In one my past blogs, we looked at the #1 barrier for inclusion and diversity, which is affinity bias, i.e., the fact that we tend to favour people who are just like ourselves. Today we’re taking a look at the second major barrier for inclusion and diversity: our inability to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes. In other words, lack of empathy. I’m referring to both emotional empathy, which means feeling somebody else’s pain, and cognitive empathy, which is understanding where people come from, what they think, what they want, and what makes them happy.[i] That’s a skill that doesn’t come naturally to many people. We tend to assume that others are just like ourselves, that they have the same preferences and needs.
Beyond a deeper level of sameness, we are different in the way that we experience the world
It’s true that all human beings want to be happy and loved. In this sense, we’re all the same. We share the same humanity; we’re all going to die. However, beyond that deeper level of sameness, we are different in the way that we see the world. We have different needs, different thinking, communication and learning styles. We are influenced by different cultures, be it national cultures, generational cultures, industry cultures, corporate cultures. Our family values, religious beliefs (or none), and personal experiences also influence us. Societal expectations on us are not the same, depending on who we are. There’s a high risk of excluding people unintentionally if you don’t consider such differences.
Take the need for flexibility, for instance. I’ve seen a sales director organise his team meetings always at the same time, very early in the morning. The same director once chose to organise his annual kick-off meeting on the first day back to school. He had grown up children, and a stay-at-home wife, and he didn’t realise the impact of his choices on working parents, particularly working parents of young children. The person who told me this story had just changed departments because he wasn’t happy working for that director.
Sometimes we fail to take into account basic needs
On another occasion, as I was running focus groups in a factory whose female rates were very low, I found out that in the space where workers spent most of their time, there were no ladies’ toilets. The few women working there had to walk a long way to use the ladies’ toilets in the reception area. They also felt uncomfortable in the uniforms, that weren’t designed to fit the female morphology. They didn’t feel welcome in that environment, and their attrition rates were five times higher than men’s. When I told the plant director my key findings, he couldn’t believe that in his ten years in that plant, he had never noticed that there were no ladies’ toilets. He was shocked by his own blindness.
Another example, from a construction site this time: a site director decided to have a barbecue during the summer for all employees. The meat served was pork. And many workers didn’t eat pork. Except for the salads, they couldn’t eat during the barbecue and felt humiliated during an event that was supposed to thank them for their hard work.
I was once in a corporate dinner with American senior leaders. It was the first time I was meeting them. On the table where I was, they talked for a long time about American football. I couldn’t understand most of the conversation and felt uncomfortable. At some point, somebody said, “Let’s change the subject; not everybody likes American football.” I felt so grateful and could finally start to connect with those around me.
Tackling unconscious bias it’s not enough to drive inclusion
There are endless real life examples similar to the above, and they demonstrate how you can exclude people unintentionally by treating others as you’d like to be treated—which shows that inclusive leadership is not only about taking unbiased decisions. If that were the case, robots would make the perfect inclusive leaders. Empathy is a key skill you need to develop as well.
Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Let me know what you think about it in the comments below! This is an excerpt from one of the chapters of my book “Succeed as an inclusive leader – Winning leadership habits in a diverse world”. You can download for free the sample chapter “Supporting work-life integration” by clicking here.
This article was also published on Huffington Post. To get my weekly articles and videos directly in your inbox, sign up for my newsletter.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
THAIS COMPOINT is an internationally acclaimed author, speaker, trainer and consultant specialising in inclusion and diversity in the corporate world. She is the author of the book “Succeed as an inclusive leader”, and the founder of Déclic International, a consultancy based in the UK, with a global outlook. She has led the diversity strategies of three Fortune 500 companies, and received thirteen awards worldwide, including the Diversity Leader Award in the US as one of the diversity specialists who advanced diversity in the corporate world. She’s also a regular Huffington Post contributor.
[i] I Don’t Feel Your Pain: Why We Need More Morality and Less Empathy, Heleo Editors, December 2016.