There’s a book I’m reading right now about Diversity and Inclusion that’s called Building a House for Diversity. It was actually published twenty years ago in 1999, but so far in my reading, that hasn’t affected its relevance.
The book is based around a fable. There are two friends, a giraffe and an elephant. The short version is that the giraffe builds this amazing house, customized and perfect, even winning awards for its incredible design. One day he’s in the house and his friend the elephant walks by. The giraffe is excited both to see his friend and to show him the house he’s so proud of, so he invites him in. The elephant makes it in the door, but as you can imagine, struggles to navigate the tall narrow hallways, or find a comfortable place to sit. The giraffe, who genuinely wants his friend there and to be comfortable, gently suggests that perhaps the elephant could check out some weight loss techniques to better enjoy the beautiful house he’s built.
From a business standpoint, while it’s great to check the box and hire the woman/person of color/LGBTQ person/etc., unless you actually make sure the environment is one where that person will be comfortable, thrive and be setup for success, you really are only halfway there.
There is a lot to unpack in this fable, to be sure. Lately, this idea of inclusion, beyond just diversity, is one that has come up in daily conversations. It’s not enough for the giraffe to have invited the elephant into the house, and not enough that he genuinely likes the elephant, appreciates him, sees his value and wants him there. He needs to adjust the house to be a place where the elephant can comfortably spend time. From a business standpoint, while it’s great to check the box and hire the woman/person of color/LBGTQ person/etc., unless you actually make sure the environment is one where that person will be comfortable, thrive and be setup for success, you really are only halfway there.
To me this one can be tough. The idea of having an environment and mix of people that everyone, no matter their stripe, will be 100% comfortable in may not be realistic. Maybe it’s just a matter of getting as close to that as we can and making sure we’re taking feedback and letting everyone have a voice, give input, and see that effort is genuinely being made. That we’re not, to reference the fable, just asking a guest to lose weight to adjust to their surroundings, but instead we’re widening the hallways and bringing in different chairs that make the elephant comfortable.
All that said, I believe it is human nature to gravitate to people who are like you. I think about my time in the Peace Corps, when I was the only white, English-speaking American woman in a remote village in the Dominican Republic on the border of Haiti. I was there for over 2 years, so by the end I was extremely comfortable in the village, and with the culture, language, people, food, rituals, etc. I had a lot of Dominican friends. However, the dynamic shifted when I was around other Americans. It was comforting to be with other people who shared my primary language and culture, references, educational level, and who shared the experience of living in this different place. We understood each other in ways we didn’t need to explain. I see that in other areas where minority groups in many situations gravitate towards one another. You can see it in countries where groups of ex-pats form and build strong bonds and communities. And it’s ok that we do that. It’s human nature.
In terms of work environment, this is a reason why it’s great that there are Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) setup for various communities to get together and share experiences and tackle issues unique to them. Just setting up those groups, however, is not enough. Companies need to adjust their cultures and organizations to be inclusive on a much broader, more foundational level, beyond just ticking the box on hiring diverse candidates.
These are not easy problems with simple fixes. People are complicated, and the dynamics of groups even more so. Yet the benefits that companies, and all of us as individuals, will get from making a real effort will be reflected in the innovation, diversity of thinking, and greater understanding we’ll all have as a result.
What have you seen work (or not work) in your environment? How have you shifted the culture or workplace to make different kinds of people not only comfortable, but setup to thrive and help drive the business forward??