Diversity adds hues and shades to our world, making it interesting and fascinating. Diversity is not just about outward differences like nationality, ethnicity or gender; it runs deep beneath the surface in differences not always visible or obvious. Inclusiveness is the only way to leverage and harness diversity. My D&I journey from being a skeptic to a student to an advocate has given me tremendous learnings. This series of articles is an attempt to distil those learnings and demystify this concept which is not widely understood and quite widely misunderstood. The first article in this series “D&I – Why should I bother? ” Explained the concept of diversity while the second, “D&I – I AM inclusive, why the fuss?” delved into the true meaning of inclusiveness. This article shares my learnings on the journey to become more inclusive.
While diversity can be approached in different ways, I like to look at diversity as differences in personality and approach vs any other form of diversity; and inclusion as acceptance and respect for people for who they are, without judging them for it. While this sounds easy and logical, I would be the first to admit that it is difficult to understand and even more difficult to imbibe. Becoming more inclusive is not a switch that can be flipped overnight. It’s a mental and psychological evolution that takes time and needs to pass sequentially through stages. I call these stages the “AURA” of diversity – (1) Becoming Aware of diversity and one’s blind spots to it, (2) Understanding diversity and accepting it as a reality, (3) Respecting diversity, and finally, (4) Acceptance, leading up to the bright aura of an inclusive outlook for an individual or an inclusive environment for a group. The journey of AURA has been transformative for me; here is how I have crystallised what I learnt from it, and what the stages of AURA look like.
1) Becoming Aware of Diversity – We are all aware of diversity in the sense that we see visible differences in people and know at a subconscious level that people are different. Yet we are surprised, intrigued, even frustrated at times, when faced with an approach different from ours, and ask, “How can he/she think like that (different from me)?”. We act with the assumption / belief that the other approach is not as good or effective as our own. Therefore, while we know about diversity, we are not “effectively aware” of it.
The other thing we are often ignorant of is our biases. I can imagine the questioning look of the reader here, even a vehement “No, of course I am not biased!” reaction. Let me explain. Psychological research has shown that our brains, in a bid to speed up decision-making, create short-cuts for themselves by making associations. These short cuts which then become the way we make conclusions about things, are our biases. They can be positive or negative, colour our thinking and shape our decisions, often unbeknownst to us. Dr. Mahzarin Banaji (Harvard Univ) and Dr. Anthony Greenwald (Univ of Washington), both eminent professors and psychologists, have postulated the concept of implicit or unconscious bias, showing how the human mind operates with well-developed biases that one is not aware of. Here is a Ted Talk from Dr. Banaji on “Mind Bugs” which the reader may find interesting.
These biases, blind spots and mindsets are like mind filters that we see the world through. Being “effectively aware” of diversity and one’s biases and blind spots is a critical first step in the journey of inclusion. Reading about this topic and assessing one’s own biases can develop this awareness. Here is an Unconscious bias test from the Harvard University site; other tools are also available. For a team, discussions on diversity, biases, watching videos like the Ted Talk above are good ways to create awareness.
2) Understanding Diversity – While understanding and awareness may sound similar, they are distinct steps. Understanding is the most critical stage, warranting more time and effort, hence also space in this article. I am going to share here my own experience. When I became aware of my biases, I wanted to do something about them; however, I did not know how to progress with this awareness other than by being more alert to them. I wanted to understand more. I decided to start with understanding myself. Towards this, I researched different personality frameworks, and decided upon Myers-Briggs. It helped me understand myself and facets of my personality better; in so doing, I also discovered how these facets could be mis-perceived. For instance, I am expressive and tend to speak out what I think and feel. This could be interpreted as knowledge about a topic (because I talk a lot about it) or as an attempt to hog the limelight, or many other things. These perceptions could be negative or positive; regardless, and more importantly, they could be wrong. The person may be blissfully unaware of this web of perceptions being formed about him/her, like I was in this example.
I conducted this exercise of assessing (mis)/interpretations for different aspects of my Myers-Briggs type, and things started clicking together in my mind – feedback I had received, conflicts I had not understood, issues that were unresolved, all now made more sense than ever before. Then a thought flashed in my mind – if I could be the subject of misinterpretations, I could be a perpetrator as well – I am (mis)interpreting people and their actions every moment of every day, making my judgments and acting and reacting based on them!!! Yes, it was a 3-exclamation-mark OMG moment that made me pause and think.
And think I did, very deeply. It was a fascinating discovery for me, to see how personalities can get (mis)interpreted both positively and negatively, creating an inextricable web of reality and perception that we navigate through daily, confident that what we “see” is reality, unaware that it may not be. This was a turning point for me on my AURA journey. After this, I began to find out more about people around me – their backgrounds, contexts, styles and personalities – to understand how they think and how they see things, giving me valuable insights into my communication strategies with them. I had some interesting sessions with my family too, about all our MBTI types. Apart from allowing harmless fun-poking, it also helped us bond even better and develop better strategies of handling tough situations with each other. This process helped me better understand myself and others, enabling better, deeper relationships – at work and in personal life.
In summary, Understanding is a critical step. One way to go about it is to first understand yourself (with any available tool – DiSC, AB5C, MBTI to name a few), internalize what you find, discuss with people close to you and imbibe in deliberate actions. Fostering understanding is easier in a team. A framework and common language can be a big enabler for open discussions and conversations about own and others’ personalities, sharing of learnings, stories and ideas on how to use this new knowledge for better interactions – all leading to tremendous individual development as well as team-building. I have used this approach with the Myers-Briggs tool (MBTI) with a lot of success in teams I have worked in. Whatever tool you use, do remember to not just train people in the tool but to connect it back to your specific D&I objective – for example, my objective is to train people not about MBTI but about understanding style diversity using MBTI. I focus on style (mis)/ interpretation. Corporate teams should design the programs for their D&I objective and not the tool itself.
3) Respecting Diversity : One might think that understanding and respecting diversity are the same, but they are really not. One can understand differences without respecting them. Hence developing respect is a distinct step by itself. Let’s take an example of a person X who is very organized and likes to close things/issues as she moves; Y is the opposite, he likes keeping things open as long as possible. Each type has its own philosophy and its own needs – X needs to have structure and order while Y needs space to explore. Suppose each of them understands the other’s way of working; if however they don’t understand/respect the philosophy behind it, and believe their own way is the better way, it’s a barrier to inclusion. But if they both accept the other’s way as valid and at par with their own, they understand and respect each other’s thinking and needs, then they can easily find a way to work together. That’s the stage of respect, which is distinct from understanding. If in the previous stage, the understanding of why/how people are different has developed well, then this stage is about being deliberate to put that knowledge into action, and then learning by trial and error. A group environment can really help to highlight instances of lack of respect and create healthy pressure for correction. Discussions, agreed actions, common stakes are very useful, and so are role-modeling and sharing stories of attempts and outcomes.
4) Acceptance of Diversity : This last step in the AURA journey is an outcome of the previous steps – when we start respecting diversity, acceptance begins. As this happens, one can feel the difference in one’s interactions and relationships – more understanding of each other and more confidence, less stress when handling tough situations. At a team level, when acceptance clicks in, the team environment becomes much more inclusive and its positive energy is palpable. When the environment accepts us for who we are, we feel “at home”, and can bring our natural best to the situation. When this happens, diversity & inclusion is no longer a strategy, it becomes a reality, the way of working. Inclusion can thus bring out the best from diversity.
This is the journey of AURA – create awareness, understanding, respect and acceptance of diversity, leading to the magic of inclusion. It is a long but rewarding journey that can make an individual a better person and a group of people a collaborative, humming team that brings out the best in each member. If this model could be expanded to the broader world, we could use the hues and shades that diversity brings to make this world a more colourful and vibrant place.
P.S. Diversity can be approached in different ways. I prefer recommend looking at diversity from the lens of personality diversity vs any other form. This blog about the AURA journey of D&I has been written with this approach in mind. To understand why I prefer the personality or style framework of looking at D&I, please read “What is D&I about – gender, nationality, race, ethnicity…?“, which explains the rationale for this preference.