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Ask Me Anything: 3 Inclusion Questions From Readers

This month, Inclusion on Purpose turned one! I had no way of knowing how it would be received or where it would go, and I was overwhelmed by the amount of comments, messages, and emails I received from readers around the country.

One question I get asked often: How does it feel.

It’s complicated—It’s heartbreaking to hear stories from so many women of color who face bias in the workplace, but it’s encouraging to know that Inclusion on Purpose has resonated with so many people who want to make changes.

I also get asked a lot of questions on what this change should look like and what more we can do. So today’s newsletter is devoted to some of the questions that I’ve gotten most often from people who reached out after reading my book.

And if, in reading these, you’re inspired to ask a question, please don’t hesitate to send me your own!

I grew up in an environment that shared advice about working hard and making good grades being the only factors that count toward achieving your goals. How do you think that advice (which is a myth) needs to change?

A: Advice about meritocracy and hard work alone being the indicator of progress and success is harmful to everyone. For people who grew up with privilege and access, they may wrongly believe that others with less privilege and access (typically people from historically underestimated backgrounds) aren’t able to progress due to a lack of their efforts, when in reality, some face systemic barriers while others benefit from privileges that help us progress. For people who are from historically underestimated identities, they may reach a ceiling no matter how hard they work or how much education and experience they amass, which can cause cognitive dissonance, mental health issues, questioning of self-worth, and other harmful consequences. That’s why my focus is on educating and building awareness of systemic barriers that can hamper growth. When people are armed with the reality of bias existing, they can navigate these issues by naming them, building coalitions and communities, and most of all, preserving their own sanity and sense of self. I never say “don’t work hard.” My focus is: “hard work alone won’t get you there. Understand how to navigate systemic barriers that are very much in existence today until we all own up to them to dismantle them.”

In your book, you mention limiting your use of the term unconscious bias. Can you please talk about your point of view?

A: Just because an action wasn’t intentional, it doesn’t mean there wasn’t an impact on the person harmed. “Unconscious bias” is too often used to justify repeated harmful behaviors or prejudices because they were (apparently) not perpetuated consciously.

Consider this example: I once worked with a team that practiced what felt like an egalitarian decision-making process. We would meet, discuss challenges, and collectively come up with strategies to move forward. But over time, I noticed something odd: a few days after our team meetings, I would return to work to find the decisions that we made were moot, and the manager was moving in a different direction.

At first, I had no idea what initiated these changes, but eventually, I solved the puzzle:

Turns out, my male manager and certain members of our department were having additional, informal get-togethers after work at a local bar. There, they would talk shop and new decisions were made about who to hire, promote, and assign to important projects.

Though I was never invited, I learned that it wasn’t gender-based. White women at all levels in our department were invited, but I never scored an invitation. Later, I figured it had something to do with being the only woman of color in my department. I don’t believe they excluded me because they disliked me, per se, but I do know it was because I was different from the “in-group.”

While I don’t believe they were being discriminatory on purpose, I hesitate to put my missing invitations down to “unconscious bias.” When we chalk biased behavior and actions down to being “unconscious,” those in positions to change these behaviors often feel less responsible for identifying and correcting it. That’s why I now call these behaviors exclusionary or biased, rather than “unconscious.”

How can we build cohesive teams while also eliminating affinity bias and cultural fit?

A: I have a chapter in my book dedicated to inclusion and psychological safety, but essentially, we have to create teams where people have each other's backs, regardless of their position, status or identity. (Please see Dr. Amy Edmondson’s fantastic book The Fearless Organization for more on psychological safety.) I like to see leaders model vulnerability and honesty about barriers to inclusion and take personal responsibility for creating a more inclusive work environment. Better feedback mechanisms are also key to this (which I write about in my book!) as well as naming that you’re specifically hiring for culture add, not culture fit. Any more questions? Send them my way! These are just a few of the questions that I often get, and I love being in conversation with people who are just as excited as I am about cultivating inclusion on purpose.


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