Inclusion is the Driver of Innovation
What role can we play in breaking the cycle of injustice?
As our world awakens to the reality of bias blindness and the complexity of microaggressions, we dive deeper into the murky waters of asking ourselves—and others—honest questions, identifying and embracing opportunities to be an ally, and acknowledging the potential consequences of speaking your truth.
Melissa Majors, CEO of Melissa Majors Consulting, shares how exposing yourself to difference and promoting inclusion leads to greater levels of innovation and success. Listen now to experience the full episode!
Read on for a few of my favorite parts of our conversation:
How are you holding up with everything that’s going on in our world right now?
MELISSA: I’m having a lot of conversations because I’m a practitioner of blameless inclusion. So, I’m having a lot of conversations with people who are trying to find their way through things that they are now aware of—systemic racism—that they just didn’t realize existed just two weeks ago. And so, there’s a lot of awakening happening in our country.
And so, I’m working with a lot of my clients, having individual conversations, coaching—confidential coaching chats with people who want to do the right thing, but don’t know where to begin. So, I’m busy as all get out. So, that’s one thing.
Personally, I must admit that with some of the protests and things like that, and what happened with George Floyd, I, too, like so many others, just was dealt with a tidal wave of microaggressions that I have faced as a black woman in business for 20-something years, reliving all those experiences all over again.
But I have to say I’ve done the work to understand the impact and the trauma that can have on you. And so, I’m really resilient. I have to give a lot of credit to my faith, and then also just being mindful in my practice of guided meditation and yoga and things like that on a regular basis to reduce the stress levels in my life. That’s helped, certainly in this situation and then with COVID, and a lot of my revenue drying up, I had to make sure I still had mental clarity to be able to make the shift and provide services that my customers still needed, but maybe didn’t realize they needed, try out some new things that weren’t already in my portfolio of services, and just be flexible to adapt to what’s happening in the world right now.
Being able to do that has certainly driven some ongoing revenue and helped me discover some innovative things that I didn’t have a need to try before but I’m trying now and they’re working. And so, just finding the stability in my business also brings a sense of relief and reduced stress in my life. So that’s what’s happening in the world of Melissa right now.
How can people start to have deeper conversations around inclusivity or “blameless inclusion,” I think you called it -- what is that?
MELISSA: So, I know that over the course of my life, and then based on research, that a lot of diversity inclusion initiatives shame and blame people into trying to change their beliefs. Well, that’s just not going to happen in a training program. I mean our beliefs are shaped by millions of influences that we’ve had over our life.
I believe that in order to really open people’s minds, you can’t make them get defensive when you’re having these conversations.
I turn to science and business cases when talking about inclusion because we are all biased. And so many people don’t embrace their bias, they deny it because they’re afraid they’re going to get called a racist or something like that. But the fact is, if you have a brain, you are biased. Bias is the brain’s threat detector. And so, it’s in there.
One of the first steps that I encourage people to do is acknowledge the fact that you do have biases, and then pay attention to how you feel when you’re interacting with people who are different from you. Listen to those little thoughts that pop into your brain that may say, ‘this person’s not trustworthy, they’re a threat.’ That could be those unconscious biases shaping your thoughts about that person.
And the next step then is if you pay attention to those voices enough, you’ll start to realize that you may have a set of biases or prejudices toward a group of people. And once you discover your own personal set of biases, then you can rationalize those thoughts when they occur, and then choose different actions.
For example, if I have biases toward millennials, when I’m working with millennials, I need to be even more mindful about how I act so that those thoughts, those unconscious thoughts don’t control my actions.
That is what I’m encouraging people to do as a very first step, because quite frankly, we can burn every building down in the United States, but that’s not going to remove bias from people’s brains. If we want to truly break the cycle of injustice for people, we’ve got to start in our own minds, identify our set of biases and then not let those control our actions.
Through your confidential coaching, you provide a safe space for people to get curious and have a real conversation without fear of being judged or fear of tripping over their words. Is there any advice that you would give people who are afraid to ask those tough questions or want to do more, but just don’t know how?
MELISSA: I think it’s a very real and valid concern a lot of people are facing. They want to do more. And they recognize that in this moment, they can post things on their social channels and things like that, but that doesn’t really drive sustainable change.
I’m delighted that there are so many people who want to help drive real change that results in a measurable difference for disadvantaged communities for black lives. And so, the confidential conversations that I’ve been having provide that space. If you take a look at your own social circle, if there aren’t people who are different from you and those that you commonly work and play with, you likely have blind spots related to empathizing with others.
And so, I’ve just opened that up as an opportunity for people to have those candid confidential conversations in a psychologically safe environment, so that they can find ways then to either overcome some of their actions, they can choose the right words, they can choose the right actions, and talk about that with somebody that is not like them. It’s been an honor to serve in that role.
If somebody told you that they believe systemic racism is embedded within the company that they work for, what advice would you give them?
MELISSA: The truth is, Courtney, I’m giving those people caution on having those conversations. I’ve seen it. I have experienced so many times where I attempted to illuminate issues of racism within the organization. And it wasn’t received, or it was discounted. It turned into negative consequences for not only myself but others as well.
So, I encourage people to open up in an authentic way if they’re in a safe environment to do so. But the fact is, those environments still don’t exist for a lot of people who look like me. What I’m doing more though, is encouraging people who are not subject to systemic racism, but the allies to step up and not only demonstrate their commitment to inclusion but take a stand as an anti-racist.
Like when you see on a micro level, you see injustice for people who work for you, it’s not enough just to post something on your Facebook page. But are you going to have the courage and be willing to risk some of your own reputation and social capital to take a stand against that injustice? Are you willing to proactively—to acknowledge that systemic racism may exist in your organization and take the steps to uncover it and then mitigate that.
So, more of my conversations, quite frankly, are with allies versus others because the power allies have is that when you’re in a role as an ally, your voice doesn’t necessarily get discounted.
People don’t think that you have a personal agenda to push when you’re advocating for anti-racism. It may not be the case for a lot of black Americans to be in the position to try to influence from their position. We really need allies and all people to come together if we ever expect to stop the cycle of injustice.
You authored an article in Forbes, called, “What to Do When White Women Aren’t Allies at Work,” which talks about the disparity between black women and white women holding management positions and the reality that many black women struggle to build solid relationships with their white female managers. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
MELISSA: Yeah, absolutely. As women, and this is a class that I teach around servant leadership, strategies for women success, it’s very common, no matter what your race is, is that as women, we aren’t as skilled at competing in a healthy way with other women in organizations.
Oftentimes, compared to men, they are wired for competition like I have two little kids, two little boys, Courtney, and that is what they do. They live—they thrive to compete with each other. Women, not so much. And so, oftentimes in the workplace, we compete in an unhealthy way that manifests itself into covert competition. Whereas instead of stepping up our game, we try to take the other woman out. We try to mitigate that threat through microaggressions.
That is a challenge for women in general. But it’s even more difficult when you add the extra level of being a black woman in an organization. There is something called the Scale of Intersectionality, Courtney. And that is the more different you are from those who hold the power, the more likely you will be to experience under inclusion. You’ll experience more scrutiny and be less trusted.
When you just add those levels of differences, and it all goes back to unconscious bias and things like that, but,
the more different you are from people who hold the power, the more likely you are to have those experiences.
With white women, in most organizations, the power is held by white men. So, white women are less different from those who hold the power.
When you are a black woman, you’re even more different than a white woman and increase the chances that you’ll experience under inclusion scrutiny, a lack of trust, so on and so forth. So, those are some of the dynamics that’s covered in that article. I suggest that everybody read it because we need ally-ship across all the dimensions of diversity. We truly, truly do if we’re going to be able to catch these unconscious biases that result in unfairly judging others who are different from us.
What are some examples of microaggressions that people may not be aware of?
MELISSA: Absolutely. So, an example of a microaggression, they are these very subtle attacks against another person. For example, in a common microaggression between women in an organization is gossip. That’s one of the most common ones. It’s not just with women, okay? But that’s an example of a really common aggression because if I’m gossiping about you, Courtney, to another person, I’m actually doing damage to your social capital and your reputation by trying to reduce the chances that that person I’m talking to about you actually trusts and works with you and has a healthy relationship.
And the microaggressions are oftentimes so subtle, that the only person that realizes they’re happening is the victim of them. So, in this scenario, it would be you, Courtney. You probably know that there’s gossip happening about you and that there are people that could be potentially damaging your reputation and ruining the trust that you’re trying to build. That microaggression is so subtle, but it can be really damaging and impactful to your reputation.
Another microaggression and this is—it’s more common in the recruiting process, that our biases can negatively influence how much we trust people, how much we are willing to give them a shot, and give them equal opportunity to positions. And that applies not only to recruiting employees, it applies to hiring speakers, doing business with vendors that come from a diverse background. Those microaggressions, those very subtle actions that we take to either damage someone’s reputation or prevent them from achieving or earning an opportunity, those are some of the really common ones, Courtney.
What has really been your inspiration to provide such an important level of consulting?
MELISSA: Well, I’ve had a really great run in my career. I’m naturally wired as a strategist and innovator. I’ve been able to achieve double-digit growth in most of my organizations because of innovation. The driver of that innovation is inclusion.
I have always worked to uncover the voices, the diverse voices, and gain these unique perspectives that shape the products and services that I create.
There’s a lot of research that proves that companies who practice diversity and inclusion have a much higher production of innovative products, which leads to an increase in revenue. I’m a believer in inclusion as a really smart business practice. But on a personal side, I’m a bi-racial woman, my mother is white, my father is black. My parents deliberately decided to expose me to difference, because they had people in their lives that were very ignorant, and only because they weren’t exposed to difference.
By design, I’m the product of diversity. And that has served me really well in business. And now that I am on my own in a consulting capacity, I’ve been an intrapreneur for years. But now that I’m an entrepreneur, I am doing everything I can to share the business cases for diversity, to share these messages in a way that doesn't sting because then that shuts people down and they’re not open minded.
But also, I really believe that practicing diversity and inclusion is far beyond just a moral obligation. If you are going to survive as a business, you need to find a way of overcoming your barriers to doing this and incorporate it into everything you do.
So, I’m really passionate about it. I know that my gift, my calling is in teaching and education. And so, I continue to try to refine my gift and get even better and just share that wisdom and that insight that I have gained from my diverse experience, share it with the world so they can do what they do even better.
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