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How To Create A More Inclusive Workplace

In her new book, Rising Together, Sally Helgesen draws on three decades of work with leaders and aspiring leaders around the world to offer practical ways to build more inclusive relationships, teams and workplaces. 

The first part of the book identifies eight common triggers that undermine our ability to connect with people whole history and values may be different from our own. The second part of the book offers simple and very specific everyday practices that enable us—as individuals, in our organizations, on our teams—to create cultures of belonging. 

Helgesen defines a culture of belonging is one in which the largest possible percentage of people: 

  • Feel ownership in the organization, viewing it as “we,” and “they.”
  • Believe they are valued for their potential as well as their contributions.
  • Perceive that how they matter is not strictly tied to their positional power. 

Rising Together is for readers at every stage and level in their careers who recognize that building a broad range of relationships is essential to their advancement, now and in the future.


Sally Helgesen

Today, Helgesen shares these additional insights with us: 

Question: You were the first person to write about inclusion in the context of the workplace, back in 1995. What has changed in the years since? 

Helgesen: Back when I wrote, The Web of Inclusion, I was looking at how networked technologies were upending hierarchies in organizations by decentralizing decision-making and giving people access to unprecedented information. This made organizations more reliant on people’s knowledge and talent, which meant that companies had to find ways to engage people instead of telling them what to do––which meant managing by inclusion. 

At the time, I saw no connection to diversity, which wasn’t so much of an issue then, but of course connecting the two makes absolute sense. Diversity describes the nature of the talent pool, while inclusion is the only effective way to lead and engage a diverse workforce, one in which people often perceive themselves as outsiders. For this reason, the two words have become yoked together in most organizations: we now speak of “D&I, or DEI.” 

Question: In Rising Together, you present a pretty extensive list of very specific inclusive behaviors. Can you talk about one of them? 

Helgesen: Sure. Listening is of course an inclusive behavior, and we’re constantly being urged these days to work on our listening skills. But we also need to demonstrate that we are listening–after all, it matters how people perceive us. 

So, disciplining ourselves to avoid distraction and maintaining eye contact are important. So is thinking about what the other person is saying, because they can read that. But we don’t want to go overboard. Overdoing it confirming,–– constantly responding to other peoples’ comments with good point, I agree, yes!–– can feel empathetic, but doing it repeatedly interrupts the flow and tends to make the conversation all about us. It’s especially noticeable in virtual environments, where we may get spotlighted every time we affirm what someone else says. 

I also learned a lot about listening by watching Peter Drucker, who I was privileged to spend time with in the years before he died. Peter had a rule for himself: in a meeting he always spoke last. This gave him a chance to really listen to others, which he did with great intensity– you really felt heard. It was also a highly inclusive behavior because he was usually the most senior person in the room and he knew that if he expressed a view, most people would fall into line and he wouldn’t get to hear what they thought. 

Question: How about another example? 

Helgesen: Here’s a simple one: remember peoples’ names and take responsibility for pronouncing them correctly. In a diverse environment, people often have names we may not be familiar with. This seems to confuse some people–– especially those in my own age group, the boomers. 

When we don’t get names right, we misrepresent ourselves. I recently watched a woman whom I knew to be a really good person stumble over the names of three of her team members. After a few botched attempts, she gave up. “I’m sorry, but your names are too similar: Adil, Amin and Amad.” Would she have said the same thing about Mike, Mark and Max? 

Question: What should people do when someone else behaves in a very un-inclusive way? For example, by trying to take credit for your or someone else’s work? 

Helgesen: This happens all the time. Say we offer an idea in a meeting and no one responds–– total silence. Then ten minutes later someone else volunteers the same idea, and gets affirmed. Our impulse is usually to think that person is trying to claim credit for our idea. And maybe he is. Or maybe he’s just trying to reframe what we said. The point is, the other person’s motivation doesn’t really matter. We need to know how to act. What doesn’t work is to grab a friend on the way out of the meeting and complain to her about what a showboat the other person is or how no one seems to hear anything you say. Nor is it effective to push back in the moment: “I believe I just said that!” which creates a confrontation and makes everyone uncomfortable. 

The most useful approach is to assume good intent on the part of the other person, and then respond in a way that demonstrates that, while also making clear that you voiced the same idea. For example, you might say, “Neil, I’m so glad you agree with what I said earlier! Maybe we can set a time to talk about next steps.” If the opportunity presents itself, you can say this in the meeting. If not, you can reach out to Neil afterward. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter who had the idea first, or even if Neil was trying to poach it. What matters is that you get included in moving it forward. This is an effective behavior. 

Sally Helgesen, cited in Forbes as the world’s premier expert on women’s leadership, is an internationally best-selling author, speaker and leadership coach, honored by the Thinkers 50 Hall of Fame. Her most recent book, How Women Rise, co-authored with Marshall Goldsmith, examines the behaviors most likely to get in the way of successful women. Rights have been sold in 22 languages. 

Previous books include, The Female Advantage: Women’s Ways of Leadership, hailed as the classic in its field and continuously in print since 1990, and The Female Vision: Women’s Real Power at Work, which explores how women’s strategic insights can strengthen their careers. The Web of Inclusion: A New Architecture for Building Great Organizations, was cited in The Wall Street Journal as one of the best books on leadership of all time and is credited with bringing the language of inclusion into business.

Thank you to the book's publisher for sending me an advance copy of the book.


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