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Embracing discomfort in the quest for inclusion at work

If leaders are serious about inclusion, they need to step outside of their comfort zones. But more than that, it is these very feelings of discomfort that mark the first steps towards progress.

The topic of inclusivity at work has received increasing attention in recent years, and rightly so. Leaders are waking up to the fact that inclusion – defined as welcoming and supporting people with all manner of differences – sits at the very heart of employee experience. Of course, as humans, we all have an inherent need to belong and to feel included, whether it’s at work or at home. It’s important to understand too that inclusion is much more than a ‘nice to have’. Research tells us time and again that it’s not only a key driver for creativity and diversity of thought, but greater innovation, productivity, and performance.

This means that, aside from the obvious and significant benefits to people, there’s also a concrete business case for inclusion – and it’s a hard one to deny when faced with these facts: inclusive teams not only make better business decisions up to 87% of the time, they also make decisions twice as quickly and with 50% fewer meetings.

But let’s be clear, signing up to the intellectual and logical case for inclusion is relatively easy.  Actually asking leaders to look inwards at themselves, call out unwanted behaviours, and have uncomfortable conversations, is a whole different ball game. Why? Because it often provokes fear, discomfort, or uncertainty about where to start. ‘Do I really believe leading inclusively will help me deliver? What if I say the wrong thing?’ ‘How do I have the difficult conversations?’  In other words, leading inclusively involves some confronting feelings and conversations – and yet to make progress, leaders must step into these.

So with this in mind, where do the biggest opportunities lie right now?

More than anything, it’s about helping leaders to embrace difficult conversations and get comfortable with the uncomfortable.

Getting off default – recognising your bias
We all find it easier to work with people like us. That’s called affinity bias and it’s part of being human. Affinity bias is where employees are favoured for having similar interests and backgrounds to those of their senior colleagues. In reality, these leaders do not gravitate towards the employee because of their similarities, but rather the feelings of comfort that those similarities create.  One of the first steps, therefore, involves helping leaders to recognise and challenge their own bias.

Helping leaders to explore their own experiences, identity, and privilege is a great starting place – and it is through this exploration that leaders can begin to understand how their identity shapes their view of the world and the bias and assumptions they bring.

Being vulnerable to create an inclusive culture for others
If leaders want to create an inclusive culture they also need to open themselves up to vulnerability. Why? Because if they want their teams to be able to show up as themselves, they need to go first. They need to demonstrate that it’s okay to bring one’s full self to work. This isn’t always easy, and it will require leaders to explore their own sense of belonging, as well as the things they’re prepared (and not prepared) to share and show.

Going first also means being willing to step in, say the wrong thing, learn, and challenge non-inclusive behaviours. In other words, not avoiding difficult conversations and challenging topics due to a fear of using the wrong terminology, or because things feel complicated and messy. No-one is going to get it right all the time but if leaders show up with curiosity, good intentions, and humility, progress will be made.

Discomfort: the value that lies beyond
So if leaders are serious about inclusion, they need to step outside of their comfort zones. But more than that, it is these very feelings of discomfort that mark the critical first steps towards progress. Rather than hide from it, leaders must actively embrace their fears and discomfort, tapping into their own experiences of inclusion and exclusion so that they can better understand those of other people. We need leaders to get to a place where they are comfortable in showing their vulnerability; a place where they can appreciate different perspectives, provoke uncomfortable conversations, make mistakes, and say sorry.

The overriding point here is that inclusion requires both head and heart. The intellectual case alone is not enough; leaders must also connect with it emotionally because this is what enables them to carry on especially when it gets tough.

Creating space for difficult conversations
Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of reticence when it comes to having conversations about diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB). So much so, Gallup suggests that as many as 59% of managers do not feel prepared for these conversations. On the one hand, this poses a significant problem, yet it also highlights an opportunity to equip leaders to have these frank conversations.

Research from Gallup shows that managers are also twice as likely to strongly agree that they’re prepared for DEIB conversations if they’ve attended a listening session or company-wide conversation on the topic in the past twelve months. The evidence is undeniable: creating space for leaders to have real conversations (and lending the support that’s needed to achieve this) is vital to helping leaders embrace the discomfort that drives progress.  Yes, unconscious bias training can support the logical argument and theoretical understanding, but it’s not enough. In isolation, this won’t help leaders to demonstrate the vulnerability that’s needed to build trust and support inclusion at scale. It is only through creating a safe space for deeper development conversations that leaders can begin to join the dots between the theory and their own behaviours – and move forward for the benefit of their people and the organisation.

Ultimately, the quest for inclusion at work relies on leaders’ ability to become comfortable with having frank – and sometimes difficult – discussions around the issues that matter. This is how organisations really begin to move the dial, ensuring that inclusivity becomes the norm, and not the exception. The question is, are your leaders ready to have these kinds of conversations, or are they still in their comfort zones?

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