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Why Good People Aren't Always Inclusive Leaders

I was recently invited to be a guest at Big Think, where they featured Inclusion on Purpose as the January book club! (Check it out here.) Big Think is awe-inspiring; you can learn from authors and thinkers like Neil Degrasse Tyson and C. Nicole Mason, so I was honored to be asked.

In this week’s Inclusion is Leadership, I wanted to share some key takeaways and highlights from my session with Hannah Beaver.

The TL;DR is this: In a world full of leaders with great intentions, without being inclusive on purpose in practice, none can achieve the diversity, equity, and inclusion outcomes that we aspire to, in theory.

And not only does inclusion need to happen on purpose, it’s an active process. It’s not just a one-and-done fix. I like to underscore the “on purpose” part of the title. Inclusion is about continuous, intentional, daily work.

That’s why so many people struggle to achieve inclusion in the workplace. We’ve found time and time again that the impact of actions matter more than good intentions, especially when it comes to inclusion.

I believe that most people have good intentions. I really, truly believe, the vast majority of us don’t want to be sexist, racist and/or hurt our peers, colleagues and loved ones by using biased language or demonstrating exclusionary behaviors.

But just calling yourself “a good person” isn’t good enough, in fact that’s why bias is rampant today—we believe that if we don’t intend to be biased, we simply won’t be in practice.

It’s rarely so simple. Good intentions don’t always lead to good outcomes and that’s why “good” people (including myself) need to back up our intentions with action and awareness that leads to inclusive outcomes for all.

We can’t talk about inclusion without talking about privilege, and a lot of conversations around privilege today are founded on shame. Shaming and blaming people is not going to be the thing that changes minds (thank you, Brené Brown!) The more shame that people feel, the more they shut down, and then they won’t participate in actions to make their environment more inclusive.

As such, I always return to the systemic factors that create exclusion and bias. I once tweeted this:

“The problem isn’t men; the problem is patriarchy. The problem isn’t white people; it’s white supremacy. The problem isn’t straight people; it’s heteronormativity and homophobia. Recognize systems of oppression before letting individual defensiveness stop you from dismantling them.”

And only by examining and understanding our privilege within these systems—especially if our identities allow us to benefit in these rigged systems—can we make change.

I understand that examining your own privilege can be uncomfortable, bring up feelings of shame, and cause defensiveness. But the first step toward inclusion is acknowledging that all of us have inherent privileges. Then, you can understand that your privilege is not your fault, but it’s certainly your responsibility to become aware of it and use it for good. The goal is to dismantle systems to create a reality where everyone can belong.

So how can you use your privilege for good?

Give Credit Where Due The Washington Post reported that, in the Obama administration, some of the women on staff noticed that they were being spoken over and ignored, and that men on staff were taking credit for their ideas. These are issues that are unfortunately all too familiar for most women. So they banded together and used a strategy called amplification. They agreed that, when they noticed another woman being interrupted, they would support each other by amplifying one another’s ideas and giving credit to the women who made key points. Another one of my favorite examples of this is featured in my book. Yamiche Alcindor, the US White House correspondent for PBS News, was often at the receiving end of racism and sexism as a Black woman covering the last US presidential administration. On August 4, 2020, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany refused to let Alcindor ask a question. Seeing this, a Boston Globe reporter, Jess Bidgood, raised her hand to ask a question, and when summoned, passed her turn over to Alcindor to let her ask the press secretary her question. Bidgood realized that her own privilege as a white woman would likely ensure that she was called upon by the white woman on stage, So she used her position to get the mic and then passed it on to a woman of color. If your voice carries farther because you are part of a dominant majority, you can use your privilege in a tangible, actionable way to amplify the voices of others.

Rethink Culture Fit Hiring for culture fit is among the most widespread and exclusionary hiring practices today. The problem with a very loosely defined, subjective term like “culture fit” is that people still tend to favor other people who look like them, which, in many workplaces in the United States, is largely white and largely men. In Lauren A. Rivera’s book Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs, she interviewed 120 hiring decision makers, finding that 82% of managers said culture fit is one of the most important qualities that they look for, yet only half had a clear idea of what their culture was. Rather than focus on culture fit, organization leaders must concentrate on culture add to be inclusive. Data proves again and again that there are really good outcomes in investing in underrepresented pools of talents. Of course, business outcomes shouldn’t be the only focus when it comes to building a more inclusive workplace, but they’re certainly a benefit. According to a McKinsey study, companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25 percent more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile, and companies in the top quartile for ethnic diversity were 36% more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile. The greater the representation, the higher the likelihood of outperformance. AND. The business case has been done. I’m done with the business case. As we’re going through this challenging time in history, leadership and representation from people from underestimated, underheard, and overlooked backgrounds is what will create change and drive us toward the innovation we need to navigate today and the future. Moreover, it’s the just, moral, right thing to do. End of story.


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