Why do we find inclusion so difficult?

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It's National Inclusion Week! Often we think of diversity going hand-in-hand with inclusion but the focus this week is solely on inclusion. Why? Because inclusion is the harder of the two. Diversity is a natural thing - we are all different; without trying that's just how it is. Yet we can only embrace diversity (and ensure a diverse workforce) if we are good at inclusion and that's where it becomes tricky; as human beings we're just not very good at inclusion.

To illustrate the point, imagine you are at a dinner party. You know one or two of the guests, but most people you haven't met before. You find yourself sitting next to someone you don't know. We will call them Person A. You strike up conversation with Person A; it's the polite thing to do. After a few minutes (possibly even less!) you realise that you just don't click with Person A and that conversation throughout the duration of the dinner party is going to be hard work! At this moment in time your brain will unconsciously race through the options - do I carry on trying to make polite conversation even though I know it will be hard work? Do I focus my attention on the person sat opposite me instead? Do I just ignore Person A and hope they get it? Your brain will be trying to find a way to avoid Person A if at all possible and you're likely to make your excuses at the earliest opportunity in order escape from that awkward situation! You might seek out one of your friends later and talk about how hard it was to connect with Person A. It's also likely that you will actively avoid a scenario where you find yourself having to converse with Person A for the rest of the evening (in other words you'll avoid them).

So what just happened? In essence, Person A is probably someone very different to you. Because of that, your brain's natural response is to step away from Person A - we simply don't like difference and unconsciously perceive it to be a 'threat'. If you apply this scenario to the workplace it is easy to see how inclusion becomes so difficult: you have (unconsciously or otherwise) identified Person A as being different to you (we might even view them as being hard work) so we spend less time with them, we avoid them. We don't go out of our way to speak to Person A, we are far less likely to invite them out for coffee or drinks and we might even talk (or gossip) about them to our friends. If you have management responsibility for Person A the sorts of decisions we make about work allocation, promotion, ratings, compensation and so on can be impacted by our perception of them. In summary, it is very easy to exclude Person A.

Now let's just step back and look at this from a different angle. I want you to imagine that you are Person A. Think how visible the signs will be to Person A that they are not being included...they will of course notice that they are not part of the inner circle, that they are not included in conversations, not invited to the pub or cafe, not given the same sort of work etc. Now think how that will feel. Person A is likely to experience a range of negative emotions - anger, frustration, sadness, confusion - none of which are conducive to enabling Person A to thrive at work. It is therefore critical to recognise that we are naturally very poor at inclusion - it is more natural to exclude people. That tells us that if we are to fully embrace inclusion, we need to challenge our unconscious thought processes, challenge how we perceive and engage with the people around us at work so that everyone feels included. Inclusion Week is a great opportunity to start that thought process so I would encourage to be different, challenge the norm and start the conversation!

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