Inclusion in the workplace is a safety issue

Posted on Monday, October 26, 2020

Author: Bob Watts

Vice-President, Indigenous Relations, Nuclear Waste Management Organization
Former CEO, Assembly of First Nations

Neuroscientists from UCLA have demonstrated that the brain experiences "social pain" when a person feels excluded or rejected. In fact, being left out lights up the same areas of the brain known for processing physical pain. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense. Long ago, in hostile environments, being part of a tribe offered protection from intruders and predators. Tribal membership provided physical safety. For most people in today’s world, being included in a tribe is much more about psychological comfort than physical safety. But however it manifests, the underlying need to belong to a group is hardwired in us—and that includes in the workplace.

Why should organizational leaders and managers care that their team members feel a sense of belonging and feel like they matter? In short, because pain, whether social or physical, has a negative impact on human performance. The brain does not have unlimited resources. When it has to address pain and danger, it hinders performance in other areas. When team members are not performing to the best of their ability, neither is the team. Inclusion is both a safety issue and a performance issue. 

Companies can benefit from actively fostering an inclusive environment where everyone feels comfortable sharing their perspectives, experiences and voices. Research shows that diversity of thinking is a wellspring of creativity that can boost innovation and improve revenues by about 20 percent. It also enables groups to spot risks and it smooths the implementation of decisions by creating buy-in and trust.

To foster this environment of inclusion, leaders must understand how cultural differences can impact the way workers see safety at an organization. For example, certain cultural backgrounds see questioning authority as the wrong thing to do. When a worker is given a task and it is not safe, they may carry out the task because raising any concerns could be construed as disrespectful. To foster an inclusive environment, leaders must meet their employees where they are at.

What distinguishes highly inclusive leaders from their counterparts? Deloitte’s research identifies six signature traits, all of which are interrelated and mutually reinforcing:

Commitment: They are deeply committed to diversity and inclusion because it aligns with their personal values, and they believe in the business case for diversity and inclusion. They articulate their commitment authentically, bravely challenge the status quo, and take personal responsibility for change. 

Courage: They are humble about their own capabilities and invite contributions by others.

Cognizance of bias: They are conscious of their own blind spots as well as flaws in the system, and work hard to ensure opportunities for others. 

Curiosity: They have an open mind-set; they are deeply curious about others, listen without judgment, and seek to understand. 

Culturally intelligent: They are attentive to others’ cultures and adapt as required.

Collaboration: They empower others and create the conditions, such as team cohesion, for diversity of thinking to flourish. 

It is also important for leaders to understand that inequities in the workplace often reflect greater inequities within society. For leaders, thinking about inclusion means focusing on the people who face greater harms, greater risks and greater burdens. For leaders, understanding these inequities, their histories and trends, is key to effectively protecting the safety and wellbeing of employees.

People who genuinely feel like they are part of a group will have a much easier time contributing to that group. It's not uncommon for employees from marginalized groups to refrain from voicing their opinions because they feel like the organization isn't making an effort to be inclusive. In many instances, the loudest opinion isn't the most widely-shared opinion. Generating change and innovation from within requires truly listening to those who haven’t necessarily always felt comfortable speaking up. 

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