We know how to include others. We do it all the time. As friends, neighbours and family members, we go out of our way to create safe, welcoming situations for our nearest and dearest. And, as peers and leaders, we make the effort for those we want to get to know. Many of us have been exploring our biases, hopeful that our growing awareness will lead to more welcoming workplaces and communities. We’ve been optimistically assuming that our inclusive intentions are shared, accepted, normalised and even institutionalised.
And now we’re learning that’s not the case.
As people find the courage to speak about their experiences, we are faced with the reality that the errors and injustices of yesterday are still with us.
We have been living in environments built from our homogenous thoughts and based on what we already know, rather than welcoming the thoughts and ideas from the differences our generations, nationalities, and individuals offer.
Inviting people to be like us isn’t inclusion
If we keep doing what we’ve always done, things won’t change. Our assumptions about gradual improvement and our good intentions aren’t enough. As parents, teachers, mentors, coaches, teammates, employers, and leaders we have the power to create safe, inclusive environments for others to be themselves. Each of us has a responsibility to work out our own way to do this.
Listening is a great place to start. In fact, it’s the only honest place to start. We are witnessing deep frustration and disappointment from people who, for decades, have not being listened to. By listening – really listening – we can learn what people truly think, feel and want to say. And we can learn what we need to do differently.
A thinking environment is an inclusive environment
What does it mean to be a thinking environment? It is to practise and master the art of listening – with empathy, free from interruption, free from assumption, free from judgment. One of the components of being a thinking environment is giving our full attention. Another is equality, showing a palpable respect for another’s thinking. It means attending to wherever they may go next in their thinking, rather than simply waiting to reply. It gives others the courage to be themselves: free from the hijack of an interruption to their flow of thinking, free from the need to conform, free from the need to please you or others, free from the fear of letting others down, free from fear of retribution for what they might say or feel.
When we create a thinking environment, we are choosing – first and foremost – to be welcoming. We are saying to another person: “You belong here because of the genuine interest I have in what you think and feel.”
The paradox of belonging
As human beings, we have the innate desire to belong. Our first experience of belonging is usually within the tight-knit environment of our own family. As we grow and develop, we join other groups: at school, within our community, at work. We hook up with others who share our interests. We start to find our tribe. We experience the joys and tensions of moving within and between tribes, and of making new connections with others. And we feel the fear of exclusion and the risk of rejection as the groups we are part of form, storm and norm.
We learn to tune in to the expectations, norms, and cultures of our different groups. We learn to belong by self-censoring, adjusting our behaviour, presenting aspects of ourselves and our thinking that will maximise our chance of inclusion. That is the paradox of belonging.
The paradox of belonging in a thinking environment – as a thinker – is that you belong and you are free from the need to belong. You are welcomed by someone who is genuinely interested in who you are and what you think, and who is ready to accept your thoughts, feelings and ideas, free from the expectation that you will comply, collude or copy them.
The paradox of belonging in a thinking environment – as a true listener or thinking partner – is that you create a space in which the thinker can invite you to belong. You show the thinker you are interested only in them and their thoughts. The thinker invites your questions. They think for themselves, not for you, nor to be like you.
Turning good intention into action
Many of our organisations have moved from our workplaces, with their distinctive histories and cultures, to our homes. We’ve been working together in different ways. We’ve learned to accommodate the flexibility we’ve needed to cope with all our responsibilities, not just our work. We’ve seen glimpses of each other’s lives. We’ve developed our capacity to think more independently. We’ve been able to be more of ourselves.
Imagine the apprehension many are feeling at the prospect of returning to the expectations of the workplace. Imagine the potential loss of initiative and creativity, as people pick up their familiar workplace habits as they step into their office shoes. Imagine the opportunity we have, right now, to reinvent our cultures, to promote inclusivity and to celebrate difference as our teams regroup and reform.
Nancy Kline, author of More Time to Think reminds us: ‘Diversity demands disarming degrees of disinvestment in sameness. Someday we will celebrate that daring. That day we will hear ourselves say, “Welcome, and please be the most you can be. Think as you. Act as you. It is you we need.”’
Rethinking our teams
It takes time, thoughtfulness, and intention to generate inclusive environments. And we’re experiencing a unique time to ensure that our teams are truly welcoming to every team member. Perhaps we need to think about being anti-exclusive to help us become more inclusive. Think about the exclusive systems and policies that might get in the way. Reflect on the beliefs and behaviours that invite some of us in and keep others out.
An inclusive team encourages and welcomes the finest thinking from all its members. It maintains a sense of safety that allows everyone to contribute and collaborate. It performs at its full potential because everyone can think independently and together. What can we do, as leaders, to create inclusive teams?
- We can start by experiencing, for ourselves, the impact of uninterrupted attention. By witnessing how it generates high-quality thinking in ourselves, we can see the power of giving our full attention to others.
- We can strengthen our relationships with those we lead by listening deeply to them. We can allow others to finish their thoughts, rather than tailgating and simply listening while waiting to speak.
- We can ask our team members to think in pairs, giving space and courage to each other’s thinking before they contribute fresh ideas to the larger group.
- We can adopt new team behaviours, holding rounds in meetings so everyone has an equal turn to contribute.
By learning to create – to become – a thinking environment for others, we can ignite our team members’ most creative thinking, welcome their energy and initiative, and leave no one out.