Why Inclusion Needs to Be Taught, and Not Just Spoken About

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I recently wrote about diversity being a fact, but inclusion being a decision. Which means, we can ignore being inclusive even though we can't ignore we are diverse. Though, most organisations agree that we undermine inclusion at our own risk.

Which brings us to an important question.

How do you make people understand inclusion and then implement it? What exactly do you mean when you ask your team to be inclusive?

More importantly, what do your team members interpret when you persuade them to be more inclusive of the differences around them?

Or do we entrust senior leaders to speak about it and then hope for the best?

A big reason to teach inclusion is that it doesn't mean the same thing to everyone across cultures.

I once worked for an organisation that was promoting the word 'accountability' in a big way. We embedded the word in all our training programs and talked about it every chance we got. While in our offices in India, US, UK and most of Europe, the word accountability was understood as separate from the word 'responsibility', the same wasn't the case when I travelled to South Korea. I taught the very same program, showed the same slides and had a similar discussion. Thankfully, a participant put their hand up and told me that they didn't have a word that meant accountability in their language. The word was understood as interchangeable with responsibility. What if we had left the word accountability to be promoted by our senior leaders alone, and trusted we'd get there? That was a moment of discovery.

Words mean different things to different cultures and different human beings. Meaning is not the same as interpretation, and doesn't always lead to desired action.

Your team might understand the meaning of the word inclusion, but still feel lost about the actions that make the meaning come alive. Which is why we don't just put people in leadership positions, we train them and help practice their leadership in a context that makes them capable leaders. We don't just put a team together, we also train them to collaborate and be productive. We need to do the same to build Inclusive Leadership and inclusive teams.

An organisation needs a common understanding of what inclusion means for them and what diverse teams look and behave like. That's why inclusion is best taught and interpreted and not just spoken about.

It gives people and their leaders a chance to bounce their ideas around inclusivity - it helps to have a space to debate what excludes and what uplifts them as a team.

One more reason to teach inclusion is that it's an abstract concept.

Inclusion can turn arcane and abstract, just like it's an abstract idea to find or discover one's purpose, be our best self and have an impact on the world. Concepts can be wonderful and sound enticing, but we still can't quite grasp the proof of concept. We may continue to struggle with our life's purpose, not know what our best self looks like or feels like and never know if we really did make an impact on this world, and how do we even define 'our world', to being with.

Our people across the organisation have barely time to pick their heads up from their routines. On top of that, we can't burden them with lofty ideas that make no sense on the ground.

It's all very well to talk about the many desired outcomes of inclusion, and quite another to make them practicable and achievable for our people.

Training is a space for storytelling, anecdotes and interpretation, and it can do just that and more.

Here's another compelling reason to teach inclusion.

Inclusion needs its own platform and not become a tricky and elusive by-product of unconscious bias trainings and diversity sensitisation programs. I've written in-depth about the perils of Unconscious Bias training. Teaching how to counter unconscious biases is not the same as teaching our people to be inclusive. Two very different processes of our mind get triggered when we ask people to avoid undesirable behaviours than when we ask them to promote and adopt desirable behaviours.

Mother Teresa once said, don't invite me to an anti-war rally, invite me if you have one on promoting peace. Same idea.

When we don't help our people interpret inclusion explicitly and in a positive context, it can come across as an expectation, or even, a demand. It can appear to be seeking agreement and buy-in to ideas that we might find inherently uncomfortable. That's something that no organisation and training function can ask of its people.

What might get lost, and what we generally want to convey, is that inclusion is awareness and acceptance of our various identities, choices and cultures. It's a set of behaviours that promote respect and a level of restraint as we encounter our differences in hectic day-to-day settings. It's a process to allow each other to feel safe and supported while not having to change ourselves to suit anyone's preferences.

Acceptance is not agreement, it just means, I see your humanity underneath our differences. I have the courage and the grace to respect your choices without endorsing them or adopting them myself.

This is a significant difference that is often not articulated in everyday conversations or when leaders simply speak about being inclusive.

Just like leadership , inclusion is a position we hope to promote our leaders and teams into. Therefore, we have the best chance to succeed if we set the context and a foundation from which to be inclusive and nurturing of diversity.

Would love to hear if your organisation has taken a unique approach or is succeeding at at training teams to be more inclusive.

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