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Inclusion is a two-way street

Patricia Roberts

Pat Roberts has an extensive career in executive coaching, mentor coaching, coach supervision and as a leadership educator. She is committed to contributing to the understanding and reputation of coaching. Partnering with clients in achieving their greatness is her passion.

If diversity is being invited to the party and inclusion is being asked to dance, then the role of the leader in active inclusion of all team members takes on a new level of importance. Inclusion enables creativity and innovation through eliminating bias and discrimination, conflict, waste and unfairness so that companies make the best use of all talented resources.

Like other emotional and psychologically related states, the sense of inclusion is judged by the experience of the recipient rather than the intention of the leader. Leaders do and say many things with good intention, but often fail to achieve the outcome they hoped for because they are operating from their own reality rather than that of their team members. Understanding this and exploring how team members are experiencing being part of a team is key.

As a leader, do you know what makes people feel included in the team and the company and what could make them feel excluded? Are some groups perceived to be more included than others? What could create that perception? Having the answers to questions like these is a step towards building a greater sense of inclusion. In one company I encountered, senior executives used a separate entrance to the building. That felt like discrimination happening right at the doorstep.

One of the most critical outcomes of conversations about inclusion is team members realising their role in achieving a greater sense of inclusion. Research shows that people who feel a sense of ownership of their work experience are far more likely to be happy and successful.

While managers play an essential role in leading team members, they should never be solely responsible for ensuring that their team members achieve their ideal state of engagement or career progression. That would be disempowering. The manager’s role is to create the circumstances that enable people to be aware and take advantage of opportunities to realise their ideal working conditions and career goals.

One of my clients had a personal experience at the start of the Coronavirus pandemic. She moved to the UK to start a new role two weeks before the legislated lockdown. She was in an unfamiliar country, in a role completely different from her career to date, had met only a few of her new colleagues and had barely begun to understand the expectations of her when she was told to work from home. It would have been so easy to feel sorry for herself and not be part of the team or the company, where the majority of people had worked for many years and understood both the company and country culture.

Instead of allowing herself to feel isolated, she searched out networks appropriate to her role, joined them and started to participate in their activities. Whenever she heard about a person who did anything related to her role, she set up time with them on Zoom to connect and learn about what they did. She didn’t allow herself to be intimidated by seniority levels but looked for ways to connect professionally around a common interest. She asked value-adding questions and offered her experiences and asked for guidance in areas where she felt lost. Within the first three months, she managed to build up a solid support network.

Another client who held a senior role in technology in an organisation heard about a group called Women in IT, which had been started. She was amazed and resentful that she hadn’t been asked to join and wondered if that was because she was black. I challenged her to ​find out. She quickly discovered that the group was open to anyone who chose to join. All that was required was to express an interest.

Inclusion is not something that other people are required to do for us as passive recipients. While leaders may open doors by being generous with their time, sponsorship and information, the onus for feeling included always lies with the person who chooses to be included and must be driven by their actions and attitude. Support from their leader through suggesting or facilitating connections is an added advantage that can be requested if it doesn’t happen readily. We need to avoid the tendency to believe that if people don’t support us in this way, it demonstrates that they don’t want to, and understand that it may just be something they haven’t thought of.

The leader does, however, play a vital role in driving inclusion. Leaders should be making members of their team feel confident in themselves and their ability so that they feel able to reach out to others. Talking about how to achieve a sense of inclusion. Sharing their networks with team members, appropriately taking them to or including them in events and introducing them to people they would benefit from knowing. Discussing networking skills and encouraging team members to connect with someone in a team they see as a potential next career step.

Like all aspects of leadership, how you think and behave related to driving inclusion is the most powerful example your team members have of how to achieve success themselves. Being conscious that everything you do sets the example or gives tacit permission is a critical part of leadership.

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