Building a culture of inclusion is a priority for many organisations. After all, a culture of where people feel they belong can help all of us to feel more grounded and accepted, regardless of our backgrounds or circumstances.
Research has consistently shown that inclusive cultures result in more effective employees and teams. Individuals who feel valued and included often perform better, enjoy better physical and mental health and generally feel supported to thrive and succeed. Simply put, a culture of belonging makes business sense.
So, what is needed to build a culture where people feel able to be themselves and can ultimately achieve their full potential?
Forging connections to build confidence
Opening up conversations around race, gender, sexuality, mental health, family, disability or faith is absolutely key, but it is no easy matter.
Many organisations have found that establishing employee networks is a powerful way to help create a sense of safety so that individuals – particularly those in minority groups - feel more able to share their everyday experiences and feel more supported at work.
When invested in and sponsored by the leadership of an organisation, employee networks can help foster dialogue and provide people with the confidence to talk openly about their experiences.
Full engagement beyond networks
For belonging to take hold within a culture, it is important to encourage connections across the whole of an organisation. Many businesses are striving to create relationships outside of core groups and networks and to encourage new relationships to develop.
A challenge is that often individuals belonging to majority groups, such as male, white, heterosexual, able-bodied and so on, do not belong to organisational networks but are nevertheless critical groups to engage around important issues such as diversity and inclusion. It’s key to fostering greater understanding of concepts such as insider/outsider dynamics, equity versus equality, or microaggressions in the workplace.
These discussions can be powerful, but leaders can sometimes lack confidence when it comes to promoting active dialogue. Providing people with appropriate terms of reference can help, but often leaders simply need the permission to concede that they don’t approach these discussions with a full understanding of the issues at hand, so much as a willingness to listen and to acknowledge their own privileged position. That admission itself can be a powerful enabler when it comes to encouraging openness.
Supporting individuals who are, for example, gender non-binary, to tell their stories and share their day-to-day experiences can help create greater levels of understanding. At EY, this level of sharing has highlighted the immense diversity that exists in our own organisation and played an important role in creating a greater sense of inclusion. The stories we’ve heard from colleagues have been inspiring and humbling.
More to do to break down the walls
There is, however, much more still to be done. The killing of George Floyd in the US and widespread outcry that followed galvanised many organisations into action. This tragic event, together with the incredibly positive drive of the Black Lives Matter movement, have shone a light on the significant under-representation of black colleagues in leadership positions. This is one of the key reasons that EY announced a series of new anti-racism commitments earlier this year with tangible actions to create meaningful and long-lasting progress on racial equality.
Events around us also provide continuing challenges. Whether through the loss of loved ones or friends, ill-health or uncertainty and isolation, the pandemic has affected millions of people across the world, and it’s vital that we, and other businesses, are investing in the tools and resources needed to support our people. Working in a virtual environment has in some cases helped to create a culture of inclusion; however, it can also potentially hinder progress too. For example, while video calls can create a more level playing field giving introverted team members a fairer share of airtime, there are other circumstances where, for example, people who live alone may be struggling with loneliness more than those with families.
As adjusting to Covid-19 restrictions becomes business as usual, employers need to take time to understand the different experiences of their people, and ensure they are safeguarding employees and that protecting staff mental health becomes a core priority.
Creating a culture of true belonging requires consistent, ongoing focus at a societal, organisational and individual level. Leadership has always been about navigating and supporting people towards common goals. Now, more than ever, leadership is about doing this within an inclusive culture where people are performing at their very best.
Sayeh Ghanbari is lead partner, EY UK&I Business Consulting, and an EY UK&I D&I Partner Sponsor
Steve Ivermee is EY UK&I Managing Partner, Strategy and Transactions, and an EY UK&I D&I Partner Sponsor
Explore the effect of COVID-19 on diversity and inclusion, and how business can make diversity a priority at the fourth CBI Diversity & Inclusion Conference, 30 November - 1 December. Click here to secure your place.
CBI members get unlimited tickets to attend this conference. Non-members get complimentary access to selected sessions.