most certainly nuanced and multifaceted, I believe that a significant contributing factor is our shared belief about what it means to be a good and effective leader. Our dominant “direct and correct” approach to leadership is predicated on ensuring compliance. The implicit message this leadership delivers over and over is: you are welcome here if you think and act like the accepted norm. People are informed of what the norm is by the judgments that are made against them, sometimes subtly in the form of microaggressions, and sometimes quite explicitly by being shut down in meetings, passed over for advancement opportunities, paid less and criticized more.
Turning diversity into inclusiveness requires rethinking what it means to be a good and effective leader. That’s where a coaching-based approach to leadership comes in. Rather than enforcing compliance, coaching is based on curiosity, compassion and courage. A leader who embraces a coaching approach to leadership believes it is their job to ensure that all people feel safe, seen and supported to realize their potential. That new belief about what it means to be a good and effective leader translates into new behaviors that foster inclusivity.
Why Inclusion Matters Right Now
You might be thinking: Okay, that makes sense. I’ll put in on the very long list of all of the other things that I need to do right now. Here’s why I think we all need to put cultivating a culture of inclusion at the top of our lists. In 2021, organizations must grapple with the colliding, increasingly emphatic, and mind-bogglingly eclectic array of pressures that are being exerted on the world right now.
I believe the organizations that will fare the best will be the ones that cultivate cultures where people with diverse perspectives, capabilities and experiences feel comfortable dancing full-out together, moved by a shared intention to serve a greater good. That’s what inclusion looks and feels like at its best—people feeling safe enough that they are willing to reveal their uniqueness and where trust is high enough that people creatively play with different ideas to move beyond what they believe they know to co-create what is possible.
How Do We Get This Party Started?
Let’s talk about a few practical things you can do to embrace a coaching approach to leadership and get more people on the dance floor of inclusion:
Stop Your Judgments in Their Tracks
Our brains make judgments without us really thinking about it. With practice, you can train yourself to be curious instead. Learn to notice what it feels like when you are judging someone or something. Do you tense up? Do you initiate a less-than-flattering story about the person? Get familiar with your typical pattern of thinking and feeling when your brain clicks into judgment mode. Then use that feeling as a cue to signal you to stop, shift gears and get curious as to whether your judgment is valid.
Learn to explore different ideas with an open mind. No two people dance alike. And no two people think alike. Learn to appreciate different perspectives by getting curious about what informed and shaped a person’s thinking. Consider what the person truly cares about and why what they care about is important to them. Encourage people to share their points of view and ideas with questions and prompts, such as:
- That’s interesting, tell me more about that…
- What are your thoughts on…?
- What else do I need to know to better understand that?
It’s not easy to be different. In fact, it can be absolutely exhausting. Staying safe in a world that feels unsafe requires a lot of testing, hiding, compromising and often grinding through obstacles that seem maddeningly there solely to keep people who are different contained and compliant.
Learn to notice when these kinds of behaviors are happening around you. They are everywhere if you tune into them. When you notice them, ask yourself how you can support the person to express their thoughts and ideas safely. Consider:
- Establishing agreements in meetings that support all voices being heard
- Gently encouraging people—particularly those who seem to be protecting themselves—to share their ideas
- Providing cover for people by role modeling acceptance and encouragement of different ideas
- Using coaching approaches to better understand what the person is afraid of and help them build the skills and support systems to confidently contribute
Awareness is the first, essential step in changing behavior. For inclusion to thrive, everyone needs to take responsibility for stopping the behaviors that stop others from feeling safe, including the person who engaged in the limiting behavior. You will not cultivate a culture of inclusion if people feel it is unsafe to make a mistake. Take a courageous coaching approach to addressing inclusion-limiting behaviors by:
- Acknowledging the good intention that inspired the behavior with a statement such as, “I can appreciate that your comment seemed intended to lighten the mood…”
- Then sharing your concern in a neutral way by saying something like, “What concerns me about this is…”
- There is a good chance that the person will say something like, “I didn’t intend it that way.” That may very well be true, but does not make it less of a problem. Without judgment, help the person to see that regardless of their intention, the impact remains the same.
Trust me when I say we are all going to love having inclusive cultures once we get them to take hold. They will be vibrant, creative and unintimidated by change. Coaching is what brings our good intentions of being inclusive to life. When coaching-based leadership is widely practiced, inclusive cultures become real. Real advantages, that is. They are an essential element of thriving in the new space and age that is dawning around us. So, let’s get this inclusive party started!