Do We Have a Crisis of Connection?

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I was lucky to land a couple of passes to the movie, Ali’s Wedding, recently – it is a fun and moving love story set in Australia against the backdrop of the Iraqi immigrant community. While I really enjoyed the movie, this is about what happened before and after it. For me, that is even more significant than the message in the movie (btw, do watch it if you can).

I got the movie passes not because I am ‘well-connected", but because I share a sense of mutual affection and connectedness with a volunteering organisation who thought this was a great way to tell me they valued what I do. So, off I went with my husband to make good use of them, and as we entered the multiplex and started walking towards where all the screens were, we met the usher who was checking tickets. He was a young, well-dressed and cheerful man, he looked up at us and greeted us warmly, smiled brightly, wished us a great night and hoped we enjoy our movie. It was one of those moments when you meet an employee who loves to do what they do, not because they are paid to do it, but because they want to.

That brief exchange did something for me – it made me feel included as his customer. I felt compelled to stop on way out and tell him that we did have a great night and enjoyed the movie just as he had wished for us. His face lit up, he looked delighted and mildly surprised, even. For me, this was a social experiment of sorts.

It doesn’t matter if the person is a stranger and we don’t know their name, when we reciprocate connection, we feel connected and included. Inclusion doesn't depend on familiarity & connection doesn't take time.

The fact that this exchange stood out for me also tells me that people sincerely meaning what they say is not as common as we might think. More people feel disconnected, lonely, misunderstood and excluded in our world than any other time in history, perhaps.

A reflection of that reality is that close to 800 000 people die due to suicide every year, which is one person every 40 seconds. Many more attempt suicide. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-29 year olds globally. We call that age-group our future.

All is not well with our world, even if the person sitting next to us is keeping it together for a few hours, and doesn’t let on if they need help or are craving for a real conversation with a real person. A conversation that tells them they are accepted the way they are, they are valued and that their life matters to us.

It might help us to know that connection is not a function of time or money it’s a function of intention. It barely took a few seconds to have the exchange I described above with the usher at the multiplex. I hope our chat made him feel meaningful in his work and as a professional, and that what he did made a difference to me. Connection is not time consuming, relationships take time though, and all good relationships are built on the solid foundation of moments invested in connecting and reciprocating connection. That takes intention and over time, we form a great relationship - one person at a time.

So, let's examine how we choose to spread the message of inclusion and diversity today across organisations. We continue to address large numbers of people at one time, urging them to be inclusive. We do this because we've built a big employee base, we desire scale, we want to speak to an unimaginable number of people scattered around the globe, we want efficiency, we want to economise and save time, so we gather people in a room and over video conferences, and tell them why respecting diversity and being inclusive is important, that we need their cooperation and action in fulfilling the organisation’s mission in being a diverse organisation that respects individuals. You see how this is a disconnect?

To genuinely include someone and begin to connect with them is a one-on-one action that inspires others to come forward and be themselves. We can inspire a group of people or even a large crowd, but we connect one-on-one. We didn’t form our best friendships in groups, we met people who became our best friends in a group, perhaps, but our relationship with them grew between the two of us. The most productive leader-team member relationships were built one-on-one.

Let's reverse the order, so we reflect the process of human connection correctly. It's inclusion first and then diversity, not the other way round.

We don’t persuade individuals to take individual action through talking to them as a mass of people whose names we can’t tell if anyone put us on the spot. Individual change takes intentional individual action. That doesn’t happen through mandatory and impersonal training programs. That happens through great leadership of individuals.

We have a growing crisis of connection - a crisis where an unprecedented number of people don't feel they belong, they are needed or valued. Test it yourself. Feel the organisational climate of where you work, observe the amount of tolerance people have for a differing points of view or opinions. Watch how the more contentious the topic, the more telling if inclusion has succeeded at your workplace or not. You got your organisational climate survey results right there in front of you.

As leaders, and those responsible for ourselves and our teams, let’s help our people be accountable for their behaviour by talking about issues that are divisive. Sweeping contentious topics under the rug or doing an unconscious bias training is not helpful anymore, there is too much that divides us. Forces beyond our control fuel the narrative that goes against all tenets of inclusion and diversity. So what can bring us together? The narrative might not be in our control, but the conversation is. Let’s begin with a chat, let’s talk about how we feel about our differences. Not how the whole organisation and the country feels about it, how do we feel about it as a team, as a group of people who spend a better part of our days with each other and work towards a goal larger than any of us. Let’s talk about it, let’s not stay silent in the hope that our divisiveness will correct itself, it won’t. Silence rarely does that. Unless we do this, diversity won't stick and won't matter in the long-run.

Let me know what you think, would love to hear back and hear your experiences.

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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.

Recent related article: Why Diversity is not an initiative, and better ways to describe it

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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