The Power of Inclusive Behaviors
Behaviors determine culture because culture lives in the details of how we do things. Yet although organizations have been exalting inclusion in mission statements and rolling out inclusion initiatives for the last twenty-five years, they’ve rarely put the focus on behaviors.
Instead, they routinely conflate inclusion with diversity, and so limit the scope of its application. Or they imagine that simply using the right words will brand them as an inclusive place to work. Diversity describes the nature of the situation, while inclusion describes the means by which the situation can most effectively be managed and led.
BEHAVIORS VERSUS BIASES
Changing our actions is more likely to change our thoughts than changing our thoughts is to change our actions.
For example, we think we don’t like someone, but we make an effort to treat them well, and they respond positively to our effort. We are then more likely to start liking them based on their response to our positive efforts than by arbitrarily deciding that we should be more open to that person. Simply recognizing our biases does not give us an intuitive path forward, whereas taking action does.
Also, it doesn’t really matter to someone else if negative thoughts about them occasionally float through our minds. What matters is that we treat them with appreciation and respect. Our behaviors are what make the difference, not our random unstated thoughts. Which are, let’s be honest, nobody’s business.
Building on What Previous Speakers
There are few more powerful ways of making others feel heard than referencing points they have made in our remarks during a meeting, brainstorming session, or in conversation. We know this because we’ve all experienced the glow when someone has shown this generosity to us by noting, “I’m going to build on what Anne said” or “I agree with Bashir’s observation.” We often feel unreasonably grateful to whoever does this because it lets us know that we’ve been heard.
It’s therefore smart to take every genuine opportunity that comes our way to relate the points we make to what others have said. And to spread the love broadly rather than just building on remarks by those who hold more senior positions, which, done on a regular basis, will mostly succeed in making us look like suck-ups. What holds us back from following this simple policy?
Often it’s simply that we haven’t fully heard what others are saying, either because we’re preoccupied with what we intend to say, or we’re in the habit of letting our minds wander. These are typical symptoms of undisciplined listening.
Building on a colleague’s points will benefit no one if our efforts seem intrusive. But this is what happens when we try to demonstrate that we are listening by constantly confirming: good point, terrific, yes! It may feel to us as if we’re showing empathy and being a good listener.But if we do it repeatedly, it breaks the flow.
What a terrific idea! I agree! I hadn’t thought of that! It was not only irritating, repetitive, and overly perky, but after the first few times, it began to sound as if I were trying to hijack the meeting, making it all about me and my responses.
The perils of overconfirmation have only become more pressing in our virtual environment. For example, if we’re on a platform like Zoom and our microphone is on, the technology automatically spotlights us every time we affirm what anyone says. We’ve all seen this happen: a person who’s extremely empathic or enthusiastic ends up repeatedly grabbing the screen as they eagerly try to signal their support. The effect is disruptive, the very opposite of what they intend.
Peter Drucker was probably the most influential management thinker of the twentieth century, and a remarkable person to spend time with. He radiated knowledge and wisdom but was also a highly engaged listener. You knew you were in the presence of a giant.
Peter had a rule for himself: he was always the last to speak. Whether it was a one-on-one or a big meeting, he waited until everyone had finished before he weighed in. By doing so, he demonstrated discipline, patience, and humility. But this practice also had specific benefits.
First, it avoided the danger that other people would adjust or adapt what they had to say because they had been influenced by what he had said. Speaking last also gives you the opportunity to think through what others have shared, increasing the likelihood that your responses will be relevant. And it gives you the chance to build upon what previous speakers say because you’ve had a chance to hear them.
When we feel we’re not valued, when we believe our contributions are ignored, we may react by shutting down. This can push us into a cynical mind-set that shapes our internal dialogue. “Nobody goes out of their way to help me. Why should I go out of my way to help other people?”
Indulging such thoughts undermines our ability to build relationships, depriving us of the kind of support we need to be able to assert our value. Instead, we dig down into a place of unhappiness, convinced that we have the moral high ground because we’re simply responding to how we’ve been treated.
The most effective way to escape this trap is to act in a totally contrary spirit, going out of our way to make others feel good even when we’re not feeling the love ourselves. This kind of willed generosity is exemplified by the Saint Francis prayer: “Let me seek to console rather than to be consoled, to understand rather than to be understood, to love rather than to be loved.”
President Kennedy gave the sentiment a secular twist and inspired a whole generation when he exhorted, Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.
THE POWER OF NOMINATING
We often assume that only senior leaders can serve as sponsors because their connections and position give them the means to invest in colleagues of their choosing. They do so by advocating for others, recommending them for new positions, endorsing their skills, and promoting their interests. This may appear to us as one of the perks of power: being able to influence events by helping others to rise. But we don’t need to wait until we hold a high position to do this. We can get active in sponsoring others at any point in our careers.
One of the most effective ways to do this is to nominate or recommend colleagues for honors, awards, and plum assignments. If we’re on the lookout to do so, we’ll find many opportunities. And if we’re explicitly asked for recommendations, responding with enthusiasm rather than considering it an imposition—or worse, viewing the person making the request as self-serving—gives us a chance to build and extend our network in a positive way.
SOLICITING REAL-TIME SUPPORT
The most basic form of informal enlistment is soliciting support in advance of a meeting, a presentation, or any occasion where you plan to practice a new habit. Say you’re preparing an in-person presentation to your team. Shortly beforehand, you approach a colleague. Here’s a possible script:
“I’d like to ask a favor of you ahead of the meeting we’ll be in together this afternoon.” “What’s that?”
“I’m going to be talking about how the new software rollout is working and I anticipate a lot of questions. I’ve had feedback that I get too detailed when I’m talking about technology and leave some people confused. Could you watch and let me know whether I get too much into the weeds? Or whether there’s a place where I might have been clearer? I really need to get better at this and would be grateful for your thoughts.”
“Sure, I can do that.” “Thanks! I’ll check back after the meeting to hear what you have to say.”
When you do check back, your only role is to listen. You don’t comment, you don’t explain why the suggestion you’re being offered might not work. You don’t promise to act on the advice you’re being given in the future. You just listen.
And then, you say thank you again. The more we practice this technique, the easier it becomes and the more areas we identify where we could use some help. Fairly soon, soliciting support will become our go-to response when we are trying to change things.
SITUATIONAL PEER COACHING
Situational peer coaching operates similarly but the request is different. Instead of asking someone to watch you in a real-time situation, you say what you’re trying to change and ask whether he or she has any tips.
Again, you don’t have to know the person well, though in this case it’s a good idea to ask someone who you believe is skillful at whatever you are trying to improve.
For example: “Peter, do you have a moment?” “Sure.”
“I’m working hard to become more concise in how I communicate. I’ve had feedback that I sometimes meander. I’ve always admired how crisp and concise you are when you speak. I’m wondering whether you have any tips for me. Is there anything you do in preparation?”
The idea here is not to ask Peter to watch you. Rather, it’s for you to get some ideas that could be helpful. Since you’re asking him based on his observed expertise, it’s doubtful that he will take offense at this reasonable and admiring request. More likely, he’ll be flattered, and may take a new and more positive look at you. And you may get valuable insights and information.
TRUTH IN ADVERTISING
Both these simple practices offer many advantages. You’re more likely to do what you say because someone is watching. You have support as you try to move out of your comfort zone. You demonstrate your warm-heartedness and show that you are open to change.
And you get to advertise the fact that you’re changing. This last is important. Often the people we work with (not to mention our families) tend to associate us with habits we’ve actually left behind. “Oh, she’s always late to our meetings,” a team member might say when in fact we’ve been making a huge effort and have not been late in six months. The problem is, people don’t especially notice. They remember us as having been chronically late in the past, so continue to view us through this lens.
Articulating what we’re trying to change and asking for help makes it easier for us to bring attention to our changed behavior because we let people know that we’re working on it. Once they hear this, or hear it a few times, they’ll start noticing and giving us credit. “Do you remember how Iris used to always be late? Boy, has she changed!”
A WORD ABOUT TRUST
We rise together by helping others rise, and they help us to rise in turn, so it’s a good policy to practice informal enlistment as often as we can. We don’t have to know the person we ask particularly well. In fact, informal enlistment is a powerful means for getting to know someone better.
And while trust is a positive, we don’t need to trust the person we engage completely. After all, we’re not making ourselves entirely vulnerable. We’re simply being honest about what we’re trying to achieve and inviting them to be part of it. Our risk is minimal, even though it might not feel that way if we’re unaccustomed to making these kinds of requests.
Of course, it doesn’t always work out as we hope or intend. Sometimes we don’t receive support we ask for. Sometimes the person we ask has no interest in building the kind of virtuous circle of relationship and generosity that this process at its best can enable.
But that’s fine. We can’t control other peoples’ responses. There’s no need to judge someone who fails to reciprocate, criticize their response, or write them off. The point is that we tried. And simply practicing this skill helps us get better at it while also sending a message of trust and support.