a table with different hands (depicting different skin types) on it

After discussing the tremendous power that diversity brings to businesses and to people in an earlier article, Antonella Porta-Ella, and Jane Egerton-Idehen look at the reasons why inclusion is so difficult to actualize, and discuss what it takes to truly harness it.

Jane:  After we published our article “Diversity is Our Biggest Treasure,” it was extraordinary to see how many people shared their personal experience of tapping into diversity and realizing how much they gained from it, Ella.

Ella: Indeed, Jane. I found those personal stories so enriching and moving, and the fact that so many people experienced first-hand the power of diversity gave me huge hope for the future. So, if diversity holds such a beneficial power, why are we struggling to fully harness that power? While there is no single and certainly no simple answer to this central question, I believe the way we define our own identity has a strong influence on our view and experience of the diverse. Let me be clear: as a western woman, I believe that healthy doses of individual identity and self-expression are key ingredients for a good life: we are who we are, and that is wonderful. However, when people construct their own sense of identity primarily by means of difference with others, they are setting very rigid boundaries around themselves; these boundaries can become a self-imposed prison for the individual, an impediment to learning and growing, and those very same boundaries can ultimately turn into a hindrance for personal fulfillment, for business success and for societal prosperity alike. Growth is exactly the act of relaxing our personal boundaries, making them permeable, and giving ourselves a chance to exchange with those around us. And when we exchange with those who are different from uswe accelerate our own growth.

Jane: I fully agree Ella, and was reflecting on what it takes to relax our personal boundaries. We need taking into account an often-unspoken aspect of the truth: seeking diversity can be hard.  Reaching out to and cooperating with those coming from different walks of life might not come naturally, and can feel uncomfortable. As you said, differences are a growth asset, but also potential points of conflict and disconfort. Looking back at my first weeks of working with a very diverse group of colleagues – I recall feeling very uncomfortable, I thought it was just an odd group, and I even considered stepping out from that group – the nuances of culture, personality, acquired traits and habits were pushing our buttons and triggering our defensive mode. And yet, once I went past that initial discomfort, I started to connect with my team mates and truly exchange with them: my initial repulsion for food with too much garlic surprisingly evolved in me trying garlic in my own cooking, and I saw my team mates getting interested in my “African time”, which they initially found so puzzling (don’t know what the African time is? Google it!). The fact that something is hard and difficult does not mean that it cannot create value. Equally, the fact that we believe in the power of diversity and practice inclusion in our work and private life does not mean that we are without biases.

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Ella: I totally agree Jane, inclusion starts with minding our own biases. And this is where genuine peer-to-peer dialogue becomes much more effective than any formal training. For instance, when we first met, I recall you saying to me that we should all watch out for our own biases. At first, I took your statement as nothing more than a reminder, and I even silently questioned whether someone like me, a first-line advocate of the power of diversity, really needed this type of reminder. But then a few days after, as I signed in to a virtual lecture I was so much looking forward to attend, I heard that my favorite speaker had been replaced by another speaker I did not feel attuned with. Disappointed, I observed myself becoming increasingly dismissal of the new speaker, and I seriously considered giving that lecture a miss. And it was at that point that your friendly words rang a bell for me, and that I could clearly recognize my unconscious pre-conceptions and biases! So I chose to stay for that lecture, and consciously kept my mind open to the views expressed by this ‘different’ speaker. I chose to remain curious and non-judgmental, and I was pleasantly surprised and enriched by the different perspective the new speaker brought!

Jane: I am so pleased that worked for you, Ella! Anyway, the point you raised on the barriers to diversity should not be under-estimated, and I was reflecting on what it really takes to build a culture of inclusion.

I have worked for big corporations with admirable diversity agenda, corporations that made genuine attempts to promoting an inclusive organizational culture. Sponsorship from senior management was established, diversity committees were established and diversity champions appointed – and despite these great intents and efforts, in most cases the impact was marginal at best. I always wondered why individuals struggle to actually live by the corporate mantra, even when incentivized to do so. I am speculating that, when it comes to inclusion, a personal experience of its power and benefit is paramount, live it and then it be might easier to execute the corporate mandate. Way beyond been an ally for a minority or underrepresented group .

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Ella: I had very similar experiences, Jane. Along the years, I witnessed businesses and communities making fair attempts at fostering an inclusive culture.  I tried to drive diversity program in a variety of contexts with my own hands, relying on mandatory education and awareness sessions, only to realize that their impact was somewhat limited and sometimes even counter-productive. Indeed, it is widely recognized that many diversity programs, even when well-structured, well-funded and well-intended, could not unleash and sustainably harness the power of diversity (see ‘Why Diversity Programs Fail, by Dobbin and Kalev, HBR). And alike you, I became convinced that the value of diversity and inclusion can only be learnt by doingby progressively experiencing it first hands. It is also paramount to deliberately share our experience of the power of inclusion with those around us – through friendship, through dialogue, and through formal and informal coaching and mentoring. These type of interactions – very personal, frequent, light touch – over time generate a powerful ripple effect, and open doors for others to experience the value of inclusion in their own life, and then become advocate of inclusion themselves.

Jane: I am absolutely with you, Ella. Once we experience the true benefits of diversity in our own life, we become more courageous about it. The more we experience the immense value of including others, the more we become an ally of the ‘diverse’ and a conscious promoter of inclusion.

And now, it is time to tap into the experiential knowledge of those who are reading. How do you drive inclusion in your workplace and in your communities? What works? What does not work?

Ella & Jane

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Ella is a woman of faith, a mother, an entrepreneur, a scientist, a change agent, a hiker, a creative writer, and a photographer. She has a wealth of experience in the FMCG and pharmaceutical industry and has passion for Quality ManagementChange Management and EmpowermentElla’s mission is to empower capable people and create inclusive prosperity.

Ella is Managing Director at Shella ConsultingShella Consulting mission is to empower People, enable Businesses and enrich Communities. Through delivering services and solutions with a human touch.