When it comes to advancing organizational diversity and inclusion, too often leaders rely on the latest off-the-shelf training program or policy, but these initiatives do little to change employee behavior. Inclusion is practice. Encouraging employees to value each other’s differences and collaborate effectively requires changes in their behavior. Solving inequality starts with making employees aware of how their behavior contributes to it. Leaders play a critical role in creating this awareness by calling out employee experiences of sexist behavior, discriminatory jokes or exclusionary behaviors, and then using these moments to encourage both individual and collective learning.
This is a continuous practice. When exclusionary or discriminatory behaviors happen, leaders need to address these instances directly with employees, in the moment. This includes giving employees one-on-one feedback outlining how their behavior marginalizes other employees — whether they intended to or not — and the impacts. This is also an opportunity for employees to identify how they will commit to change. Managers can support their employees in practicing equality by providing continuous one-on-one coaching, mentoring, development and feedback. This includes holding employees accountable for changing their behavior. Making inclusion a practice starts with creating a learning culture.
To tackle inequality head on, we need to create a work environment where employees feel safe to share their identities, discover each other’s experiences of inequality, and learn how they contribute to inclusion overall. Men are being asked to join the fight for gender equality, which sometimes requires rethinking how they behave at work. This depends on both a willingness to learn and a work environment that encourages this. When an inequality moment happens, no matter how big or small, it must be viewed as an opportunity to learn. Leaders and employees need to take time out to investigate the causes and identify what can be done differently — the aim is always to learn from these experiences and improve.
It’s important to note that not all employees will feel comfortable sharing their experiences or missteps, which is why it is so important for leaders to establish psychological safety by approaching these moments as opportunities to learn rather than to blame. This starts with leaders sharing their own mistakes and lessons learned.
When leaders are willing to learn and try new ways of working, they make it safe for everyone else to do so. For example, when colleagues openly share sexist jokes, dismiss women’s contributions or speak over them, it’s an opportunity for leaders to take a moment to stop the meeting and point out what is happening. This can be as simple as calling out the behaviors and explaining the impact and what needs to change. Inclusion will only be achieved when employees understand how to put it into practice at work. Transforming the behaviors, norms and cultures in organizations begins with paying attention to the inequality moments, managing them and, more important, learning from them.
Leaders can also use moments when employees demonstrate inclusionary behaviors to recognize these efforts and encourage all employees to follow suit and make these practices a habit. For example, leaders can start each team meeting by asking every person to share a recent example of how colleagues behaved in a way that was supportive and inclusive. This simple routine encourages collective learning and reminds all employees of what “good” looks like when it comes to equality. This approach will also reduce the inevitable resistance inherent in any change in management process.
When employees don’t know why changes are needed or what is being asked of them, it’s easy to resist. But when employees understand the difficulties their colleagues face, this makes it harder to disengage from the change efforts and what is being asked of them. Overcoming resistance starts with giving employees opportunities to educate one another about their different identities, viewpoints and experiences of inequality. To create sustainable change, inclusion needs to become a mainstream part of organizational life, which means making it a part of the way work gets done. This is really the whole point of equality: having employees approach their work in a way that values the contributions, needs and interests of everyone equally.