Diversity and inclusion are now business priorities, requiring leaders to set an example to foster inclusive work environments.
We live in a 24/7 digital age; we are always on, and our definition of work is changing rapidly. Our need to operate in a global marketplace expands, if not eliminates, the boundaries between work and life. By fostering an environment where individuals can contribute differing perspectives to the business, organizations are better positioned to innovate, manage in times of crisis, and capitalize on diverse opportunities. This demands recognition and respect for people of all backgrounds, valuing the different opinions, beliefs, and experiences people bring to their work.
Considering this shift, there has been a growing trend for organizations to ask employees to bring their whole self to work, challenging employees to align their work and personal lives. Allowing employees to present their true selves, both personally and professionally, elevates individual productivity, focus, and engagement—and it's good for business.
When we unpack the conversation to go beyond the traditional areas of gender, race, and ethnicity to include individual abilities, beliefs, and preferences, we must be more thoughtful. What does it really mean to bring your whole self to work? Are we ready to confront topics that traditionally have been absent from the workplace? Do we understand the risks and necessary investments needed?
We cannot simply allow people to share only what is comfortable while asking them to leave certain other parts out of the conversation. Leadership, diversity and inclusion (D&I) practitioners, and business runners need to walk the walk and get comfortable with the uncomfortable. In this way, they will lay the foundation necessary to foster inclusive environments for people, organizations, and broader society to thrive.
At the crossroads of managing risk and driving sustainable change, organizations must commit to having clear alignment across industry trends, societal expectations, organizational resiliency, and individual readiness.
Commit to inclusion as a business priority
Industry trends have shown that D&I historically has been seen as HR's domain. D&I was not something that the board of directors strategically owned or stakeholders understood. With the recent focus on gender and wage gaps, generational differences on what defines work, and industry expectations for heightened transparency and accountability, senior management must now recognize D&I as a reputational business risk. Like any other business risk, it demands the necessary attention to make allowances into business planning and to manage with the same strategic focus and emphasis on monitoring that's afforded to other major business risks.
But while corporations, governments, and the nonprofit sector are making concerted efforts to narrow the known gaps, critics can easily dismiss their efforts as a surface-level attempt to just check the box. A true commitment to achieve profound and lasting organizational change requires all parts of the organization to commit to infusing inclusive behaviors in the day-to-day operations. This may include understanding military spouses' unique challenges and needs, securing prayer spaces and adjusting schedules to support multifaith requirements, and embracing traditional norms that go beyond the dominant culture. All parts of the organization need to commit to embracing the depth and breadth of what the whole self means to fortify the D&I muscle.
We have a social contract to fulfill
Societal expectations have changed over time. We are operating in an incredibly complex and uncertain environment, steeped in fundamental political and social differences. Events of the day affect each of us and shape our world views, decisions, and discussions at every level. Recent events have brought a high degree of social consciousness, with global corporations often thrust into the center of the dialogue; many are searching to understand what role the for-profit sector plays in addressing the socio-political climate. Social media continues to serve as a platform to bring issues to the forefront, eschewing traditional hierarchical communication structures.
Regardless of whether it's acceptable, topics of race, religion, and politics are part of the workplace. Employees are looking to leaders to courageously engage in conversations about these critically important subjects. Silence on major socio-political topics can be viewed as apathy (not good for engagement). The conundrum of fostering a culture where people can disagree without being disagreeable and challenge thoughts and ideas without demonizing others is profound. It's not just that leadership needs to do better but also that leadership needs to operate with a heightened degree of accountability to those it serves: employees, shareholders, customers, and broader society.
Companies must consider whole-self engagement a shared responsibility, built on a foundation of mutual respect and trust; make it judgment-free; and ensure they value individual courage, regardless of level or rank. Individual and organizational resiliency must serve as the cornerstone to navigate through the hard issues where integration—not assimilation—of diversity is what drives equity, accessibility, and a deeper sense of belonging for all.
Know what you don't know and do something about it
Organizational resiliency plays a critical role in companies managing their employees' diversity, inclusion, equity, and accessibility. The maturity curve of a company's commitment to the underrepresented and marginalized communities within the organization will inevitably dictate the company's ability to address contention. Leaders must be proactive and prioritize the desire to drive inclusive behaviors for all.
Building resilience involves embedding cultural aptitude at all levels to address external, local, and global issues affecting (and sometimes challenging) the values central to our personnel, policies, practices, and big-picture strategies. The C-suite must recognize that it cannot do this alone and should not want to either. Employees play a key role in driving sustainable culture change, serving as ambassadors and providing a voice.
By fostering feedback loops and leaning heavily on its people (via employee resource groups, town halls, etc.) to listen for the loudest whispers, leadership can break down the barriers necessary to create judgment-free zones and foster civil discourse. Leaders must be transparent about being comfortable in the uncomfortable to promote reciprocal empathy and collaborative solutions without losing focus on their vision.
Finally, as we engage with our people on a broader and deeper level, we need to reframe how we think about the traditional systems. Why were they put in place? For whom were they designed? To support the whole individual, accommodations must go beyond a legal requirement to remove the stigma and barriers for those with different abilities, religious preferences, and sexual orientation.
Accept that not everyone's journey will be the same
As organizations publicly commit to fostering cultures where all employees can bring their whole and unique selves into the workplace, they must accept that no two individual journeys will look the same. Everyone wants to feel valued, welcomed, respected, and heard. But generational differences and experiences will drive the individual commitments made on this journey.
Those with traditional belief systems of what is and is not appropriate to bring into their work worlds cannot be viewed through the same lens as those who have only ever known a world where the lines between personal and professional lives are blurred. Success, then, is not event driven. No leadership memo or token festivities will single-handedly push individuals to share more of themselves with their colleagues. Rather, it will take organizations recognizing that they must meet people where they are, one heart and mind at a time, delicately balanced and managed within the broader framework of the organizational vision.
Identifying inclusive aspirations and demonstrating behaviors that inspire others to co-create and sustain an environment where everyone feels welcome becomes the cornerstone for how teams operate. Long-term sustainability, however, will rely on company-wide efforts to identify and reframe protocols and policies to ensure that the foundation is strong for when individual readiness arises.
The right balance
Leading an organization today is more challenging than ever, demanding the right balance of hard and soft skills to effectively create alignment, manage risk, and still be uniquely human. Daily headlines remind us that small issues inevitably represent the big ones and that, as leaders, what we do next will ultimately matter most in the eyes of those we lead. The heightened focus on individual differences is pushing organizations to adopt a degree of resilience like never before. It is critical to learn, teach, share, and connect with the intent of being transparent and accountable.
Humility, patience, empathy, and focus will instill trust and respect, giving employees the emotional, physical, psychological, spiritual, and political safety they need to thrive. When the world is uncertain, human connections become even more imperative. These connections rely on mutual respect for the unique gifts we each bring to the table. If diversity is a fact of life, then inclusion, equity, and accessibility are the behavioral choices that we are all privileged to make. By responding mindfully and consciously, we can ensure that no one feels that they are standing alone at work.
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