“I don’t know anything.” This may not be the best first sentence to get you to read on, but then again, maybe you feel the same way sometimes. No? Am I the only one who is a little lost in sorting out what diversity, equity and inclusion-DEI-all means?
As I dig in though, I discover that I do know:
- I want to be a leader who creates an environment where a everyone feels like they are supposed to be here
- I will get this wrong sometimes and upset some people
- I’m willing to take that risk (and do what I can to fix it) because it is important
My own lived experience doesn’t include being BIPOC, LGBTQ (and a long list of additional experiences); maybe yours does or doesn’t. Either way, I hope you will become curious with me and examine your thinking, ask questions, and engage in dialogue about DEI.
When we get hung up on arguing about language, we miss meeting the unmet need underneath the language: the need of belonging. Maslow puts belonging smack in the middle of the hierarchy of needs, but it’s been suggested that belonging is our most basic need. Babies who do not belong do not get food or shelter. We learn well before we are verbal how essential belonging is to survival.
One example I’m learning about belonging is that “She/Her/Hers” is not about the pronouns. I went to a meeting where the facilitators introduced themselves with their pronouns and grew increasingly uneasy as it went that way around the table, the participants following the facilitators’ lead. When it came to my turn, I said, “I am going to admit to some discomfort, and I don’t want to offend anyone. I work and live in rural Wisconsin, and announcing pronouns is not something that we do, or that I can even imagine us doing. I feel weird, even a little ridiculous.”
Being respectful and honest started dialogue and learning that continues. It takes work to see things from others’ eyes. Just sorting out what to do about pronouns (a complex issue all on its own) is not the whole breadth of things leaders need to consider in creating a place for everyone at the table.
Think about the places in which you don’t fit in easily.
Almost everyone has times when they want to, yet don’t fit in. Attending a program as one of very few non-physicians, I wondered if I belonged there or had anything of value to add. As they warmly welcomed and listened to me, titles flew out the door. Where have you felt on the perimeter, and recognized small ways that others let you in (or did not)?
It is ok if it feels weird.
Saying, “It feels weird” when we change how we speak or act in a way that seeks to include others is different than, “It is weird.” The former is owning our own experience while learning. The latter is judging others for their reality. Discomfort passes, but the feeling of isolation lasts and it is well documented that underrepresented groups have poorer health outcomes, for many reasons. We have to-and can-do better.
Thriving workplaces are more inclusive than exclusive.
You probably have open positions to fill. Creating and leading a culture of inclusivity builds a sense of safety for all, and safety results in better communication, retention, conflict resolution and engagement of people’s best ideas. Ask people for input: “In what ways do you feel respected by me in the way I speak and act? Are there any ways that I could do better to show that I respect you as an individual?” Use the input to grow.
Match your intentions with actions.
You may say, “I accept everyone,” but if your intention to include is not felt by the other party, you’re not there yet. Danielle Ishem, director of workforce development at UW Medicine’s Center for Health Equity, Diversity & Inclusion writes, “Not everything that differentiates us is visible and not everything that unites us is visible.” Where are your opportunities to be more explicit with your actions of inclusion? Do you have outdated policies that need to be updated to reflect your intentions, and are you inviting the input of those whose opinions you claim to respect?
You don’t have it all figured out, and that is as it should be.
A larger leadership challenge here is embracing some loss of certainty, the sense of “the world is safe because I have it all neatly sorted.” Underlying this need for certainty is often a feeling of fear. It can be general fear of the unknown, or fear of loss of some kind (e.g. status, power, image, etc.). Can you make room for being ok with not always knowing, for some ongoing ambiguity?
Expect that what and how we name things will change again in the future.
We are an evolving human race, thank goodness! Julie Stephenson, Southwest Health’s leader of Community Development reminded our work team as she facilitated education for us on DEI, “We will be learning about this the rest of our lives.” Keep learning, questioning and pushing yourself. As Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. When you know better, do better.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
||In Jo Anne's current role as Organizational and Workforce Development Senior Manager at the Rural Wisconsin Health Cooperative (RWHC) her aim is to offer to leaders straightforward tools and inspire the courage to use them.
Lead the Way in Five Minutes A Day: Sparking High Performance in Yourself and Your Team, by Jo Anne Preston is currently available for purchase.