As a corporate executive, I learned how being different can undermine engagement. Being the first woman at the C-level of a well-known public company, I knew my gender made me “different,” but I didn’t focus on it. Instead, I focused on doing my job and doing my best. In fact, I worked to mask my differences—to fit in.
Because I was different from the others at the top, I got asked to participate in “diversity” programs. As a senior sponsor of our women’s group, I took on the mission of creating support among aspiring and talented women and became involved in designing “diversity training.” It was in this role that I began to understand how being “different” can affect engagement.
The team designing the diversity training was, as is usually the case, diverse. Surrounded by people distinguished in one or more ways from the white male heterosexual norm, the light bulb went off. When one is putting energy on observing what the norms of an established group are and making sure one’s own behavior isn’t too far “out of line,” one can’t operate as naturally or as well. Energy that could be going into creativity and quality is being spent on “fitting in.” I began to see how much my own difference had cost me in terms of focus and energy.
As an executive, I knew I was on to something that could help the business. If we could tap that energy and put it back onto quality work, wouldn’t people do better work? Wouldn’t people feel greater loyalty to the company? I understood that in order to redirect that energy, we needed to create a culture where people felt heard and valued for their own ways.
I didn’t know the term “inclusive culture” then, but I do now—and that’s what I’m committed to creating! My book, workshops and speeches are designed to show leaders how to create inclusive cultures—and why it’s smart business to do so.
Have you had a similar light-bulb moment?