Why is inclusion so hard?

Maybe it is because exclusion happens without us really thinking about it. We make choices, say things that come naturally to us. Inclusion, on the other hand, is a conscious action – we have to make an effort to behave inclusively.

When conducting focus groups recently, one person said that she sat with other Zulu-speaking people at lunch because Zulu is her home language. The rest of the day, she speaks English but during her lunch break she can just be herself.   Just relax into speaking the language she grew up speaking.   Seems reasonable. Why should we force people to be inclusive during their lunch breaks? Why shouldn’t someone be entitled to “just relax” during her break?

That is the difficulty – because of segregation and prejudice, it feels unnatural to interact with those that are different. It is easier to exclude. The problem is, that unless we challenge this behaviour, make a choice to act inclusively whenever possible, nothing will ever change.

I personally don’t want to see my own children still struggling with diversity and inclusion 20 years from now. Thus, we make the effort to consciously change our behaviour now.

A recent insight was that “inclusion” is something that happens after the fact. We are addressing a legacy of exclusion in South Africa. To include others cannot happen without going back to the underlying problem – the stereotypes we learnt as children, the history that built our current outlooks and prejudices. And going back never feels like the solution – don’t we need to go forward in order to grow and develop?

The truth is, we cannot go forward until we have first looked back at the past – what drives our current thinking? Our decision-making? We rarely reflect on the automatic choices we make. Just like you may always buy Five Roses tea because that is what your mother always bought. You don’t think about the past as influencing you – you simply prefer Five Roses; it is your favourite.

All our decisions take this form – we don’t actively analyse all the data available but simply jump to the conclusions, selecting the information that fits our norms and beliefs. The same is true in how we deal with each other, the way we communicate.

Simply understanding the verbal cues and body language of someone from another culture can be befuddling – even when you are both speaking the same language. It is the source of much misunderstanding and can lead to a feeling of culture shock if your own beliefs and values are challenged (think about how different cultures treat personal space).   You feel uncomfortable around those who are different to you as you feel like you are missing a part of the conversation, even though you understand the words being said.

Organisations with their own culture and acronyms create a culture shock when new employees first start. Some provide a cheat sheet so that you can understand the comments made around you. It takes time for new employees to assimilate and adapt – find their way around. They are in the minority, so they change with the environment (or leave because it is simply too alien for them).

In a multicultural environment such as South Africa though, adaption is not possible – which culture is the dominant one? What about losing our own cultural identity? Why should I give up my language? We deal with questions like these every day.

We thus focus on developing a new identity – one that is apart from culture, not bound within the norms and beliefs that are your own but willing to accept others as they are. Just like I don’t change my fundamental self and values, I don’t expect others to do so either. We develop a multiculture environment that simply accepts those differences and finds ways to include all different outlooks by transcending our own personal spheres.

We find common values that define us all and help us work together. I may put family first while a colleague is very career-driven but we both believe in efficiency. Instead of looking at what differentiates us, we focus on the commonalities.

Communication, as always, is probably the most important aspect of inclusion. You cannot include someone if they don’t understand the language you are speaking or writing in. You cannot include someone if they don’t understand the non-verbal cues and you cannot include someone if you don’t consciously invite them in. We say that conversation is the action. Dialogue and asking questions, listening with a view to understanding – these are key competencies in developing into a multicultural leader. Without meaningful communication, inclusion simply does not happen.

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