Helen Turnbull For The Straits Times

The illusion of inclusion

I boarded a flight from Miami to Los Angeles earlier this year and was heading to Australia, so I was settling in for a very long trip. I had my favourite window seat on the plane and was reaching for my Bose headset to listen to my music when my fellow passenger arrived.

I quickly realised that he was with the woman who was getting ready to sit down across the aisle from him. This insight made me realise I might be asked to change seats, and as I was already comfortably settled in my favourite seat, I quickly dropped my eyes to my iPhone and hoped that if I did not look up and make eye contact, then I would not be asked.

Suddenly I heard the flight attendant loudly stating: "Perhaps someone would like to switch seats with your wife, sir." My inner voice was busy thinking it would be a good idea if the man on the other side switched seats when I felt a tap on my shoulder and a male voice with a very sophisticated, plummy British accent said: "Excuse me, but would you mind awfully switching seats with my wife? She does not like to fly and would be much more comfortable sitting with me."

Before I knew it, I found myself transported across the aisle in a Star-Trek-beam-me-up-Scotty moment. I was completely transfixed, metaphorically scratching my head in bemusement. What had just happened? I had consciously told myself that I was not going to give up my seat, and yet apparently I just did. How could this be?

As I settled into my new aisle seat, I realised that my unconscious bias and programming had kicked in and taken over my brain cells. Being British, well actually being Scottish, I was preconditioned to respond to people who spoke the Queen's English. How could I refuse a fellow countryman who had asked with such a polite accent?

Unconscious biases and blind spots can and do impact the quality of our day-to-day decision-making and in many cases will insidiously affect our ability to include others.

In my many years of doing global inclusion and diversity work, I have never met a leader or manager who says "I think I will go to work today and exclude others", and yet people do exclude others.

The talent pipeline is impacted by these decisions on a daily basis. Becoming an inclusive leader and creating an inclusive work environment is a complex process which requires the commitment and careful attention of leaders and key stakeholders. Women, different races and people of difference in general (that is, all of us) are impacted by either being treated as if we are all the same or being treated as if we are so different that we do not fit in.

Inclusion is not about sameness, especially in multicultural cities such as Singapore. It is complex, untidy, even messy and requires effort. Hiring in our own image, promoting people we are comfortable with and causing others to have to adjust their style to make us comfortable do not qualify as inclusive behaviours.

The late Warren Bennis, an internationally recognised authority on leadership who died in July last year, once said that to be a good leader, you need to understand the context in which you are leading, understand your people and understand yourself.

I would contend that to become an inclusive leader in today's increasingly diverse environment, you need to do all three of these things at a much deeper level of complexity. You must recognise that moving from the Illusion of Inclusion to consciously becoming inclusive means catching these moments when you change your seat on the plane without knowing why you did it.

If we are inclusive, does that mean we embrace diversity?

People often tell me that diversity is not about skin or hair colour, gender or age, but about diversity of thought, decision-making and inter-personal differences. I am not always sure what they really mean, but what I hear in the sub-text of that is that it is just too difficult for us to deal with thorny issues and it would be better if we broadened the topic.

Is diversity a double-edged sword? On the one hand, our diversity is what makes us exciting, beautiful, complex, wondrous and never boring. As we sit across the dinner table with our family and friends, I venture to suggest that there will be at least one "eye-rolling" moment at every table, where people laugh and say to themselves: "What was he thinking? Good thing he's family."

We forgive people we love for their idiosyncrasies, and in fact we find them endearing. (Well, sometimes we do). On the other hand, we are not so patient with people who are different from us and are not included in our inner circle. They become fodder for complaint, contempt and condescension.

And therein lies the double-edged sword of diversity. You are cool if you are in my inner circle and not so cool if you are not.

So maybe the issue with diversity is not about our differences at all.

It is really about our ability to include people. How do we become more inclusive? Well, in order to get there, we first have to own up to the fact that we are really quite exclusionary. Come on, be honest; if you really think about it and take stock, how many people and groups do you exclude from your warm and fuzzy list? Yes, that's right, probably as many as I do.

No one gets to be a phenomenological exception. We are all territorial and recognising that is one step towards true inclusion.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is the founder and CEO of Human Facets, an international organisational consulting firm specialising in global inclusion and diversity.