Why accepting people’s differences is crucial for you as a leader and as an individual

Why accepting people’s differences is crucial for you as a leader and as an individual
“People are just as wonderful as sunsets if you let them be. When I look at a sunset, I don't find myself saying, "Soften the orange a bit on the right hand corner." I don't try to control a sunset. I watch with awe as it unfolds.”

― Carl R. Rogers, A Way of Being

Diversity in every way is the crux of all things nature - from how plants look and grow, to the behaviors of animals to the personalities of people. Our diversities range from ethnicities, interests, skills, ability to process information, types of intelligence, romantic attractions, how we identify ourselves, illnesses and disabilities, social locations and privileges, and each person’s experiences.

Exploring, recognizing, acknowledging, and empowering these diversities is what leads to inclusion and true progress as an organization or society. When people feel a sense of belonging, they do better and can thrive. 

A popular phrase by Vernā Myers is that “diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.” Using this example, we can think about our own ideas of diversity and inclusion: who would I decide to invite to my party? Who would I ignore or wish they wouldn't come? And how would I make someone feel welcome if they came to my party?

All people want to be seen, cared for, and accepted. There is no more important reason to explore differences, and commonalities and open ourselves to accept all needs, abilities, and cultures. 

What deters people from acknowledging others' differences?

People have different requirements and different things that are important to them. However, there are societal standards and expectations for every behaviour, and when someone doesn't fit those, they are asked to minimise or hide that, or they are ridiculed for it.

Popular media (print, digital) is dominated by ideals of ‘perfection’ or ‘ideal’, often showing sameness and excluding diverse stories. More concerningly, language and differences are grossly under-researched or used as a comedy angle, causing immense negative impact. For example, being queer has too commonly been used to make fun of someone, or there is the use of offensive language.

This also highlights that learning about differences takes effort. Being truly inclusive needs to be shown in action. This means learning more about diversities without putting the burden of information on those already being excluded. It means making changes in the language you use, questioning your beliefs, and taking the extra step.

For instance, hiring people to do domestic work at home is common in India. They are commonly called ‘maids’ or ‘servants’ - the former is sexist as it implies only women can do housework - and the latter is derogatory. The right term is ‘domestic workers’ to give them the same dignity and respect as a salaried job, which they rarely receive. 

When surrounded by people with similar social backgrounds (education, financial status, occupations) and abilities, you may not feel the need to think about how someone’s experience and perspective of the world can be different from yours. For example - casteism is a highly nuanced system that permeates every facet of Indian society, and yet many people in urban cities don’t believe it exists anymore. If you feel so, it may be because you have never had to face caste-based discrimination or question your beliefs. 

To be inclusive of people of all diversities requires questioning what you already know and being willing to accept where you need to change. 

How do we inculcate inclusion in the workplace?

Inclusion in the workplace is one of the most important keys to retention.  

It has been identified that commitment, courage, cognizance of bias, curiosity, cultural intelligence, and collaboration are the six traits of an inclusive leader, and including these capabilities in your leadership assessment and leadership development programs can create a culture of openness. 

To embed diversity and inclusion in your organization, leaders must make changes to processes and systems. 

Begin with leadership

Leaders need to be educated to understand the importance of creating an inclusive culture. Exploring one's own biases towards hiring, and examining working styles within the leadership team are important places to start. 

Build accountability

Research shows that a lack of thought heterogeneity at the organizational level is a reason for bias. Once educated, leaders need to be held accountable to design and implement equitable processes, policies, and practices. This would also involve anti-bullying policies.

Go beyond Human Resources (HR)

Create a rotational Inclusion Council with active vocal employees whose thoughts are taken seriously, use metrics and transparent reports on diversity in promotion, hiring, and compensation, close the loop with the management, and encourage it to be an organization-wide responsibility. 

Celebrate employee differences

Recognize all festivities instead of just popular ones; offer flexible deadlines for those with health conditions; pair someone new or struggling at work with a person who can guide or support them; respect people's genders and pronouns; create platforms (both open and anonymous) where someone can talk about themselves and their needs.

Think about growth and repair

If someone has been found to be discriminatory, ensure safety for the harmed person/community. Further, explore how to offer them space to learn from their mistakes and build accountability instead of simply firing them. 

At an individual level

  • Learn about the concept of Intersectionality, and explore your own social position. According to this theory, there is a social hierarchy defined by a person’s many social roles. Each role offers one a certain privilege or position.
  • Educate yourself - through firsthand experiences of people (through books, art, movies) and internalize it! 

Employees are the most valuable asset of an organization, and offering them equitable opportunities to and thrive can strengthen your organization from within. Our world would be a better place if we could be more open and curious about others, while respecting differences and similarities, and make us more welcoming people.