On Moving From Tolerance to Inclusion: Four Suggestions to Make the Journey


A twenty year younger version of me would have sparingly been tolerant of differences, and on most occasions, not even that. Fortunately, I've always enjoyed ageing, even looked forward to it. I don't particularly pine for wrinkle free days and when binging didn't end up in regret the next morning. I would never trade my journey from tolerance to inclusion for any youthful indulgence. The place in life I now find myself in has helped forge relationships and friendships that were merely a dream back then, completely inaccessible and not even within my comprehension, perhaps.

Yet, it's been a long road from denial of differences that turned my life's beliefs upside down to intense soul searching about my place in the world, some of which continues, and I am glad it does.

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Over the past decade and half, as I travelled in and out of my home country to several others, I met with cultures that shocked me, surprised me and even brought tears of joy. I experienced connectedness with those who lived thousands of miles away in ways I had missed with those who grew up right next door. The jolts were necessary and important parts of where I find myself today. The varied cultural and life experiences have brought as much value and pleasure as they have brought heartache and some regrets even. So I won’t romanticise this. The transition has been hard and definitely not all poetic.

Yet, no lesson came through without its invaluable addition to being more human, less judgmental and more accepting. We are different and so is the person standing in front of us. We wouldn’t have made that decision, but they did. They wouldn’t have made the one we did either. And that’s all right. You may agree, this is easier said than done. Acceptance that moves us to inclusion is mostly hard and takes time

What stops us from moving to inclusion then? Maybe the fact that resistance and tolerance is a way to protect ourselves from influences. It's our defense mechanism to endure something we don't much like, but hope won't change us in ways that we might like even less.

Inclusion is the opposite; it's letting down our defenses and opening up to experiences and beliefs that may very likely alter us, but we still welcome them in the hope that we’ll be richer for it.

Tolerance is not inclusion then. It's a milestone in the journey to being more accepting and inclusive of those who didn’t grow up like us, who don’t look like us, and more importantly, those who don’t think and behave like us.

No wonder then that organisations and teams often find inclusion a bigger challenge to get through than building an equitable and diverse workforce. Diversity can be hired, mentored and promoted. Inclusion continues to be a very personal decision that eludes policy and numbers. Inclusion is a choice, and a very intimate one at that.

So here are 4 suggestions that can enable us to move from tolerance to inclusion:

Question Beliefs

I grew up in a smallish town that grew bigger, but forgot to expand its mind on the way. So we continued to believe on a large scale what we did on a much smaller one. That wasn’t real progress in hindsight. Over the years, I began to question my beliefs that I held so close, but were no longer the convincing reality they once were. At times, the answers took long, some meandered through life's many experiences, but I finally found the important ones. It all began with the willingness to ask - am I thinking this the right way? Is this all there is to it? What if what I believe isn't even true? What if I am being unfair or plain bigoted? Asking is the first step, and asking takes courage.

Catch Tolerance

Often tolerance comes disguised as being really nice, smiling a lot and saying things to be politically correct rather than approach another with a sense of genuine enquiry and curiosity. If we catch ourselves exerting a lot of energy to be good or polite, but feel exhausted after the effort, we might be tolerating, not really including the person. Inclusion feels good, genuinely good. Inclusion is energising, it's interactive because it’s about both of us. It’s also about being real, being who we are, and who we are deep down is not just about being nice.

Practice Discomfort

What we don’t include, we exclude by default. We may not be guilty of pushing away different experiences and people outright. Yet, in staying within our comfort zone and with familiar people, we exclude those different from us. We are tempted to repeat comfortable patterns that reinforce our worldview within the limits of our cultural norms and upbringing. What if we met differences often and stretched some of our limits to take a peek beyond? It takes a surprisingly short amount of time to begin finding ‘strange’ and 'amusing' more normal than we thought. We are adaptable beings, built for discomfort and differences.


No training program, policy or organisational incentive to be inclusive can match the richness of travel experiences. Until I travelled, I didn’t begin to question my tolerance or the lack of it. When those I never thought had anything in common with me, embraced and helped me, I felt shaken deep down. For that to happen, we don't need to cross continents if we can't. Even traveling within our own country or city compels us to meet differences that get easily missed out in the rut of life. Travelling stretches us and helps us realise how much bigger humankind is than the 300 people we know in our network. It gives us pockets of solitude and silence, so that deep and uncomfortable questions have a chance to surface. Moving is not just physical, thoughts shift, too, and so does the spirit. So let’s travel, and get out more often.

I would love to hear what strategies you might use and recommend for each of us to be more inclusive of differences. Do post a comment when you can.

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Why Successful Women End up on the Wrong Side of Likability


A woman colleague of mine came up to me once, and hesitatingly shared how one of her team members said that I was really good at what I did, but was also a bit shrewd. This comment came from another woman, so no surprises there. And I don’t particularly want to dwell on why my colleague thought it was a good idea to bring it up with me. I was caught off guard. I knew it wasn’t possible for everyone to like us, but I didn’t necessarily enter office every day to battle sexism from one of my own gender. I said something that was mildly defiant. For the most part, I felt upset about being dumped in the ‘she’s-excellent so-must-be-scheming’ bucket.

Since then, I’ve thankfully met many more women who find in themselves the capacity to enjoy their own and other women’s successes. I now surround myself with them, and build them up in turn. It’s a heady, virtuous cycle that has proven to me that we are capable of calling out our own biases and being better people and better professionals.

Coming back to my story from long ago, I remember saying how I didn’t consider ‘shrewd’ a bad word, and I was okay with being smart about dealing with whatever came at me on a daily basis. Not the best response, but that was my impromptu defiance. In hindsight, I felt more surprised than rebellious.

Most of us know this by now, and if we don't, then several research outcomes point to our bias that considers successful men to be intelligent, smart and competent. Whereas, women who rock at work are considered most likely scheming, bossy and a bit too smart for their own good; competent yes, but shrewd for the most part. In my observation over the years, powerful men who bred fear at work, and weren't the best leaders around, were held in appreciative awe. Even they generally did better than us on being liked. Unfortunately, not just men, but women negatively correlate success and likability about other women.

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What doesn’t help is that conscious beliefs about fairness, good judgement and objectivity can coexist with unconscious & biased ones without our realisation, at times. 

This bit of interesting info didn’t provide me much solace back then. I resented hearing what I heard, but I was even more perturbed that I was perhaps paying the price for being a competent, professional woman. I brooded about the possibility of being respected, considered competent and successful, over being nice and likable. Uncomfortable as I was, I did give it a think. Was I really doing something that I needed to set right? Was I unintentionally betraying my tribe in ways that tilted the balance of rewards in my direction, but tossed shame and embarrassment their way?

So what was I doing to have drawn this judgement? I thought about how I never competed with anyone else, I still don’t. I worked for the sake of doing great work and to feel excited about it. Work continues to be a personal and emotional experience for me. I shared our combined success and celebrated with the team. I protected and pushed them. I was gregarious, but also very single minded about goals that had my name on them. I was approachable, yet knew when to keep my distance, but felt deeply about another’s pain on important issues and when someone needed me. I could be counted on for calling out unfairness and bad ideas when most others were hell bent on agreeing with the boss or keeping silent. And I knew how to lead others and myself on most occasions. So yeah, that could be construed as shrewd, I guess. It could also mean I was in the right place, doing the right thing, because I knew how to.

My success wasn't at the expense of others, on the contrary, it was with them. I had finally found comfort and reassurance.

To decide to dislike and doubt a woman who is successful and powerful is not a sound judgment most times. It’s the unfortunate outcome of unconscious biases. We most likely mask bias under our assumed competence to make considered decisions based on instinct & how good we are at sizing others up. I include myself in being susceptible to this gender bias, so I remain alert to my own conditioning of who women can become or not.

Even the very educated, well travelled and enlightened amongst us are not completely immune to seeing women through a lens smudged with centuries of perceptions and beliefs about our (supposed) place in society. Such value judgments are far from what sound decisions are made up of. For that, we would need to wipe our lens, and that takes awareness, courage and willingness. We never know what we might see and how it may change us.

I decided that I would do what I could to call out bias, but more than that, I wouldn’t let it derail me from what I loved to do and how I did it. And neither should anyone out there who is called unpleasant names because you are so good at what you do that your success sparkles. It demands a response, and we don’t always get the one we would have chosen for someone like us. It’s not all right, so I won’t say that sexism, weather from our own gender or another, is okay. So, call out bias when you can, and gently turn others around to see how their ‘on-the-go’ judgements affect both of us in unproductive ways.

Each slight, every unfair judgement, knocks us down a bit further on a tough path women walk each day.

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To women, I would say, think hard before we bring down one of our own. We get precious moments to build each other up, give the benefit of the doubt, and ask questions when we can’t understand or don’t want to. But let’s not assume that likability and standout success is an either-or choice for any of us.

There’s ‘and’ there, and it’s up to us to keep it firmly between our success and likability. Everyone loses, even men, when we compel each other to choose between being powerful and successful and being nice.

And maybe, we need to question ourselves as women before we question anyone else, on why we aren’t where we needed to be in this world, in this decade and the next.

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