Inclusion is a hot topic in the Organizational Development world right now, with the focus moving from developing a diverse workforce to developing a culture of Inclusion. There is significant research that supports improved results for those organizations and teams that have diversity in both gender and ethnicity, as well as thought. However, research also suggests that this benefit is only fully realized when there is both diversity of the workforce and a culture of inclusion.  

Given the emphasis on Inclusion, it was naturally the topic of a break-out session at the Dallas Association for Talent Development Learning Summit this summer. During this session, I had the opportunity to work with a young man who I would guess is in his late 20s or early 30s and works in learning and development for a Fortune 500. We were asked to share with a partner a time when we felt excluded.  

This young man, for whom English is a second language, recounted how when he came to Texas to attend college he felt excluded during group discussions in class. Because while he understood what was being said, he found it difficult to formulate his thoughts into words and participate in the discussions.  

Then this young man went on to say something that will forever change the way I look at the topic of Inclusion. He said, “It was about me. Nobody did anything to exclude me. It was my lack of confidence and my perception that I did not fit in that led to my feeling excluded.” 

I realize this may be somewhat controversial and I in no way intend, by recounting of this story, to indicate that exclusion is not real. It is. We are in fact hard-wired to more readily connect with and include those who are like us and exclude those who are different. It is a survival instinct left over from the early days of mankind. 

We can of course consciously override this instinct. It requires, in part, awareness, dialogue, a desire to understand the other person, and a willingness to focus on similarities rather than differences. 

The new perspective I gained from my discussion with this young man, is that creating a culture of inclusion also requires that we each individually bring into awareness and examine how our own beliefs, perceptions and expectations may be perpetuating our own feelings of exclusion.  

Our beliefs impact both the information we attend to and our behavior. If we believe we will be excluded by a certain group of people, for example as women if we expect to be excluded by men in the workplace, we will filter in information that supports our belief while filtering out information that does not. We will then, based on the information we focus on, feel like we are being excluded and act on that feeling. 

Do I believe that every time someone perceives they are being excluded it is a result of their own feelings and beliefs? Absolutely not. What I am saying is that our own perceptions of being included or excluded is a part of the picture. We can never have fully inclusive workplaces without each of us examining the possibility that we may be contributing to our own sense of exclusion.  

Here is my challenge to you – next time you feel excluded ask yourself these questions: 

  • Where am I focusing – on indications that I am being excluded or indications that I am being included? What behaviors or actions may I be overlooking that indicate inclusion? 
  • How may my past experiences be coloring this current experience? 
  • What else could be true?