GTP22: How we can go further to embed inclusive practices?

Martin James Network

This blog post has been produced for the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce as part of the 2022 Growth Through People campaign.

Growth Through People is the Chamber’s annual campaign aiming to help local firms boost productivity and grow through improved leadership and people management skills. In 2022 this involves 8 free webinars and events sharing best practice advice and guidance taking place throughout March, and a Growth Through People conference on 30th March. In addition, throughout the campaign the Chambers will be publishing thought leadership podcasts and blog content such as this.

Thanks to our Headline Partners and Sponsors – Aston University, Birmingham City Council, South and City College Birmingham and the West Midlands Combined Authority - all Growth Through People workshops are free to attend. Interested readers can find out more and register to attend Growth Through People workshops here, and the Growth Through People conference here.

In 2019, multi-award-winning writer Kate Clanchy released her self-reflective novel Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, a record of her journey working in the ‘inclusion unit’ as a teacher within the British state school system. What seemed like an empowering story of child redemption and diverse talents (as these individuals were once deemed too disruptive to learn) rapidly became a tale of controversy. With many writers calling out the unintentionally racist undertones of its language and derogatory imagery of children with special needs, a slew of online abuse followed. Before long, Clanchy was dropped by her publisher.

In the 21st century, issues surrounding diversity and inclusion are evolving and becoming even more complex. Even those with careers that are dedicated to equal opportunities can unknowingly cause strong offence. Whilst our lowered tolerance of unconscious biases should be celebrated, in order for us to grow as individuals and make improvements to the inclusivity of our communities and workplaces, this example highlights we must all find ways to embrace the ever-shifting concept of ‘inclusion.’

For organisations, the challenge of creating an equal and inclusive workplace can be considerable.  To accurately reflect and serve the business’ purpose, communities, customers better, we must build workforces from all walks of life, experiences and perspectives, and there is still a huge way to go to ensure equitable representation at all levels.

But for me the real measure of success is if everyone in the organisation, regardless of their background, identity and experience, feel they have a voice, feel included, and most importantly, value difference.  This is how I believe we can grow as individuals and then ultimately make a difference to the performance of an organisation. If you value what difference can bring at personal and collective levels,  you will behave in ways more conducive to promoting inclusivity of different thoughts and ideas.

For far too long we have sold inclusion by emphasising its benefits. For example, inclusion is something they have to achieve ‘for others’ either because ‘it’s just the right thing to do’ or because ‘the business will benefit’. By doing this we have stopped short and risked buying into the perception that inclusion has been achieved.  We need to invest the time in helping people understand the value of it at all levels, and how they are an integral part of not just the driver for it but also as recipients of the overarching benefits and outcomes.

Interventions and learnings which lack this investment in cultivating a real understanding and connection required for behaviour change, can often achieve the opposite of what’s intended  and exacerbate this sense of exclusion and polarisation. On one side you have those who feel ‘got at’ and as if they have done something wrong and on the other, people who may feel patronised and frustrated at the lack of meaningful change.

To create truly inclusive cultures where we feel connected; to ourselves, to each other and the organisation’s collective mission, requires a bold vision and campaign across all levels of the organisation and employee journey. A campaign of mindset change which promotes the behaviours that make every individual feel like they count.

So imagine what would happen if instead of telling people what they do wrong, we help people change the way they behave and think? After all, we are all brilliantly unique and different so why does inclusion awareness training for example, often take a ‘one size fits all’ approach?

At the Martin James Network, we have created a framework that clearly shows how we can go on this journey of change and growth, by promoting connections at individual, interpersonal, collective and organisational levels. Breaking it down into easy to understand stages, and giving people a sense of how creating habits for connection, under each and practicing these daily will support the change and growth required. This is opposed to overwhelming people with the enormity of a wholesale transformation programme that only leaders are responsible for.

The Framework/practice code, which we call SEED (standing for Self-reflection; Empathy; Empowerment; Disruption), starts with self-reflection, being open, curious and compassionate with ourselves before with can open our hearts and minds to others through empathy. Creating cultures requires moving from this stronger interpersonal connection to driving people towards the collective purpose, structuring work so diverse people have a voice in decision making and feel empowered. In this culture, ideas and discussion can be debated and there is healthy cognitive conflict towards shaping solutions together. Finally, redesigning systems from a place of inclusive mindsets will ensure diversity can flourish and achieve growth – that’s the level of disruption required!

As we have seen, inclusion efforts can often misfire. People can be excluded in the name of inclusion! So, following a practice model that encourages human connection and validation on a base level is essential. Regardless of the industry or demographic, the power and productivity of any group of persons is rooted in how valued they feel. At the Martin James Network, we’re proud to have prioritised this outlook across every business we operate, putting inclusion and diversity at the heart of all our initiatives.

To quote Clanchy’s inspiring group of students: “Everyone is on a journey, does good, makes mistakes, has to learn from them. That’s the power of activism for change.”

It’s time that we all embraced this outlook as we move forward on our inclusion journey.

Ayyab Cockburn
Co-Founder of the Martin James Network