During the 2007-2008 financial crisis many companies turned to cost cutting measures, and among the first “nice-to-haves” to be cut were diversity and gender equality programs. Fast forward to 2017 when the Me Too movement really gained traction, and to 2020, the murder of George Floyd, with an increased Black Lives Matter protest movement across the globe, organizations picked up where they left off, and started heavily investing in diversity and inclusion, as well as gender equality strategies and programs. The pandemic had an interesting impact, as many of the initiatives, like remote working, were both supporting inclusion efforts, for example for employees with disabilities, but school-closures made it very hard for working parents. After a nice post-pandemic year, the current uncertainty around another looming global economic or financial crisis is yet again putting pressures on the internal budgets of employers.
We may very well be at an important pivotal moment, when we take a long hard look at what can move the needle for employees to feel a greater sense of inclusion and belonging, without the necessity to spending a lot of money on conferences, thematic months or communication actions. And this is where one of the most cost-effective and impactful change approaches comes in, namely focusing on behaviour change. I have asked a couple of experts in my network, to help us gain a better understanding to the advantages of focusing on (micro) behaviours and everyday acts of inclusion, instead of continuing investment in large, corporate programmes.
According to Elien Bollen, Talent Development & Inclusion Manager at Deloitte Belgium, when corporate communications and marketing campaigns around diversity and inclusion are only done top down, they can be perceived as pink washing or investing in employer branding, rather than what the main objective is, enhancing inclusivity. Elien adds, that “these programme are only impactful when it’s co-created with communities, putting them in the driver seat by giving them budget AND a community champion (or sponsoring partner) who acts as an advocate for the community’s mission and brings the topic on the agenda of senior leadership.”
Hanan Challouki, Inclusive Strategist believes there is an even bigger risk at play here, beyond just spending money with no real impact. “These large campaigns can become an act of tokenism very quickly. If you only care about women’s rights on International Women’s Day, but you have no idea how women in your organization truly feel about working there, you’re making a ridicule of diversity and inclusion. When this happens, it has a negative impact on the work culture (women feel like they are just used for marketing purposes but not actually listened to) and on your employer branding. Who wants to work for a company that is clearly using its employees to create a shallow employer brand without any real content?”
So far so good, but how do we shift the focus from large, overall campaigns and programs to much more localised interventions to change behaviours. The first step is to identify, what are behaviours that would contribute to creating more inclusive and safe workplaces. If you have a code of conduct in place, or organizational values, or a team charter, these are all great places to start. It is important to make this a co-creative exericise, and not just to assume what would make colleagues feel more included. As Katrien Goossens, Diversity & Inclusion Lead at ING recalls, “When I joined ING, I heard about a new gender-neutral bathroom being installed. It didn’t seem like a big deal to me at the time, but listening to transgender colleagues’ stories about awkward moments and feeling the pain of being (unintentionally) excluded completely changed my thinking. Some practitioners call it ‘the platinum rule of diversity’: don’t treat others like you want to be treated but the way they want to be treated. And the only way to find out what this is, is to get to know people who are different from you and show a genuine interest in their personal stories.”
What can be examples of inclusive behaviours? Here are a few examples:
- Humility, not assuming that you know everything, as Hanan sais, “I think leaders need to have the courage to say “I don’t know” more often. Many leaders are confronted with situations that require certain cultural knowledge or expertise on inclusion and they try to just wing it. That’s not enough. Be honest enough to admit that you don’t always have the right answers for every situation you come across. Don’t act too quickly because you want to show that you care about diversity, inclusion and belonging. Take your time to gather expertise and create a real impact in the short and in the long run.”
- Curiosity, being genuinely interested in what is going on in people’s lives, their cultures, their backgrounds. According to Katrien, “inclusive leadership and everything else starts with humility (I don’t know it all) and genuine curiosity (Every person is an opportunity to learn and get new perspectives).”
- Active listening, becoming more aware of the specific needs of employees, be it women, working parents, neurodivergent employees, religious minorities or persons living with visible or invisible disabilities
- Showing vulnerability, especially important for leaders in the organisation, that you may also have challenging moments, and how have you overcome them, agrees Elien. “When talking about courageous acts of leadership, in addition to showing vulnerability, authenticity, transparency and integrity are especially important.”
In addition to defining what type of behaviours we are expecting from leaders and employees, the environment also has to be conducive to these behaviours. It’s relatively easy to tell Leaders to have humility and admit if they don’t know something, but if the corporate culture is geared towards celebrating assertiveness, self-assuredness and expertise, admitting to not knowing something is going to be difficult. Therefore, while identifying the target behaviours is important, creating the enabling environment for these behaviours is just as important.
For this, we need to take a look at the organisational culture, why and when do people get promoted, what is generally celebrated, the stories we tell ourselves about our company, as well as how we incentivise people to behave a certain way. Katrien Goossens has some great advice to getting started. “Embed inclusive behaviours in your leadership model. Knowing that most work in services sectors is done in meetings, focus on making these as inclusive and accessible as possible first. It will benefit the meeting and its participants on different levels (inclusion, well-being, efficiency, effectiveness, etc.)”.
Inclusion, just as employee wellbeing and equity are outcomes of organisational interventions. Focusing on changing every-day behaviours of leaders and employees, empowering them to engage in daily, small acts of inclusion will result in increased psychological safety, more sense of inclusion and belonging, employees feeling more empowered to bring their whole selves to work. And when that happens, they are more likely to tap into their hidden reserves, think twice about what will serve best the interest of the organization, speak up if something isn’t aligned with their values, and therefore help you lower risk and increase overall performance.