Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

An Inclusion Mindset Takes Work. Here’s How to Develop One.

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The why of inclusion is largely an accepted fact: Including people of diverse and underestimated backgrounds in the workplace is both the right and profitable thing to do. What isn’t largely understood or accepted is the how.

If we believe in inclusion morally, ethically, and as a way to drive profitability and productivity, then why are we so terrible at it? Because we don’t realize—or don’t want to accept—that inclusion isn’t an inborn trait. It takes awareness, intention, and regular practice. It requires an inclusion mindset.

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Psychologist Carol Dweck’s research shows that success has less to do with talent or innate brilliance, and more to do with a mindset that embraces challenges and thrives in the face of adversity. “Individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others) have a growth mindset,” Dweck wrote in the Harvard Business Review. “They tend to achieve more than those with a more fixed mindset (those who believe their talents are innate gifts). This is because they worry less about looking smart and they put more energy into learning.”

Unfortunately, all too often we adopt a fixed mindset toward the challenges of inclusion because it seems like too large a hurdle to scale. Instead, we must believe that we can grow, learn, and adapt to include a rapidly changing, diversifying workforce. An inclusion mindset depends on us to work hard, strategize, and seek input from others, especially those who’ve experienced exclusion and bias at work.

As I write this, my toddler is learning to ride a bicycle in our neighborhood park. He has fallen down or nearly done so at least four times in the span of me typing one paragraph. His knee is bruised, and he’s fearful of getting up again, but he does. I gently remind him that he has already improved so much since the first time he got on that bicycle. He now needs to push past the fear and failure of falling off the bike. Seeing children navigate tough yet necessary “firsts” makes me think about how much discomfort and pushing past fear are key to the learning beliefs that we all need to adopt in being inclusive on purpose.

So where do we begin? I developed a memorable acronym— BRIDGE—to approach cultivating an inclusion mindset.

Be uncomfortable.

First, expect and accept that you will be uncomfortable. A growth mindset demands it, as does an inclusion mindset. We must push past feelings of uncertainty, fear, discomfort, and frustration to create equity and justice everywhere, but especially in our workplaces.

The discomfort may show up in many ways and at unexpected times, from having to acknowledge your own privilege to investigating where you may have perpetuated bias in the past. Embrace that discomfort. Sit with it. Be humble and willing to be imperfect.

In fact, if you aren’t facing some level of discomfort when it comes to learning about inclusion in the workplace, assume that you’re not learning enough. Developing greater awareness of our own racism, prejudices, and biases is both extremely uncomfortable and absolutely necessary.

Reflect on what you don’t know.

Despite spending much of my career addressing bias and inclusion at work, I hope that I never think I’ve mastered this field. As most people do, I’ve gravitated toward investigating the experiences of people with my shared identities—woman and person of color. This means I have to make an extra effort to learn about the challenges faced by other marginalized communities. I have much to learn to fully understand the systemic barriers holding back others, such as employees with disabilities, employees from the LGBTQ community, and neurodiverse employees.

Reflect on which areas of exclusion and bias in the workplace you’re familiar with already. Then reflect on which areas you haven’t spent much time considering. What don’t you discern? What are the viewpoints of the communities (and remember, no community is a monolith) that you’re already familiar with? Which perspectives are you missing that hold you back from being fully inclusive of others in communities that you aren’t part of? What do you need to learn more about—and how will you go about doing this?

Invite feedback.

Feedback on how you may have perpetuated bias or where you or your team aren’t being inclusive is one of the hardest things you will hear. It’s not easy to hear critical feedback; it’s even more challenging when you may hear that you’ve caused someone discomfort or even pain.

Do it anyway. Inviting feedback and responding with a growth mindset can make all the difference between paying lip service to the idea of inclusion and practicing it in action.

If you’re ready to engage, start by asking your direct reports or teammates, especially those from marginalized backgrounds, for honest feedback. For managers, I recommend stating transparently to your employee that you’re seeking open and candid feedback on creating a culture of inclusion on the team. Emphasize and ensure that candor will not impact your employee’s advancement or job at the company. If you can announce this in a group setting (say, at a larger team meeting), then you’re setting the expectation up front that your employees can expect this line of questions in their one-on-one meetings.

Here are some questions to ask:

  • Do you feel like you belong here? Why or why not?
  • Was there a time when I made you feel included? What did I do to foster that?
  • Was there a time when I could have done more to make you feel included? How?
  • How can I create a more inclusive environment on this team?
  • What would you like to see me committing to in order to create a more inclusive team environment?
  • What could I do differently now and in the future?

Next, demonstrate that you’ve listened to the feedback by taking action. If you’ve received feedback that you often cut off women of color when they speak in meetings, then be sure to wait until your turn. If women of color say that they’re not receiving professional development opportunities on the team, work to create them.

I recommend this approach to managers who’ve generally created a culture of inviting feedback and transparency on their teams. Unfortunately, not all organizations encourage and welcome feedback. In that case, and even in tandem with verbal feedback, I recommend using anonymous surveys and potentially working with a third-party researcher to ensure that responses aren’t traced back to individuals. If you’re not in a position to implement such a survey yourself, you can suggest it to your manager, department leader, or HR.

And remember that this is never a one-and-done check-in. In fact, the more regularly you can check in with your team about inclusion and belonging, the easier it will become. It will likely be uncomfortable the first time you do it. Circle back to the B in the BRIDGE framework. I never said this would be comfortable!

Don’t get defensive.

Actionable feedback is a gift. Even if it makes you feel hurt, upset, or angry. Even if it makes you question whether you are a “good” or “bad” person—a judgment that invariably comes up when talking about discrimination. An inclusion mindset demands that we work through defensiveness—constantly and relentlessly.

Some years ago, at one of my first communication department meetings at Seattle University, a white female faculty member mentioned that she noticed undergraduate students treated her with less respect when they called her by her first name vs. “Dr.” or “professor.” She also found that her student evaluations were negatively impacted when she didn’t assert her authority.

I could see some of the white male professors in the room starting to shift in their seats, clearing their throats and looking down uncomfortably. A few said that they didn’t notice this and preferred to be called by their first names; it created a better bond for them with students. Besides, didn’t they have the authority to run their own classrooms?

Then our department chair, a white man, spoke up: “I know this is a personal topic and nobody is suggesting we mandate a policy on how students refer to you in your own classroom. But this is a discussion worth having. Personally, my students call me ‘Chris,’ and I do treat them as friends. That’s because I know my white male privilege lets me do that.”

The room went so silent that I could hear the air from the heaters whooshing through our building. The four faculty of color exchanged glances—three women of color, and a Black, openly gay faculty member. He went first: “I have to start the beginning of each new class with my resume, and there’s no way I could get away with being called anything but Dr.”

“Agreed, I’ve recently moved to requiring students to call me ‘professor’ and I see a marked difference in how students interact with me in class,” I added. One by one, the faculty of color in the room shared stories of how much harder we had to work to be considered worthy and competent by our majority-white students.

As our white male peers laid down their defenses, I could see that our stories were opening their eyes to a bias that they hadn’t ever faced or considered. The inclusion mindset demonstrated by our department chair also had a part to play in ensuring that the conversation didn’t devolve into defensiveness and finger-pointing.

It’s easy to get defensive or hung up on requiring evidence when you hear stories of bias or discrimination. But just because it isn’t your experience, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.

Grow from your mistakes.

Even with all my experience in working toward equity and inclusion, I don’t always get it right, and indeed, 100% perfection is not an attainable goal. We should know that we’ll make mistakes. That’s when the biggest opportunity for growth and learning arises.

Psychologist Jason Moser found that when people with growth mindsets make mistakes, they’re more likely to learn and grow from them than those with fixed mindsets. In fact, his study on brain activity found that our synapses (the electric signals in our brain) literally fire differently after we’ve made a mistake, depending on our mindset. People with growth mindsets produced a bigger brain signal that was related to paying more attention to right a wrong once they realized that they made the mistake.

Expect that change takes time.

Confronting biases can create a desire to take immediate action. This is called action bias, and results in us rushing to move because we don’t want to sit with the discomfort or shame that we may feel. But without taking time to listen and learn, we’re likely to only make minimal changes—not meaningful and lasting ones.

I saw this during the summer of 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by a white policeman. Many U.S. organizations that hurried to have events to address racism in the workplace—but without expert facilitators—ended up putting an undue burden on Black employees and retraumatizing them. Many also didn’t have any follow-up commitments that would improve the representation of Black employees or leaders. So all in all, many organizations’ quick rush to action may have done more harm than good.

“When I talk to leaders about the role of listening in being inclusive and demonstrating a growth mindset, they’re often surprised by the idea that you have to be silent,” Amber Cabral, author of Allies and Advocates: Creating an Inclusive and Equitable Culture, tells me. “That you have to pay attention to what’s happening and how things are moving, because only then can you become a meaningful participant in the change.”

Cabral adds: “There’s a difference between someone running toward the tide because talking about justice and inclusion is trendy, and being the person who says, ‘I want to understand my part [in exclusion], I want to understand how I am a party to the system connected to it, and moving it forward, so that I get to have a say in changing its direction.’ You cannot have that if you don’t listen.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Adapted from Inclusion on Purpose: An Intersectional Approach to Creating a Culture of Belonging at Work by Ruchika Tulshyan. Copyright 2022. Reprinted with permission from the MIT Press.