The amplification of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion efforts that soared in 2020 has become muted once again. References to diversity have plummeted on corporate earnings calls and organizational diversity offices have been restructured with Diversity Officers laid off or resources significantly reduced. While the attitude toward DEI has shifted once again, the positive business impact of increasing organizational DEI efforts is steady: It remains true that inclusive and diverse organizations deliver stronger business performance, and it remains true that inclusive workplaces lead to better employee engagement.
Even if the organizational momentum behind your DEI efforts has slowed, there remains tremendous opportunity for individuals to act in building an authentically inclusive environment. Here’s one magic formula you can mix up to advance an authentically inclusive environment:
Self-Awareness + Curiosity + Kindness = Inclusion Competency
Step 1: Self-awareness
In being inclusive of others, you must first think of yourself. It seems counterintuitive, but it is critical. Throughout our lives, we all begin in a place of self-focus. Think of the world babies know: When someone leaves the room, they don’t understand that person still exists. It’s what makes peek-a-boo so much fun! As a beginner, our only awareness is of ourselves and the world we experience. Ours is the only way we know.
As we grow, we may become more aware of others having lives that go beyond us, yet we often still judge them based on how their actions or behaviors fit into our framework, without fully examining why that framework was established, what shaped our values, or why we consider something to be “standard” or “normal.”
There is a powerful way to expand self-awareness by considering your origin story. The origin story, according to Wikipedia, is an account or backstory revealing how a character becomes a protagonist or antagonist, and it adds to the overall interest and complexity of a narrative, often giving reasons for their intentions. A protagonist: The hero. An antagonist: The villain.
I personally like the origin story of the Batman villain Two Face: The handsome and thoroughly good District Attorney Harvey Dent had acid thrown in his face by a criminal he prosecuted. This scarred him—mentally and physically— and turned him into a criminal obsessed with fate and duality. Once highly moral, Two Face allows the flip of a coin to make big decisions, often resulting in heinous criminal behavior. His story invokes empathy: While I wish he could find his way out and back to the best version of himself, I understand how his scars have shaped him. It makes it possible to see how, at times, something that happened to us—even things outside of our control– change who we are, sometimes turning us into a villain, and sometimes turning us into a hero.
Of course, in our own lives, aren’t we all the hero? Often, even when we do something questionable– or something that hurts another– we know we didn’t mean to be the villain. Our intentions were better, even if they landed wrong; our heart was in the right place, even if it was misunderstood. And this is true for all of us.
We all have an origin story that made us who we are; that made us care about what we care about and fight for what we see as justice. We workshop these stories in one of our training sessions. They are a powerful way to build connection and understanding among diverse groups of people. They help us understand ourselves, our values, and the backgrounds that have shaped us. As that self-awareness is built, it builds our capacity to expand our awareness of others, too, and how their unique backgrounds, values, and frames of reference shape them. This allows us to move on to the next step of our recipe.
Step 2: Cultivate and indulge in curiosity
Curiosity gives us the opportunity to truly understand others. We need curiosity. We need to be willing to ask questions like: What are your values? Where did they come from? What is shaping the situation you’re in today? What was the intent behind your action?
It is our natural human behavior to judge others by their actions, but ourselves by our intentions. To move beyond this, we must take the time to understand what another’s intentions might be and what might have shaped them.
How can we indulge in the curiosity we have to understand another’s background, values, or frame of reference? After all, sometimes that curiosity has been discouraged. Small children are shushed when they point out something they see as different. Religion, politics, race, sexual orientation are all topics that may be considered taboo or inappropriate to discuss, but they help build understanding.
How can we indulge in curiosity without it seeming like we are pointing out differences or showing ignorance?
While it may be initially uncomfortable, genuine understanding is built when we cultivate and indulge in curiosity. Acknowledging the potential of discomfort, speaking to your intent of creating deeper understanding, and recognizing the validity of another person’s response to curiosity may help. Most importantly: Recognize that curiosity without kindness might sound like judgment, which brings us to our third absolutely irreplaceable element in this formula.
Step 3: Kindness
Kindness is critical, and sometimes underestimated as a soft, nice-to-have ingredient. In business, we might believe there is no necessity for kindness, that we should instead pursue courtesy or professionalism. This is not an optional ingredient, though. It cannot be substituted by the often easier to find ingredient of politeness: They are two very different traits that show up two very different ways.
If they seem indistinguishable, imagine you are seeking feedback to prepare for a promotion and your manager says, “You’re a great employee! I can definitely see you growing your career here.” How nice, right? That feedback will bolster your confidence before you put in for a promotion. There is no cause to second guess yourself and you can walk away feeling supported.
But imagine instead she says, “Great! I’d love to help you get there. You’re close, but you aren’t quite ready. There is one key competency this organization looks for that you have not developed. It is the ability to analyze the pitfalls of all that could go wrong in the formulation of a strategy or plan. When you bring me a new idea, they often don’t have this analysis attached. Let’s develop your competency in that area this year. When you bring me your next idea, include that analysis and we can discuss where it might be improved.” That feedback may not feel as nice. It does not offer unconditional support or send you forward to apply for the big promotion. It does, however, demonstrate that your manager sees you fully and is willing to meet you where you are to help you improve.
Politeness over kindness also leads to well-intended statements like, “I don’t see color,” when leaders are working to add more diversity to a team. These statements may be meant to send a message that the speaker does not see people as “other,” but instead may convey that the speaker does not truly see others at all. (If this particular example piques your curiosity and you would like to learn more, check out this Ted Talk.)
True kindness comes from a desire to help another fully show up as their best and is fueled by the knowledge that when we fully understand another, we can meet them where they are in our interactions.
By seasoning our curiosity with kindness—an intent to truly see the other person fully, to understand how to meet them where they are, and to use that understanding to advance more authenticity– we arrive at the final product of our formula: A space for authentic and inclusive engagement, built from self-awareness, curiosity, and kindness.