Inclusion in the Workplace: Are We Covering All the Bases?
by Osato Evbuomwan
We are not all the same. Indeed, that is one of the most beautiful things about humans — the fact that we are so diverse in our beliefs, culture, personalities, race, religion and in so many other ways. Our diversity, when harnessed constructively, is an advantage — it powers creativity and innovation. It enables us to consider and learn from different perspectives. It drives growth and progress across many facets. Organisations have become increasingly aware of the power that incorporating diversity and inclusion into business strategy holds. How can they not, when they could easily be ‘cancelled’ by a growing activist population?
The definition of diversity continues to evolve in the modern working world, as we attempt to truly understand the several different factors that shape our identities. When we consider the concept of intersectionality — the acknowledgement that aspects of an individual’s identity such as race, gender and culture are interconnected, and that each individual is more than a singular category — we realise that creating a truly diverse and inclusive workplace is certainly more complex and intricate than embarking on a tick-box exercise.
Most organisations focus on the more obvious aspects of difference — race and ethnicity, age, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, religious and spiritual beliefs, disability, and to some extent, socio-economic status and background. While these will continue to remain relevant in defining company approaches to diversity, there are other aspects that are not as popular or as easily identifiable, which can impact individual experiences in the workplace and potentially impair efforts to drive inclusion.
Inclusion is defined as a sense of belonging. Building an inclusive culture makes people feel valued and respected for who they are as individuals or as a group. People need to feel like they are a part of the organisation and that their role and contributions to its success are valued and important. But this sense of belonging could be subtly undermined within seemingly innocuous aspects of work culture, some of which are highlighted below;
1. Work style
People have different work styles — how they prefer to plan their work tasks, communicate with their colleagues, and how or when they like to get tasks done. Some individuals spend more time thinking than taking action, while others are the exact opposite. Some want to engage with people all the time, and some would rather limit the amount of face time with their colleagues to manage their energy levels and boost their creative thinking. None of these styles is bad. In fact, each one has its advantages, and when clearly understood, can be leveraged to drive peak performance. But if an organisation or a leader favours a certain style over others, it can force people to work in ways that do not enable them to thrive, leading to feelings of isolation and demotivation, which affect their performance in the long run. The key here is to help employees identify and understand their ideal work style, and create work structures that empower them to utilise what works best.
2. Personality type
In today’s world, personality assessments have become a common part of the recruitment process for many organisations. They are often used as a tool to determine ‘cultural fit’ of potential employees on the premise that they can predict an individual’s work performance. It is generally accepted that our personality traits affect our behaviour and our work habits, but most of the time, line managers and employees themselves are ill-equipped to understand how, and are therefore unable to effectively match personality types to job or growth opportunities. When you layer on the fact that our backgrounds and other environmental factors play a role in the development of personality, it becomes apparent that people with certain personality types could be subject to bias and casual discrimination depending on the prevailing work culture. For example, in cultures where a high level of extraversion is celebrated, people with introverted personalities may be overlooked for promotions or leadership positions simply because they do not conform to the favoured behavioural expectations. Teams and organisations thus lose out on the potential benefits of the knowledge and leadership skills that such people could bring to the table.
3. Leadership style
While every leader is encouraged to flex between leadership styles depending on context, each person has a dominant style, and defaults to it most of the time. Some leaders like to get into the details and lean towards micro-managing their team members. Some are very hands-off and give their teams a lot of space and autonomy to decide how to get their work done. The challenge here is that not everyone likes to be managed in the same way. Beyond preference even, not everyone is best managed the same way. In fact, a leader’s style, if not adaptable, will only serve to alienate some individuals. For example, the hands-on leader might repel the self-motivated and highly autonomous individual, potentially leading them to question the value of their contributions and eventually feeling like they don’t belong on the team. The leader who gives autonomy on the other hand, may seem distant and uninvolved to those who need closer attention and more direction, thus evoking feelings of not being seen or not being valued enough to deserve focused development. This is why building the capability for inclusive leadership is crucial for the success of any diversity and inclusion initiatives. People are different, and they need to be managed differently.
4. Performance evaluation needs
The process of measuring performance is often rigid in many organisations, and may not take into cognisance the differences in personality, work style and leadership style of individuals. Line managers may also not have the skills to unearth their own bias, and therefore fall short in objectively evaluating team members. They could default to stereotypes about a class of individuals who share a particular trait or similarity bias could set in, causing them to prefer those who are like them, and this may affect their judgment and how they evaluate their team members. A manager who is unattached and has no children may have a negative impression about working mums who have to leave work early to tend to family, and wrongly use working hours as a measure of performance thereby making such employees feel uncomfortable and undervalued. Similarly, a performance management system that is skewed towards certain personality traits may exclude people who do not have the natural inclination towards those traits. Performance evaluation ideally should focus on an individual’s contribution to the team, his/her ability to drive the required objectives and key results, and the capacity for learning and development. This will not be the same for everyone, so measuring in the exact same way is bound to exclude some.
Diversity and inclusion will continue to be a relevant topic in the world in general and within the work context in particular, especially as people become more sensitised to the extent of difference that exists across cultures and societies. The nature of work is also constantly evolving, creating more points of divergence which are even more complex to manage. Consequently, we have to pay closer attention to previously ignored aspects of people management if we are to get the best out of our teams. It cannot be business as usual.