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Oscars and Inclusion

Fern, middle-aged with her dark hair cropped short and close to her head, is wandering through the Badlands National Park. With her white sneakers, she jumps about the rocks and looks around, discovering her surroundings. But at the same time, she seems tiny and lost in the maze of rock formations around her.

This is a scene from “Nomadland”, directed by Chloe Zhao, the first woman of color to win the award for best director at the Oscars this year. Other notable wins included Daniel Kaluuya (“Judas and the Black Messiah”) and Yuh-Jung Youn (“Minari”) for their supporting roles. Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson became the first Black women to win in makeup and hairstyling (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”).

It was a night when diversity not only had a seat at the table but also spoke at the table. It was a night of inclusion.

Diversity and Inclusion are not Synonymous

The workplace is evolving and diverse. We have multiple generations working together, Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z. We identify ourselves in distinct ways—be it gender, race, or sexual orientation. We grew up in different places and view the world through our individual culture and experience lenses. A diverse workforce can enable a business to create more innovative solutions, and thus increase revenue. A diverse company is also more empathetic to its customers, suppliers, and investors.

But diversity is not the same as inclusion. Feelings of inclusion or belonging do not follow automatically from a diverse workplace. An inclusive workplace empowers, develops, and trusts all its employees so that everyone has equal opportunity to participate and contribute. To feel that they belong, employees should feel safe to bring their unique perspectives and candid selves to work. Without inclusion and belonging, diversity will not bring the same benefits of creativity and compassion at work.

We Want to Belong

I’ve worked in nine countries, almost exclusively outside of where I grew up. Across different organizations, I observed how quickly I pick up the style of dressing, lingo, and perhaps even the interests of the people I work with. My stiletto-heeled self in Hong Kong would be quite surprised to see my sneaker-and-streetwear self in Germany. We consciously or subconsciously adjust to our surroundings and context to build rapport, and increase persuasiveness and likeability with others.

A study on inclusion found that “mirroring” in the workplace happens when minority employees want to signal allegiance to their managers, defy negative stereotypes, and propel their careers. The article gave an example of a black male senior leader at a Fortune 500 company who shaved his beard to appear less threatening and reflect the appearance of the white CEO and senior leaders at his company. What are we losing when employees imitate their managers to gain acceptance? What happens when an employee airbrushes out their unique perspective from the picture so that they don’t “rock the boat”?

Leaders will not reap the benefits of a diverse workforce from an economic and an impact viewpoint unless they increase trust and empowerment. Worse still, is when the business’s diversity numbers turn out to be vanity metrics, or people are hired as tokens for business to play the numbers game. In this instance, employees will disengage when they find their leaders are not walking the talk. This could lead to higher attrition and an increase in recruitment expense further down the road.

How to Empower and Include Others

The Harvard Business Review article provided a self-reflection tool with ten dimensions that leaders can use to examine whether or not they display inclusive behaviors. Examples of inclusive behavior listed in the tool are similar to practices highlighted in The Altruistic Capitalist—listen intently, challenge unverified assumptions, give and solicit feedback, identify common goals and mission, and demonstrate strong curiosity. Because we see the world through our unique lens, we should stay open-minded and curious, with the intention to learn more about what we don’t know and to build collaboration.

Be intentional, Pamela Lipp-Hendricks of JPMorgan recommended. She believes that sharing stories and experiences will “allow us to see past assumptions and create opportunities to make connections based on similarities or interests that extend beyond perceptions”. As more people are vaccinated, and restrictions are lifted, how might we learn to reconnect with others outside our circle and see their perspective? What might we learn? What might surprise us?

In addition to having a curiosity about others, and listening, I believe practicing gratitude enables us to see the value of others’ perspectives and to see the good in others. A simple Thank You said and intended wholeheartedly increases the connection between two people. A team that expresses appreciation for each other tends to be more engaged and have more feelings of belonging with each other. This facilitates collaboration and teamwork which can only be good for business.

Build Stronger Community

Business is under pressure to improve their diversity numbers. But that is just bringing diversity to the table. We should work towards hearing each unique voice at the table as well. This will help build stronger and more united communities, that respect the diverse perspectives of the people within them.

P.S.: If you have not watched "Nomadland", watch it and support the diversity of talent involved in making it. The movie is beautiful in its moments of connection between the characters, some of whom are real-life nomads. If nothing else, watch how the transient light of dawn and dusk and the haunting piano of Ludovico Einaudi play their part in telling the story.

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