Inclusive Conversations For Inclusive Leadership

23 Dec Inclusive Conversations For Inclusive Leadership

Andriana Eliadis

Forbes Councils Member

Forbes Coaches Council

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Dec 20, 2022,07:15am EST

Dr. Andriana Eliadis, Executive Education Facilitator at Cornell University, NY, USA and Director at CorporateExecutiveCoach.

Cheerful business team having morning briefing in office

As a manager, what does it mean for you to be inclusive with your direct reports? As a team leader, how can you foster inclusion in your work group? What behaviors do you use to promote inclusion?

In today’s increasingly complex world, building the competence for inclusive conversations in the workplace is vital. To effectively address our differences and move forward within our organizations with a shared vision for diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB), we have to learn how to have meaningful, inclusive conversations with one another.

However, inclusive conversations require the right conditions. Managers need to know basic human diversity dimensions and the historical, sociological and psychological elements that have denoted how people engage with each other.

As Mary-Frances Winters explains in her book Inclusive Conversations: Fostering Equity, Empathy, and Belonging Across Differences, eight foundational conditions are required for inclusive conversations:

1. Commitment

2. Cultural competence

3. Brave and psychologically safe spaces

4. Understanding equity and power

5. Ability to address fear and fragility

6. Grace and forgiveness

7. Trust and empathy

8. Belonging and inclusion

My corporate clients often ask me, “How can I create a psychologically safe space for inclusive conversations within my work team?” and “How can I discuss these topics with my employees and colleagues?”

First, it is essential to know that building and sustaining psychologically safe spaces where inclusive conversations can transpire in the workplace takes time, consistency and intentionality.

Be considerate in how you discuss these topics with your employees and colleagues.

Inclusive conversations need genuine curiosity, empathy and understanding and are a precious learning opportunity for everyone engaged. To provide a safe space for inclusive conversations, as a manager/leader, be mindful of who is present and what potential triggers might arise. It is vital to acknowledge that these kinds of discussions can be tough and can elicit strong emotions.

Here are ten conditions to foster and develop inclusive conversations in your workplace:

• Be mindful of the challenges faced by minority groups and the efforts those in power must make to be cognizant of and sympathetic to those struggles.

• Develop or, better yet, co-develop team norms and an aligned understanding of what is a “safe space.”

• Prioritize trust, respect and professionalism within the team.

• Make space and time for individuals to feel, understand and process their emotions.

• Use appropriate language to convey the idea that inclusive conversations are an essential element of change.

• Recognize and communicate to your people that safety and bravery are experienced differently by different identity groups.

• Actively listen to and acknowledge the experiences of different identity groups.

• Remember that not everyone has the appropriate vocabulary to describe what they are feeling, thinking or observing; thus, understand that some colleagues may not have the right language but are willing to learn.

• Be mindful and aware of your biases that might perpetuate an inequitable environment. For example, as a leader with positional power, review your employees’ performance assessments. Do you use different language to describe the accomplishments of women versus men? People of color versus white employees? If yes, why? Then, engage in self-reflection to better understand your biases. Change can begin with awareness.

• Become an ally for minorities and marginalized groups. For example, a heterosexual, cisgender woman could be an ally for an LGBTQ colleague.

Becoming a good ally is more than being interested in and passionate about equity; it requires understanding how the inequities manifest for the group. A good ally, as Winters explains, will speak out for the subordinated identity in empathic ways and foster a sense of belonging.

Hence, a psychologically safe space is a construct that helps people feel comfortable admitting when they do not know something or take risks expressing themselves within their work group. Psychological safety, according to my colleague Lisa Nishii, professor and vice provost at Cornell University, is the belief that people are safe in taking these risks and expressing their work-relevant thoughts and feelings.

When team members cannot express their ideas freely, they censor themselves; as a result, they do not experience inclusion and their team will not benefit from their thoughts and views.

One approach is for each team member to answer a set of questions to share personal info about themselves; here are three questions from Nishii that could potentially work:

• Where did you grow up?

• How many kids were in your family?

• What was the most difficult or significant challenge of your childhood?

People will have a chance to tell their stories about where they came from and how they grew up. And in that storytelling, people often make themselves vulnerable, promoting a sense of liking and trust among team members. Also, in revealing something about one’s personal life, people learn to get comfortable being more open.

Thus, if they can be open about something difficult for them, they might be open about something happening at their workplace. When people share these personal stories, Nishii says, they also develop a greater understanding of each other, and they can interpret their coworkers’ behaviors within the context of the personal stories shared.

The group leader and other team members can play a crucial role in providing that kind of real-time permission to team members to continue sharing diverse ideas. As a leader, you may say, “I acknowledge that we’re having a tough conversation right now; it’s uncomfortable.” Real-time permission can be very powerful.

Finally, remember that it is central to minimize status differences within the team to whatever extent possible. When there are emphasized status differences, people in lower-status positions tend to censor themselves. They tend to feel pressure to conform, and if they feel that way, they are less likely to feel safe expressing their dissenting views—and then the significance of diversity is compromised.

Engaging in inclusive conversations is imperative for leaders and managers to foster DEIB. Inclusive conversations permit inclusive leadership. One cannot do without the other.