Many companies pour money into diversity and inclusion initiatives only to find themselves stuck and their pipelines empty. How truly diverse and inclusive is your organization? Are women, minorities, people of different generations, ethnicities, races, religions, gender identities and sexual orientations all included?
It isn’t easy to get this right. The primary reason is that everybody has preconceived notions of other people and these are largely unconscious. Good people can think and feel things that are not true or kind or fair. Becoming aware of our inner level of prejudices, the ways we classify and stereotype other people, and making the roots of these attitudes conscious, is a necessity in 21st century leadership.
You may balk at this, thinking “I don’t have prejudices.” But the truth is, we are all hardwired through evolution to seek out people who look like us for security and protection. We consciously and unconsciously hire people who look like or remind us of ourselves.
Embracing difference, when it is easier to surround yourself with people who are just like you, will rock your world. You will have to go deep down inside yourself to examine and challenge what feels natural to you. You may seize on superficial similarities so that you can avoid the big differences that make you feel uncomfortable. You may also make the assumption that all minority members are the same, see things the same way and want the same things. This is what happens when a token woman or African American is appointed to the board. Individual differences are critical but they are lost on us when we are so anxious to avoid the big differences among people that we focus only on what is comfortably familiar.
You will need to look instead for the meaningful similarities you share with others that will help you overlook unessential differences. When we become comfortable with our human sameness, we can enjoy our cultural and individual uniqueness. But, until you do the work to become conscious of what influences how you look at a person or situation, you will get it wrong.
The poet and professor, Dr. Maya Angelou, did the work. When you were in her presence, you could feel with certainty that she could see you as you truly are. Last year, when she was asked in an interview, “How can what you say and what you write resonate so thoroughly with such a wide spectrum of people?” she said simply that it came from, “seeing us as more alike than unalike.”
You and your company culture must create an unrelenting commitment to consciousness around this issue. Ask yourself, what do you do on a daily basis that might be a way you treat others not based on who they are, but on who you prejudge them to be? Universities and legal and judicial systems have been raising awareness about micro-inequities and micro-aggressions, referring to the small ways that human beings interact and unwittingly convey discriminatory feelings. You know how subtle this can be. An offhand remark, a smirk, a wink, a tone that says volumes about who is accepted and who is condescended to, tolerated, or humored. At the root of these behaviors is unconscious bias.
Peter Drucker warned us that we would have to become “citizens of the world” if we were going to thrive in a globalized economy. If you and your employees can’t relate to people from different worlds with openness, curiosity and respect, your competitors will. The best way to achieve that edge is to make sure that you have a workforce that understands, through its own experience, how to communicate, relate and negotiate across difference.
Dr. Maya Angelou observed that we “allow our ignorance to prevail upon us and make us think we can survive alone, alone in patches, alone in groups, alone in races, alone in genders.” The legacy she leaves with us is to follow her example and overcome our ignorance.
In business, we can meet this challenge using consciousness as the antidote to ignorance.