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Enabling equity and inclusion through your organisational culture

Previously in this series on diversity, equity and inclusive cultures (DEI), we have established why it’s imperative for international businesses to adapt their approach to people and culture. We then discussed how the implementation of effective leadership and carefully considered organisational structures are great ways to start developing inclusive cultures and sustained diversity. To cap our series, we will discuss the cultural changes needed to enable equity inclusion within an organisation. 

Many companies approach business with the financial bottom line being their only motivation. They often see the employee-employer relationship only as a give and take, transactional process – money in exchange for time and labour. As established earlier in this series, the world has become globalised. It is now commonplace to work in an intercultural setting. Such a change is the basis for the new requirement of diversity and inclusive cultures. For example, how do you define respect? It’s a complex topic with many correct answers. The definitions are also heavily influenced by culture. Organisations who successfully implement and sustain inclusive practices can create awareness, establish open discussion, and leverage differences. Doing so will help create a common meaning for respect, while engaging teams in sustainable collaborative practices.

What is an inclusive culture?

To start, we’ll re-examine the definition of an inclusive culture. Simply put, it is the values, behaviours patterns, rituals, and symbols within a group or groups of people which allows everyone to be equally included. Achieving this requires the fulfilment of the main pillars of Inclusion – every member of the organisation must feel that they are treated fairly and with respect. They must also be shown that they have value and belong. When these feelings are established, trust is earned and the needed feelings of psychological safety are earned. These sentiments are required for sustained inclusion, which also lends itself to sustained diversity. You cannot have one, without the other. 

Diversity without equitable inclusion will not last and inclusion without diversity creates tremendous gaps in areas such as perspective and capability, significantly decreasing innovation. Employees no longer want a transactional relationship with their employers, they want to work in an organisation that offers flexibility and humanity. A genuine approach which transparently creates a bridge between the financial bottom line and the need to treat employees well is the simplified need for organisations today. Any approach to DEI that is not genuine in its efforts to facilitate a human-centric atmosphere, will be transparent and will, instead, hurt the bottom line.

The business case for inclusive cultures

Beyond the statistics established in our previous articles, there are other benefits that can be seen from successful diversity and inclusive practices. Organisations with inclusive cultures are seen as being more likely to    meet or surpass financial targets, be innovative, be effectively reactive and achieve better business outcomes. The engagement of a wide range of perspectives is one big advantage that can be quickly felt through increased diversity. Furthermore, new and varying perspectives can challenge previously held beliefs. Such dissent is necessary and would further dissect various issues and create more innovative solutions.

The results of genuine efforts towards the creation of an inclusive culture are recognisable. Employees who see a committed interest in DEI from their organisation demonstrate increased customer service, innovation and collaboration. Voluntary employee engagement will increase as a result of a successful implementation.

Bumps in the road to inclusion

Organisations which want to improve their inclusionary practices should enter this process with an awareness of a few potential barriers. Differences in communication style and fluency gaps are often felt, especially in intercultural teams and organisations. For example, approaches to conversation and general communication can be divided into two categories: direct and indirect. A direct communicator clearly states the message they want to get across while an indirect communicator would be more subtle. Indirect communication can be a benefit in societies which prioritise saving face, or honour. When there are different levels of fluency in a team, misunderstandings and frustration can evolve, while feelings of belonging diminish.

Other cultural differences which can create barriers to equitably inclusive cultures include differing approaches to hierarchy and authority as well as decision making. Working to understand these differences before establishing a common communication style and approach, will help create feelings of inclusion for everyone. Having a culture in which awareness is an ongoing discussion removes a lot of the angst that comes along with difficult discussions. When these discussions and differences can be recognised, understood, and then leveraged, those involved will feel at home.

Three lessons in inclusion

As with every aspect of DEI there is no check-list approach. However, there are guidelines to help with the development of awareness and increased collaboration. Many of the structures discussed in our previous article are also beneficial for enabling equitable inclusion. There are interventions that can be introduced depending on the contextual needs of a team. However, there are also some general lessons that can be introduced to most.

The first lesson

Teach people to listen, instead of breaking the common habit of waiting to talk. By demonstrating active listening skills a person’s ego can be tempered, allowing for deeper understanding and engagement with the topic. When an audience asks a question which prompts the speaker to give more information, the speaker feels heard and the audience gains a nuanced perspective. Especially when a fluency gap is involved, this process will contribute towards feelings of respect, value and belonging. For example, in a meeting involving native and non-native speakers, the natives will often verbally take over the meeting, limiting their non-native colleagues’ ability to collaborate.  When employees can create equal opportunity for genuine contributions, the desired culture can start to take hold. 

The second lesson

Continuing off this first lesson is an exposure and dedication to feedback. By encouraging the mindful practice of both giving and receiving feedback, trust will be built and the capacity for collaboration and innovation will increase. If this cannot be established, feedback may be lacking, which causes long-term damage to the capacities of those involved. Not everyone responds admirably to hearing criticism, but if done well, it will produce improvement. By discussing people’s discomfort or aversion to feedback, these blocks can begin to be unravelled. For example, if someone comes from a culture which typically prioritises ‘saving face’ they may be less inclined to offer negative feedback, thus damaging the recipient’s capabilities in the long run. If this disinclination can be discussed and a suitable approach to giving negative feedback found, a team can leverage their cultural differences into business advantages.

The third lesson

A further lesson that can be brought to the attention of your team is the need for practising empathy, or the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. When interacting with people of various cultural backgrounds, there are often differing approaches to completing tasks. These differences can sometimes be easy to accept, sometimes not. Along with empathy, finding the positive intent of others’ behaviours can help start discussions without added tension and frustration. Doing so allows for more authentic communication, creating a more nuanced understanding of others. 

As with all of these lessons, the focus is on generating discussions and increasing awareness. When this is combined with strong leadership who is demonstrably committed to DEI and effective organisational structures, the bespoke cultures needed for business advantages can take shape. This concludes our series on diversity and inclusive cultures. We hope you’ve enjoyed it and have been able to learn something new! If you’re interested in keeping the discussion going, or seeing how your organisation might benefit from adopting DEI practices, book a free 30-minute chat with our experts.

Any approach to equity in a multicultural organisation needs to take language into account. Our whitepaper on the Fluency Gap offers a deep dive into this. In the meantime, if you’re interested in upskilling the language skills of yourself, your team or your organisation, take a look at our offer today!

Paul Van Zanten
Paul is an American intercultural communications professional living in the Netherlands and connecting with his Dutch roots. With a passion for travel, as well as gaining new perspectives and experiences, Paul aims to further his growth, as well as that of others at Language Partners.

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