Can we create work environments that are truly inclusive?

Well, now here I am about a month after my daughter’s first birthday. And I get it. I really didn’t understand how motherhood would change me until it happened. I had heard about sleepless nights, postpartum blues, overwhelming love, undeniable guilt, and everything in between but until I looked into that baby’s eyes, found myself crying in the bathroom, or dragged myself out of bed after a precious 20 minutes of sleep, I simply couldn’t have known what it would feel like or how I would cope. Hence, “just wait”.

As I’ve re-entered the workforce, this experience has been simmering in my mind. I had heard all the stories about what it’s like to be a working mother. I’d sympathized, I’d supported, I’d advocated. And yet, now that I’m “in the club”, it’s completely different. Which got me thinking, can we really understand someone else’s experience if we haven’t lived it ourselves?

Can we really “take a walk in someone else’s shoes”? And if not, how can we create work environments that are truly inclusive? My esteemed colleague, Esther Jaang, recently shared with me one of the most important lessons she learned as she led a program about diversity and inclusion: that in order to be more inclusive, you have to own up to where you haven’t been. So, to answer my own question, I’m taking her advice and starting with me. Over the past few months, I’ve tried to incorporate three specific habits into my life to help me be a more inclusive leader and human.


My new habits: 1. Being explicit and honest with myself about my assumptions and perspectives I’m trying to take any situation that has me going, “huh?!”, truly laying out what the other person/people must be seeing, and being open to that other perspective’s truth. The Experience Cube, a model by Gervase Bushe, has been particularly helpful for me in this reflection in that it helps me separate how I am seeing the situation to what is observable to each of us. Just the other day, I found myself staring gaping at my computer screen at an email that drove me nuts. After an initial period of calming down, I stopped to think, what really happened here, from what they could see? It helped me step back and identify the assumptions I had been making, and ultimately share those assumptions with the other party in a way that was collaborative, rather than combative. This practice managed to get me from “no way I’m doing that”, to “I see their point, let’s try it!”

2. Trading seeking harmony for curiosity I had an instance in recent months when someone presented to me a very different perspective on a situation than I was used to, and attributed their different perspective to their race and life experiences I couldn’t understand (which is true). In this moment, it would have been typical for me to acknowledge and move on so as to keep harmony and not rock the boat. Instead, I chose to get curious. What does that feel like? How are you feeling now? What’s the impact for you of situations like this? This turned a moment of misunderstanding and disconnection into a moment of learning and connection. Being open to other people’s experiences and perspectives necessarily means opening myself up to a lack of harmony – which is actually quite uncomfortable for me! However, as I’ve swapped out always trying to find common ground to get curious and dig into those differences, I’ve discovered so much more richness and value.

3. Using “I” A number of years ago, one of our fabulous consultants at Refinery brought to my attention a typical language habit that seems harmless, but I believe is quite harmful – the use of “we” or “you” when the person means “I”. More often that not, it’s a way for people to distance themselves from something that may not be well received or is hard to admit. You know when you aren’t really sure what someone else will think? We all do this. The negative impact of this can be far reaching – in particular from the lens of inclusion. It muddies the waters of distinguishing my perspective from yours, and it excludes people who may feel differently (wait, everyone feels that way? I better get in line…). So, when I’m faced with different perspectives, like in the situations above, I’m trying to clearly use the word “I” when I’m talking about my own perspective or assumptions, to help create distinction and clarity from the perspective that I’m not familiar with and am curious to learn more about. (And yes, I re-read through my blog post to make sure I was using “I”. The power of the draft!) I know these small new habits won’t change the world overnight. Someone once asked me, “what’s the laughably small first step you could take towards your goals? Start there.” So what’s a new habit that would help you be a more inclusive leader?

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