Inclusion as Culture: An Ecology of Mutual Respect
May 23, 2018 | Ann Kowal Smith, Karen Nestor, Maredith Sheridan
Sometimes complex human questions become clearer when we go back to our roots – even our childhood roots. University of Chicago Laboratory School teacher and MacArthur Genius Vivian Paley addressed the universal human experience of feeling excluded after forty years of observing children in nursery school and kindergarten. Despite its unlikely source, Paley’s inclusion rule (and the title of her most popular book), “You can’t say you can’t play,” may be an important reflection for organizational leaders who have learned that hiring a more diverse workforce is only a baby step toward creating a culture of inclusion in which all individuals can flourish.
We aren’t advocating a return to preschool, or even the legislation of human interaction with a set of childhood “rules.” But there are important things to learn from the evolution of human nature – ideas and behaviors that have been hardwired into us since before our earliest sentient moments.
Paley’s seminal work began from the stories children shared with her: specific narratives of times when they were excluded by other children. They remembered, in vivid detail, experiences from years before. Feeling excluded left a strong, often indelible mark. Paley was particularly surprised to find that she was unaware of most of the events the children described, although they happened under her nose.
The workplace stories adults tell are not that different from those the children shared. Like Paley, leaders are frustrated when they check all the boxes in a diversity plan, yet fail to create the kind of collaborative, creative workplaces they have been told will result. Harvard educator Howard Gardner notes that respect for others begins in the first year of life and becomes the foundation for humans to value difference and celebrate diversity. He asserts that “the respectful mind” is one of the five characteristics necessary to thrive in the 21st century. Paley’s rule encourages Gardner’s respectful mind – excluding others deprives them of their due respect. What might inclusion look like if we modeled – and ultimately embodied – mutual respect in the workplace?
Mutual respect opens new pathways for creating organizational inclusion. We must shift from thinking of respect as a unilateral transaction – a new attitude designed to invite a specific new perspective – to mutual respect as a critical feature of an organization’s ecology. One day one person “needs” to offer a divergent viewpoint; another day the roles are reversed. The culture of inclusion becomes a mutually beneficial system in which people try to understand each other, build on each other’s contributions and work toward common goals. Inclusion does not focus on making “strangers” feel comfortable, but rather on making each of us feel that we have value. In a rapidly changing world of new technologies and new paradigms, we are all standing on slightly shaky ground. A culture of inclusion benefits all of us.
How does this all play out? With a mutually respectful environment, we are free to engage more fully with each other and with the work we do. We develop a sense of psychological safety – that we can contribute our ideas without judgment or retribution. Colleagues learn and make sense of things together. They explore an idea. They solve a problem. They share prior experiences. They find comfort in a sense of belonging that permits them to bring more of themselves to work, that does not compel them to hide aspects of who they really are. In short, they find ways to reinforce each other’s participation in open and respectful interactions.
An atmosphere of mutual respect fosters – and is fostered by – the “high quality connections” that researchers call the “dynamic living tissue” of organizational life. As we think about inclusion in the workplace, we propose a broad new definition of inclusion as a culture: an ecology of mutual respect and psychological safety that recognizes each person’s unique contributions and encourages meaningful exchange and interaction.
Image: Michael Sowa, School of Fish, [Fair Use] via WikiArt.org