“Diversity & inclusion” (D&I), a hot topic of our times, is often one that most people don’t fully understand or don’t know how to deal with. They often wonder whether it is relevant to them. As an avid student and passionate believer of D&I, I am attempting to demystify this concept in a series of articles. The first article in this series “D&I – Why should I bother?” established why and how this topic is relevant to every one of us. It discussed how diversity exists all around us and how it goes much deeper than what we see on the surface – it includes different ways in which people think, feel and approach things, which is not always visible on the outside. Diversity adds colour and texture to the world but it can also create distances between people. It is a reality we face in every walk of life, that can be frustrating if not dealt with well, but very rewarding if one can get the best out of it. For the latter to happen, one needs to be able to understand and manage it well, and the only way that can happen is by approaching diversity with inclusion.
I am sure if any one of us were asked if we are inclusive, we would answer with an affirmative and confident “yes”. When we answer this question, our understanding of inclusiveness is that it is the opposite of non-inclusiveness. And non-inclusiveness, to us, means hard exclusion of someone from a group, which most people would not do. Given we don’t exclude others, we conclude we are not non-inclusive and so, it’s logical that we must be inclusive. Quite convincing, when we tell this to ourselves. So, if we are all inclusive already, why all this fuss about inclusion?
Before we answer that question and give ourselves a check mark on being inclusive, let us try to check our understanding of inclusiveness. Inclusiveness is a difficult concept to explain but it is relatively easier to explain what an inclusive environment looks like. Let’s start from there. When a group, community, culture is inclusive, it is very obvious. And to describe that, I am going to use an analogy.
The magic of inclusiveness or inclusion is like the magic of cooking. Imagine a dish with many ingredients. You would all agree with me that even with the best ingredients of the highest quality, one could have a dish which can taste horrible. Because just good ingredients don’t make a good dish. Best-made dishes are those where the ingredients blend together in such a way that each gives its unique flavor and/or aroma, without overpowering that of others; they are all present in just the right amount, adding to each other’s uniqueness without taking away from it. It’s this unique blend that makes the dish a success. That’s what an inclusive culture feels like– it allows every individual to be who they are, bringing together each of their personalities cohesively. The distinctiveness of each character can be felt in an inclusive culture, much like the flavor of each ingredient in a good dish; yet the overall effect is of a blend that builds from individual strengths without letting any individual character subdue, suppress, conquer, subsume or prevail over any other. That is what an inclusive environment feels like.
By default, an inclusive environment lets everyone be; it feels comfortable, everyone feels “at home”. Where does the phrase “feel at home” come from? Home is a place where one can be one’s natural self without the fear of being judged or without the onus of having to explain oneself every time to everyone. It is a place where one is accepted for who one is. And where one naturally accepts other members the same way. Of course, one has to mould oneself here and there to adjust and adapt but there is no need and no expectation of having to change oneself at the core, just to fit in. Because the environment at home embraces one as one is. That is what an inclusive environment feels like.
Who makes an environment inclusive? This is where real life is different from my analogy of a dish. The dish does not cook itself into a delicious blend, a chef does. And it is the skill of the chef that decides how well-blended the dish turns out. In real life, however, there is no chef to orchestrate and supervise the cooking process. The individuals (ingredients) have to do it on their own. It is as if the cinnamon and the peppers have to adjust between themselves to make their chemistry and gastronomy work. The pepper has to stay hot and spicy and the cinnamon intense and woody, each has to make its own magic work, but while doing so, has to respect the magic of the other, let it play out as well, even accept the other’s influence on itself, and take pleasure in the mixture that ensues. That is what we need to do to bring the marvel and magic of inclusion in real life. And the onus to do this is on each of us. That is what it means to be inclusive.
I define inclusion as accepting and respecting people for who they are and how they think and approach things, without judging them for it, thus giving everyone a fair opportunity to flourish, with the freedom to be who they are. This makes people feel comfortable or “at home”, bringing forth their best selves. Everyone allowed to be their own, everyone comfortable, everyone at their best. That creates a positive virtuous cycle that feeds itself, breeding a happy equilibrium of diversity and inclusion.
Now that we know what it means to be inclusive, let’s ask ourselves the same question again about whether we really ARE inclusive. May be now, the answer is slightly different. May be now, each of us can remember those little incidents when we thought or said something like – “What! How can he think like that? That’s so orthodox!” or “She is so unorganized – just look at her desk – we can’t trust her with this project!” or “She speaks so well, she must be really an expert.” – examples of when we let our eyes see things through our mind’s coloured lens, and when we let our mind jump to judgments with these filtered images. We may see how our biases make us see things in a different colour, not because we are unobjective or unfair by nature, but because we are not aware of this activity in our minds.
I went through this series of aha’s when I began to understand the concept of inclusion. I used to see things in black and white before. When something grey showed up (which was most of the time), it would be force-fitted into black or white, with the reference being my point of view on that issue. So here I was, passing judgment in my mind’s court, on things I saw with my biased lenses using my own rules! Obviously, I understood neither diversity nor inclusion then. I read and researched these topics. Out of curiosity to understand how humans react to things consciously and subconsciously, I read psychology. From that spurred an interest to understand how our personalities, biases and mindsets develop. Towards that objective, I went into a full-fledged study of the Montessori method of teaching. Apart from qualifying me for an alternate career option as a Montessori teacher, it really helped me to uncover how a child’s persona develops into adult personality.
These concept and ideas began to crystallize in my head along this journey of discovery, I started applying what I learnt about handling diversity with inclusion, I saw the benefit, and that encouraged me to do more. I further studied several personality frameworks and got certified as a Myers-Briggs trainer. I began training on diversity and developed comprehensive D&I programs in the organizations I worked with. Developing programs for and training on a topic is a great way to continue learning and that’s what happened with me. It also brought me in touch with many like-thinking people, enriching my thought process. It has been a rewarding journey full of rich learning so far and I still have a long way to go. While I still don’t know if I am truly inclusive, I can safely say that I am much more so than I was before; while I am not sure if my mind can see greys as perfectly as it should, I am sure that the spectrum of greys my mental palette has now is much wider than ever before and also much wider than the bandwidth of blacks and whites; and while I am quite certain I was always a good and well-meaning person (like most of us are), I can also say that this learning has definitely made me a better one.
In conclusion, diversity and inclusion must go together. Diversity adds colours to life, and inclusion helps to make these colours gel well together. Diversity is a reality of life that cannot be just wished away or bulldozed over, so inclusion HAS to be in our DNA to leverage that diversity for ourselves and others, as well to not let it become a detractor. A look at everyday news headlines is enough to show how lack of inclusiveness leads to indelible lines between people, communities, even countries, leading to the strife we see all across the world today. Hopefully that is sufficient to make a case for the dire need for inclusiveness, which is more critical and relevant today than ever before.
The journey of becoming more inclusive is not easy, but it is also not difficult, as shared above from my experience. The next article in this series (D&I – The “AURA” of Diversity & Inclusion) shares some tips about how to develop inclusiveness in oneself individually and in a team. As you go on this path, you learn, you apply, you see the benefit, and the positivity of the experience builds on itself, turning it into a virtuous cycle, making it a fulfilling and satisfying journey. And then one can happily and assertively say “I AM inclusive, why this fuss about “inclusion”?”