Sally Helgesen, cited in Forbes as the world’s premier expert on women’s leadership, is an internationally bestselling author, speaker, and leadership coach. She has been ranked #6 among the world’s top 30 leadership thinkers by Global Gurus, honored by the coaching consortium MEECO for her transformational influence on organizational cultures, and chosen as the Thinkers 50/Marshall Goldsmith world’s top coach for women leaders.
Below, Sally shares 5 key insights from her new book, Rising Together: How We Can Bridge Divides and Create a More Inclusive Workplace. Listen to the audio version—read by Sally herself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Diversity requires inclusion.
The term inclusive culture might sound fuzzy, yet it can be clearly defined. It’s a culture in which the largest possible percentage of people feel ownership in the organization, viewing it as “we,” not “they”; believe that they are valued for their potential as well as their contributions; and perceive that how they matter is not strictly tied to their positional power.
Building such cultures has become tougher as organizations have grown more diverse. For the simple reason that those outside the leadership mainstream are more likely to feel, and to be, excluded. As a result, diversity and inclusion have become yoked together.
Failing to distinguish between these terms can undermine our efforts to address them. Diversity describes the nature of the global talent pool that companies must draw from. This is true whether you’re a health care system, a biotech, or a retailer in the local strip mall. Inclusion, by contrast, is the only sustainably useful method for leading a diverse range of people in a way that ensures they feel part of the larger whole.
Not understanding this distinction between diversity and inclusion can create confusion for anyone leading a team or managing a business. For example, leaders routinely describe diversity as a goal. This makes no sense. It’s our reality, not an aspiration. Inclusion is not about being wonderful people. Even less about being “woke.” It’s about being effective, and remaining competitive.
2. The “hows” matter.
People are ditching jobs in record numbers. This only highlights the need to build cultures that keep people engaged. But knowing why it’s important only gets us so far.
This was vividly brought home to me a few years ago when I was delivering a workshop at the Construction Super-Conference in Las Vegas. My topic was women’s leadership, so I expected perhaps 100 women struggling to make their voices heard and claim their value in a heavily male industry. But when I arrived at my session, I found a standing room-only crowd of nearly 300 people—almost 70 percent of them men.
“Don’t waste your time telling us the reasons we need to get good at this.”
My prepared remarks felt misjudged, so I asked the male participants why they’d come. They talked about the difficulties they had attracting—and especially retaining—talented women. They said that, given the composition of today’s workforce—who is available for hire—they saw no way to remain successful if they didn’t become better places for women and other historic outsiders to work.
Then one manager stood and said: please, don’t waste your time telling us the reasons we need to get good at this. We get it. We just don’t know how to do it. We don’t have a clue. I knew then that my task must be to provide some “hows”.
3. It’s behavior, not bias.
For the last 20 years, companies have been trying to build inclusion by urging their people to confront unconscious biases. Yet this is rarely effective, for the simple reason that others don’t respond to the thoughts running through our heads. They respond based on what we do. Since it’s easier to act our way into new ways of thinking than to think our way into new ways of acting, focusing on actions is likely to be more successful.
We all know how this works. We think we don’t like someone, but we go out of our way to treat them with attention and respect. We listen patiently to what they say. As a result, the other person reacts positively, and may start regarding us an ally. We’re then more apt to start liking that person based on their response than if we had decided we should like them.
It’s the responses our behaviors elicit that shape our experience, and the experience of those around us. Because culture lives in the details of how we do things. The unconscious bias approach can also stir conflict because it privileges some kinds of bias over others. This privileging of bias can spur the kind of backlash that results in accusations of cancel culture. Which is why focusing on unconscious bias can be counter-productive as well as ineffective.
4. Triggers are part of the package.
A trigger is any stimulus or situation that shapes our thoughts, words, or actions. Because triggers lie outside ourselves, we can’t prevent them. But we can control how we respond.
Triggers flare easily across gender, racial, cultural. and generational divides. So they’re often hyperactive in today’s workplace. They get set off when someone says or does something that stirs our emotions: resentment, anger, irritation, fierce impatience. This is human.
“Defaulting to such stereotypes deprives us of the ability to get comfortable with people we may perceive as different from ourselves.”
The problem comes when we try to deal with the trigger by resorting to a familiar—and often self-serving—narrative: Men can’t listen to women. Women take too long to get to the point. Asians don’t speak up. Black people who are assertive seem angry. Boomers are selfish.
Defaulting to such stereotypes deprives us of the ability to get comfortable with people we may perceive as different from ourselves. A better response is to notice and accept that we are being triggered, and then swap our negative script for a positive one. Instead of: That guy is always repeating what I say in meetings, trying to claim credit for my ideas.
We can substitute: Okay, maybe he repeated what I’d just said so others would be sure to hear it. I’m going to ask if he wants to work together on that idea.
Here’s the thing: we don’t need to believe our substitute story is true. It’s just a vehicle for enabling us to take power over a situation that might otherwise keep us stuck. Please note: this technique is not appropriate for dealing with real harassment or patterns of aggression. But it’s an effective way to address the everyday triggers that none of us can avoid.
5. Inclusion is a practice.
We’ve been talking a lot about inclusive behaviors. But how do we practice them? We need ideas—the more specific, the better.
We can go out of our way to recognize what others contribute: by phone, text, email, or in person. An example could be “I loved what you said in that meeting,” “I admire how you speak up,” or “watching you helps me become a better listener.”
If we’re senior, we can ask junior people where they’d like their jobs to lead, or what skills or talents they’re not making use of. If we’re junior, we can recognize that part of our job is making those we work for look good, and ask what might be of benefit to them.
We can nominate co-workers for awards or competitions. And be ready to talk about why we want to recommend them. We can go beyond the usual suspects when inviting people to a key meeting. We can be sure to seat some of them at the main table rather than sticking them in the back, which can make it awkward for them to speak up.
“Let people know when we’re working to get better at something and enlist their support.”
We can avoid the authenticity trap. Mantras like I gotta be me and I call it like I see it often serve as license for unleashing our inner jerk. When in doubt, we can ask ourselves, is this professional? Instead of, am I being authentic?
We can learn and respect peoples’ names. Naming options have exploded as people from all backgrounds have entered the workplace. If an unfamiliar name pops up, ask once how to pronounce it. Make a note if necessary. And then remember it.
Let people know when we’re working to get better at something and enlist their support. We might say: “I’ve gotten feedback that I can come off as abrupt. Will you let me know if I cut someone off? It could really help. Plus, it would remind me of what I’m trying to do.”
So, to sum up. To demonstrate inclusion, we want to recognize, engage, and ask!
To listen to the audio version read by author Sally Helgesen, download the Next Big Idea App today: