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Lessons in inclusion from…Leave It to Beaver?

November 19, 2014

I was reminded of the fact that corporate culture can be pretty stiff when it comes to creating space for diversity and inclusion as I watched Howard Ross’s keynote address at Linkage’s Women In Leadership Institute last week.

According to Ross, Leave It to Beaver—the TV show that reflected all the patriarchal, heteronormative, and not ethnically diverse cultural stereotypes of the 1960s—is a powerful lesson in diversity and inclusion (or lack thereof). Obviously we don’t operate in “Leave It to Beaver” times any longer, but many organizations still struggle when it comes to honoring the plethora of diversity and difference among employees. And this has been proven to lead to disengagement and lower business results.

So, I wasn’t really surprised when I saw Dorie Clark’s recent story in the Harvard Business Review where she writes that “61% of all employees ‘cover’ their identities in some way. Not necessarily hiding something, but downplaying it for fear of drawing unwanted attention or making others uncomfortable.” And this “covering” is detrimental to corporate culture and innovation.

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So, we know there’s tremendous value in creating space that allows our colleagues to “show up” as themselves. The question is: How do you actually create the space that leads to a more inclusive organizational culture?

Dorie Clark mentions a few important points in her story.

Start with the language

Managers play a special role here. When corporations talk about “diversity,” a chunk of the population tunes out. They’re not talking about me, they assume. But if you, as a manager, introduce the concept of “covering”—downplaying or hiding certain aspects of yourself so as not to appear different—the conversations shift. Everyone can relate to the term because most people have done it at some point in their career, and it permits a new dialogue on your team about differences. It’s a small but subtle change that ensures everyone recognizes they’re a part of the discussion.

Share your story

Start by telling your story, and don’t just call a meeting tomorrow and expect colleagues to reveal themselves to you. Whether or not you’re part of a traditional “minority” group, most of us have had experiences related to covering, whether we faced it ourselves or witnessed it in someone close to us. Start the dialogue and let others know it’s okay to do the same. Inclusive leadership is a journey and it is important to start with honestly sharing yourself.

Look at the numbers

Companies could consider developing an Inclusion Index. This tracks the hiring and promotion practices of each partner, across several specific slices of diversity. Are they promoting female talent effectively, but not people of color? Tracking hard data holds departments, and the leaders in them, accountable for their actions when it comes to inclusion.

Have the conversation!

It’s time to have difficult conversations about diversity and difference. In the Deloitte University Uncovering Talent study, 98% of professionals surveyed said their companies had stated a commitment to inclusion—but only 72% said their companies lived up to it. That gap leaves both companies and their leaders vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy. It also risks damaging relationships with customers and employees.

Making time for hard conversations now can help prevent serious reputation damage later. That’s why it’s critical for managers to build genuine connections with their employees (which makes them feel seen and understood), and speak up if they believe elements of the corporate culture push people into “covering.”

So let’s hear it. How are you building an inclusive culture and valuing differences on your team, organization, and community?

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Women in Leadership Institute

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A 4-day immersive learning experience designed to equip women leaders with actionable strategies to overcome the hurdles women often face in the workplace.

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