The Illusion of Inclusion - They May Be Talking, But Are You Really Listening?

May 4, 2017 | Fierce | HCI
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Illusion of inclusion is a very common leadership trap. It occurs when a leader loves the idea of including others in the decision-making process, yet doesn’t really want to take the time or make the effort to ensure that happens. The result is that people are not really listened to. And they know it. They know when you are just checking a box when you ask for an opinion, as opposed to being genuinely interested in new ideas and processes. It reminds me of the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote, “What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.” In other words, you may say you want to know my perspective, yet your actions say otherwise.

The illusion of inclusion is not discriminatory. It occurs at all levels of leadership within organizations – across all degrees of tenure, industry, and circumstance. In order to determine if you are perpetrating the illusion of inclusion, ask yourself if any of the following scenarios ring true:

  • Do you go into a meeting just to sell your brilliant idea?
  • Are your employees withholding insightful, robust pushback and instead just agreeing?
  • Do you glaze over when people bring up different viewpoints?
  • Do you often respond to an idea or feedback with "yeah, but…" or automated agreement (i.e., the dreaded "corporate nod")?

There are varying degrees of the illusion of inclusion, which makes it hard to spot for yourself. In some of the examples above, you can literally catch yourself falling into this trap. Other examples are more subtle.

If you worry you might be a perpetrator of the illusion of inclusion, be reflective in how you approach scenarios. Ask yourself: which initiatives, projects, and/or decisions could benefit from the differing perspectives within my team or amongst my peers?

Here are three tips for combating the illusion of inclusion in your everyday interactions.  

Give up the need to be right. I’m sure you can identify many leaders, some of whom you’ve worked for, that seem more worried about being right than about getting it right – for their people, for their organizations, for their purpose. Last year, we surveyed individuals on their views of political and business leaders. Sadly, I was not surprised that we found more than 71% of professionals surveyed believe neither their companies nor their government acts in their best interest.

Acting in others’ best interests requires deeper understanding of needs and goals. It is not possible for leaders to be aware of everything on their own. They can’t possibly make the best decisions without engaging and learning along the way. That’s why they must focus outward. They shouldn’t focus on “being right,” having the savviest answer, or the most logical argument. They need to focus on the people affected – directly and indirectly – and getting the results they need in order for those they lead to prosper.

Short-sighted leaders often feel that their job is to bring the most brilliant ideas to the table and validate why they are in the position they are. We see this in the political debates as well. The issue is that while leaders may want to be the superstars, the bottom line shouldn’t be about “looking good” or being right. It should be about getting it right and finding the best solution by soliciting ideas. 

Use the beach ball model. Focus on team meetings. As a leader (either by title or choice), it is your duty to understand all perspectives before making decisions. Team meetings are a powerful way to work together, where everyone can roll up their sleeves and really collaborate.

Team meetings can be authentic and energizing…or fake and life-sucking.

There are many legitimate reasons for why leaders do not gather the affected people into a meeting before making decisions – people are too busy for yet another meeting, decisions need to be made fast, people do not fully understand the issue and it would take too long to get them up to speed, risk of attempted political volleying, etc.  The problem with not calling a meeting, however, is that it makes everyone involved feel undervalued. In another recent survey, we addressed the topic of workplace practices. Forty percent of our survey respondents felt that leaders and decision makers consistently failed to seek out other opinions before making a final decision.

Using a simple model that can be a leader’s “go-to” is critical in scenarios where you need to gather the troops. The beach ball model is an easy-to-use process that requires preparation, every meeting participant engaging, and potential next steps identified. In the last fifteen years, organizations have saved millions of dollars engaging in more robust meetings with a set methodology.

Do an integrity scan. Is your current behavior in alignment with your values? From an organizational standpoint, having a culture with high levels of integrity means that employees feel leadership is trustworthy and ethical. This is critical for people to feel they are truly included and that they can share their honest perspectives—and that those ideas and feedback are actually incorporated into the business.  Without integrity, trust is compromised and genuine effort made toward inclusion on behalf of leadership is likely to fail.

The Trust Index Employee Survey (TIES) conducted annually by the Great Place to Work Institute measures a company’s level of integrity by asking questions about management. With this data, the TIES found that the higher the measure of integrity, the better performance of the company.

Leaders, this means that the performance of the organization lies on your shoulders – and integrity.

We recommend leaders go through this personal integrity scan a few times a year. It includes exploring the following areas for potential integrity outages:

  • Integrity outage in my workplace: What must I do to clean it up? When am I going to do this?
  • Integrity outage in a personal relationship: What must I do to clean it up? When am I going to do this?
  • Integrity outage in my life: What must I do to clean it up? When am I going to do this?

If you identify an outage, it is important to be transparent and work through the area. Your employees sense these outages, and when they occur, will likely be less open to providing concrete ideas and suggestions.  They will take notice when you have repaired them, which will build additional trust to ensure your organization is creating an environment where they best idea wins, no matter who it comes from. 

The biggest challenge with the illusion of inclusion is that it is deeply personal. Leaders must really dig into their approaches and assumptions. On top of that, they must have organizational support to talk about this issue – because it exists, whether it is talked about or not. 

The good news is that there are specific tools and processes that can be used. The next time you find yourself not truly being inclusive, consider your personal need to “be right” in the given scenario. Ensure you have the skills to engage your team in meetings and solicit diverse perspectives, and perform an integrity scan on a regular basis. The company, in full, will benefit.