Sally Helgesen has been writing about women’s leadership roles since the Eighties. Now four decades later, she has a new book, Rising Together: How We Can Bridge Divides and Create a More Inclusive Workplace. It brings her thinking about diversity, inclusion and equity into sharp focus to illuminate a path forward that she calls a “culture of belonging.”
According to Helgesen, a culture of belonging is achieved when a majority of people “feel ownership in the organization, believe they are valued for their potential as well as their contributions, [and] perceive that how they matter is not strictly tied to their positional powers.”
A grand statement, yes, so how do we achieve it? The short answer is to change behaviors. According to Helgesen, when we become aware of how we are acting in the presence of others, we can identify what we need to do differently. As Helgesen told me in an interview, look for triggers (obstacles) that get in the way of our being our best around others. Such triggers include a lack of visibility, confidence, misperceptions and poor use of humor.
One trigger is unconscious bias. It is human nature to trust what we know and distrust what we don’t. Calling it out is appropriate, but we often focus on what separates us rather than what unites us. “It alienates us from one another… We’re constantly thinking, oh, well, this person’s background might be different,” and a sense of unease sets in.
Worse, individuals who differ from the group by gender or ethnicity feel marginalized. “They feel stereotyped. They feel unheard. They feel under-recognized for their individuality. It’s not a good thing.”
Marginalization can occur even with good intentions. Helgesen tells the story of a younger client she was working with who had been invited to attend a corporate strategy session. It was senior management’s way of acting inclusively. As a more junior executive, the young woman was excited, only to find out that she, along with her colleagues, had been placed at the back of the room. Her client told Helgesen, “in order to say anything, I had to make my boss’s boss’s boss turn around to hear me.”
The final chapter is a kind of handbook called “Formal Enlistment” for putting the Rising Together principles into practice. “It’s the informal engagement where you’re asking people to give you feedback on how you’re doing. You’re disclosing what you’re doing in a spirit of honesty, and you’re getting other people to feed other people’s feedback. It’s a great way to build relationships.”
For example, a section on how to have a meaningful conversation about an essential issue with a colleague. Coupled with this is a collection of best practices that include being specific in what you ask, limiting your time frame and showing gratitude reasonably, not overdoing it.
Taking the long view
Reflecting on her work in the past, Helgesen says, “Women are in a lot better place than they were when I started working in women’s leadership 30 years ago.” Building an inclusive workplace for all will require “positive culture change that will benefit a broad range of people who may be under-recognized or undervalued in the workplace now.”
John Baldoni is a member of 100 coaches and leadership keynote presenter. He has been recognized as a top 20 leadership expert by Global Gurus, a list he has been on since 2007. He is also ranked as a Global 100 Leader and Top 50 Leadership Expert by Inc.com. John is the author of 15 books. His leadership resource website is www.johnbaldoni.com
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