Diversity & Inclusion: What if I Say the Wrong Thing?


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This month’s topic and focus is diversity and inclusion. This is an important subject that affects all of us humans as we navigate the world together. There’s also an extremely strong business case for companies to address and prioritize D&I in their organizations. Doing work around diversity and inclusion has a huge, positive impact on performance and engagement on teams as well as retention, attracting talent, making better hiring decisions, and more. We’ll examine and discuss more about these things throughout the month.

Why diversity and inclusion, and who am I to talk about it?

I recognize that this can be a sensitive topic and a conversation that some people avoid stepping into because it can be uncomfortable, people don’t want to say the wrong thing, and it’s rarely an emotionally neutral subject.

I want to acknowledge that I am a white, straight, cisgendered, privileged, 'successful’ male and that I am not the world's foremost expert on diversity and inclusion by any means. This is a topic that I am passionate about and I, like anybody, am a work in progress. For me, this conversation (both for myself and for organizations) is not about knowing everything and having all the answers. It's about learning, asking, listening, and constantly being in a space of wanting to acknowledge and illuminate our own blindspots and unconscious bias, and continuously do better.

This month I’ll be sharing some resources, perspectives, and tools that I think are useful for teams and individuals to spark great conversations, gain more perspective, and take action around D&I.

Laying the groundwork.

There are three aspects that I want to address to lay the foundation for these conversations this month:

1. We all have blindspots: you don’t know what you don’t know.

There is an excellent book that I highly recommend for every leader, employee, and human to read called “What If I Say The Wrong Thing?” by Vernā Myers. It is an excellent resource for these conversations. Just one of many things that she puts very simply and eloquently in her book is the concept of “structural exclusion.” She provides an excellent example that puts it very clearly into perspective.

Her example is that 50 - 75 years ago, the people who designed and built buildings, public transit, city blocks and public spaces did not have physical disabilities. As a result, they designed and built structures and systems that made sense for them and the way they moved through the world. For many of us, that infrastructure now is just something that we're used to.

However, for somebody who is in a wheelchair, for example, there are elements of that infrastructure that create barriers that most of us are not aware of on a day to day basis. For example, while you're shopping in a grocery store, it's not likely to cross your mind that 75% of items in that store may not be accessible to somebody who's in a wheelchair. Due to the fact that it doesn’t impact you and your experience, it’s naturally not something that you would be aware of or give any thought to.

That is a perfect example of a critical element of this conversation, which is to acknowledge the fact that we all have blindspots. We don't see what we don't see because we all have our own experience and perspective as we navigate the world and our place in it.

We don’t see what we don’t see because we all have our own experience and perspective as we navigate the world and our place in it.

Once we become aware of these types of things, it broadens and shapes our understanding and perspective of the world. The next time you’re in a grocery store, you might remember this example and become very aware of it. This is a very visible, physical example of barriers and blindspots that’s easy to relate to and understand.

The simple truth is that as humans if it doesn’t affect us personally, it’s not likely to be on our radar. We all have blindspots around other people’s experience, the barriers that they face, and what they’re up against. It is very true that there are other systems and infrastructure that have been put in place, long before any of us got here, that were created without consideration for, or sometimes specifically to exclude certain groups of people. These systems create barriers for some people in a very tangible, real way. That is true for institutional racism and some other “isms” like sexism etc. Even though many of them are less outwardly visible than the grocery store example, they are just as real in many ways. Are you aware of all of them? No chance. How could you be if they don’t affect you personally and directly?

2. We all experience struggle and we all have barriers. Some exist for you, and some don’t.

We all have our own personal level of struggle and barriers that have impacted us in our lives, and that we continue to struggle against. Especially for a person of privilege, it’s important to recognize that acknowledging the fact that institutional barriers around racism or gender are real doesn't negate the fact that you have struggled, or worked hard and have had challenges in your life to overcome. It just simply means that those things weren't an additional factor in what you personally had to overcome and what you continue to be up against in the world.

3. Know less, ask more questions.

It’s really important for companies and individuals entering into these conversations to not feel like they have to have all the answers and know everything. It’s more productive and valuable to enter into this conversation with the mindset of just asking all the questions and being willing to listen and learn, and understand why it's important to be more inclusive and to honor diversity.

Diversity gives us strength.

Fundamentally we understand as companies and teams that diversity is important. We understand that we have to have a diverse set of skills, personality types, and backgrounds to fill different roles and be successful in our organizations. We know that all of our sales people could not fill all of our accounting roles.

This same idea is also true when it comes to solving challenges, innovating, adapting, and being successful as a company or a team. The more voices at the table, the more different types of thinkers, experience levels, perspectives that we have, the stronger we become. It is a strategic advantage for organizations to seek out, honor, and revere diversity. I am going to cover more throughout the month around other aspects and reasons why D&I is smart for business.

Where to begin: asking the “who, what, where, when, why, and hows” of D&I.

It’s helpful for companies to just start asking these questions around diversity and inclusion:

  • Why is this work important, what’s the business case for us, how will prioritizing this work benefit us?

  • Who are we missing from our conversations and excluding in some of the programs, systems, and processes that we have in place in our organizations? Who can we bring to the table to help us with this?

  • How can we do better? Where do we have blindspots and what systems and processes can we look at and evaluate and make changes to do better?

  • What other companies are doing this right? What resources and education can we seek out to learn more and have success with this work?

  • When will we start doing this work, have these conversations, and begin making some changes?

Not only is this work the right thing to do, but it builds better, stronger leaders, organizations, and teams.

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This article was created by keynote speaker Galen Emanuele for the #shiftyestribe. Free leadership and team culture content centered on a new focus every month. Check out the rest of this month's content and subscribe to the Shift Yes Tribe at http://bit.ly/JointheSYT