Developing a Culture of Inclusion in the Workplace

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In recent years, inclusion has evolved from an idealistic workplace buzzword to a must-have component of company culture. Definitions vary from source, but inclusion boils down to the idea that, regardless of background, viewpoints, or beliefs, every team member’s contributions are valued and worthy of respect.

While we’d love to say businesses across the country value inclusion simply because it’s the right thing to do (and many do), for those that need a little more encouragement, research has shown that inclusion directly enhances a business’s performance:

  • Teams with inclusive leaders are 17 percent more likely to report that they are high performing, 20 percent more likely to say they make high-quality decisions, and 29 percent more likely to report behaving collaboratively, according to Deloitte.
  • A 10 percent improvement in perceptions of inclusion increases work attendance by almost one day a year per employee, reducing the cost of absenteeism, Deloitte also found.
  • Companies that deliberately encourage inclusion along with diversity, development planning, and leadership development, are 3.6 times more able to deal with personnel performance problems and 2.9 times more likely to identify and build leaders than those that don’t, according to Josh Bersin.

That’s all well and good, but how does a business go about encouraging inclusion? Like so many aspects of corporate culture, inclusion has to come from the top down, with the c-suite and other upper-level managers leading by example. This could start with a purpose statement crafted by the c-suite and handed down throughout the organization and include changes to how meetings are held and who runs them, bias education, and behavior modeling including accountability, humility, and courage, among so many other tactics.

But one of the most powerful pieces of an inclusive culture is communication. Not only in the way leaders—and, in turn, employees—talk about inclusion, but in the way they communicate in general. Are leaders using language that supports or undermines their commitments to inclusion as a cornerstone of company culture?

Employees, customers, and investors want to feel like they’re an integral part of your company’s mission, and the language leaders use can play a big role in making stakeholders feel like insiders—or outsiders.

But here’s the tricky thing: so many of the language characteristics that can make a message feel exclusive aren’t the big, sweeping statements at all, but the nuances we hardly notice in our speech. The pronouns we use, the gendered or age-related terminology that rolls off the tongue the way we position our bodies, the assumptions that everyone involved shares our opinions, and the sincerity (or lack thereof) of our requests for feedback.

We recently published a white paper with an in-depth analysis of the importance of inclusion and the inclusive—and exclusionary—communication techniques we’re seeing from leaders today. For a deep dive, I encourage you to take a look. But for now, let’s highlight three suggestions Liz Guthridge, a communication expert here at Quantified, shared to help leaders focus on building inclusion into their everyday communication:

  1. As you’re speaking, look for ways to indicate that you acknowledge and value other perspectives, and affirm diverse contributions.Replace “We can all agree that…” with “You may feel differently about this, but…”
  2. Focus on language that fosters a sense of community and mutual ownership over goals and achievements, and avoid those common phrases that are accidentally exclusive. Use “we” language rather than “I” language, replace “man vs. machine” with “human vs. machine,” and avoid alienating segments of your audience based on age or other demographics.Replace “Some of you will be too young to remember this, but…” with “There was a time when.”
  3. Stop talking once in a while, and listen. Guthridge points out one fake ask she hears all the time: speakers say, “We want to hear from you,” and then fail to offer a Q&A session or any other opportunity for audience members to give feedback or ask questions. There’s no quicker way to exclude listeners than by preventing them from participating.Replace the empty gesture with an accessible forum for your audience to share their opinions, suggestions, and feedback.

Inclusion is a new imperative in the business world (and, as far as we’re concerned, it’s about time). And as with any cultural change, building inclusion into a business’s everyday operations will require deliberate changes in the way leaders approach and execute their roles. Not only do today’s leaders need to value and promote diverse backgrounds, viewpoints, and perspectives, but they need to learn how to reinforce those values through communication.

Download our white paper to learn more about inclusive language.