In January, my kids’ elementary school did a cool experiment. They launched a program where they asked each family to read the same book together throughout the month. The book they chose was “Save Me a Seat” by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan.
It was a wonderful book about the experience of an Indian boy named Ravi whose family had recently moved to the United States. The book told the story of Ravi through both his eyes and those of another boy named Joe.
It’s a story about inclusion and exclusion, of belonging, bullying, and friendship. I’m thankful I had the opportunity to read and discuss this book with my kids. It was a reminder of the complexity and power in our need to belong and be seen by others.
Reading the book made me think of the times when I’ve observed children (mine and others) trying to enter a new social group. There have been several occasions where we’ve been invited to a party where our kids knew none of the other kids there.
In some cases, the kids at the party would quickly and happily invite ours into the group and involve them in whatever activity or game they were playing. You could see the look of both relief and excitement come over my kids’ faces in that moment of inclusion.
Other times, the experience was quite different. The existing group of kids had no interest in new members. That could mean just excluding my kids from their games or, in one case, actively telling them they couldn’t play.
As you’d expect, my kids were crushed when this happened. They withdrew and started asking right away, “When can we go home?” When we suggested other things they might do or try to entertain themselves at the party, they didn’t even want to try.
Being excluded had broken their spirit.
Thankfully, they bounced back pretty quickly after we left the party, but there were lingering effects. For example, the next time we were headed to an event where they wouldn’t know any of the kids, they had some anxiety and asked not to go.
Most of us have had these experiences. Kids can be brutal to one another. But it doesn’t stop there.
As adults, our desire to be included is just as powerful. And the impact of being excluded still has devastating effects. A few years ago, Kenji Yoshino and Christie Smith published some research under the headline “Fear of Being Different Stifles Talent.”
They conducted research to better understand how much employees felt the need to “cover” (or downplay their differences from the mainstream) at work. The study included 3,000 employees at 20 companies that all had a “stated emphasis on inclusiveness.” Even in these companies, they found some startling results:
- 61 percent of the employees surveyed had faced overt or implicit pressure to cover in some way
- Of these employees, 66 percent said it significantly undermined their sense of self and 50 percent indicated that it diminished their sense of commitment to their work
A lack of true inclusiveness is devastating both for the employee and the organization.
Every individual employee represents a unique, one-of-a-kind set of experience, skills, capabilities, aspirations, and more. But we’ve learned throughout our life starting in our childhood that it’s safest to wait to be invited before bringing these things “out to play.”
Even worse, nearly everyone has had the experience of trying to bring something to discuss in the form of a different opinion or contrary view informed by our own experience, only to be ignored or even told we aren’t allowed to play.
We learn to play small, to cover, in order to protect ourselves. If you don’t put yourself out there, you can’t be excluded. So we keep our ideas to ourselves. We don’t challenge the status quo. We try hard to fit in.
We shrink. And all of that potential contribution is lost. Imagine the impact across the enterprise.
Creating an inclusive experience of work is about breaking this cycle. It’s about making it safe for each person to bring and share their uniqueness at work without fear of judgement or penalty. It’s making it safe to be and think different. It’s about drawing out diversity and asking it to play.
This is no simple task. Designing inclusive employee experiences takes time, focus, and intention. While I don’t claim to have any magic answers, here are a few suggestions for how you might start based on my research.
- Engage your leadership team in a conversation about the importance of inclusion to performance and employee engagement. If you can get them thinking about times when they felt excluded and how it impacted them personally, they may begin to understand the importance of inclusion in how we show up and perform each day.
- Design your onboarding process to create a feeling of social connectedness from day one. One way I’ve seen companies do this is to assign each new hire a “social mentor” whose job is to introduce the new hire and help them find friends at work.
- Create formal ways to invite and celebrate difference and uniqueness. Some organizations I profiled for my book are using formal events like a “summer fair” where employees can show off their interests and talents by teaching others how to do it. This could look like an employee teaching a cooking class or another showing how to fold origami.
- Make it safe to have contrary opinions. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways. One simple way is to have a rotating “devil’s advocate” in meetings whose job is to challenge ideas and decisions. Another way is to occasionally practice contrary thinking as a group by asking questions like “How will our plan fail?” and celebrating those with the most novel and creative ideas.
Inclusion doesn’t happen by accident. To make your organization more inclusive, you have to work to make it happen. Get started now. It’s worth it.