Strengthening Culture Through Points of Connection and Inclusive Leadership

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The ideals of diversity and equity have taken on renewed importance, and the terms inclusion and belonging have recently been added to that dynamic. More organizations have started recognizing the importance of proactively creating cultures where individuals feel they belong.

As practitioners in this space, both of us have experienced how difficult it can be to start the conversation around diversity. Often, these conversations can lead to more silos and entrenchment rather than encouraging psychologically safe places for people to share their perspectives. However, by first identifying points of connection, organizations can foster inclusive leadership and help shape cultures that value the unique aspects of each person while celebrating the contributions of diverse identities.

Finding Points of Connection Beyond Unconscious Reaction

When we start these conversations by highlighting differences, we may unintentionally set up a hurdle that works against progress. A natural reaction when confronted with something new and unknown lies between fear and caution; this is a biological and unconscious reaction. We only have to consider the many types of unconscious bias, or the writings by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow, to recognize that evolutionary survival depended upon quick, impulsive responses that did not engage our reasoning brain for deliberate intention. Our first inclination with something new or unknown is rarely the most thoughtful response. To help counter that habit, we focus our trainings, teachings and organizational initiatives on recognizing and appreciating differences.

What if we considered the other side of the same coin? What if we begin the conversation not on the aspects of our identity that make us unique but on those we share and have in common? We call these “points of connection.” To be clear, this does NOT mean ignoring or disregarding an individual’s unique identity. The suggestion is to intentionally begin the conversations, teachings or creation of an organizational culture where those “points of connection” are the starting point.

In the practice of yoga, one common interpretation of the term namasté is: “I honor the place in you that is the same as it is in me.” The need for connection and belonging is primal, allowing for a perception of shared experience—whether or not that perception is accurate. When an individual meets someone with whom they share an aspect of their identity, they feel like they understand each other, share common experiences and have a bond through the shared aspect of identity.

When people discover commonalities, they also have an opportunity for openness and deeper relationships. This may happen despite perceived differences in identity. Individuals with a common identity naturally want to learn more about each other to uncover more commonalities. People who find these points of connection are often more forgiving of mistakes or misunderstandings, which may arise from the ability to see themselves in the other person and hope that forgiveness will be reciprocated.

Building Inclusive Leadership on Points of Connection

This initial step to realize similarities or commonalities can be a starting point for deeper understanding. The next logical step is to create a culture where identity can be shared and explored, which is where inclusive leadership is particularly valuable.

Edwin Hollander first wrote about the practice of inclusive leadership to explain the relationship between leaders and followers in achieving a goal, where diversity of thought and perspective are actively sought, valued and incorporated into the discussion and decision (2009). The expectation with inclusive leadership is that leaders will create space for followers to feel safe, respected and appreciated so that they use their unique identities for the good of the team and work culture.

There are specific behaviors that these types of leaders exhibit that support and encourage an inclusive culture based on relational practice, collaboration and partnership (Cohen, 2022). These behaviors include:

  • Challenging systematic processes and structures for fairness and equity.
  • Actively seeking out diverse voices and perspectives.
  • Creating teams/organizations where individuals can include all aspects of their identity, both visual and unseen.
  • Facilitating honest and open dialogues to achieve goals while actively inviting diverse perspectives.
  • Creating environments for uniqueness, belonging and collective engagement.

To focus on the last point about “creating environments,” by providing an opportunity for dialogue and sharing of experiences, individuals can see commonalities that may not have been immediately apparent. At Socius Strategies, Roz recently had the opportunity to work with a team of 100 people to think about creating an environment of belonging. She presented the group with a series of statements and asked them to stand if they were part of the community that fit that statement. Each statement began with, “join the community of people who…” and included such identities as:

  • Ride motorcycles.
  • Live more than 50 miles from where they grew up.
  • Live with an unseen medical condition.

It was a low- to medium-risk exercise, and people were asked to stand only if they felt comfortable. We found that, after the exercise, people reached out to one another to learn more about the identity they each “stood” for. While we don’t know whether long-term connections were forged between participants, this exercise provides a way of seeing commonalities that would have otherwise gone unnoticed.

Leaders can create opportunities to share, explain and express who they are. That can increase the likelihood of connections being made which lead to a deeper appreciation and sense of belonging in the community or organization.

Starting the Conversation on Common Ground

Similarly, Corinne had a recent experience reinforcing these ideas while representing Summit Leadership Partners and presenting to a group of diverse executives from a well-known private equity firm. They were talking about inclusion and belonging as parts of the diversity and equity equation. This stimulated multiple ideas from the participants about different conversations they could have in their own companies. Ideas ranged from a healthcare leader proposing a joint value around helping people be healthy to a tech executive “geeking out” over the latest ways to set up computers.

The conversation about “what’s in common” brought a whole new positive energy to the room. As the conversation continued, participants agreed that starting the conversation with commonalities was easier than starting with differences. Eventually, differences must also enter into the dialogue, but starting on common ground establishes better psychological safety around those harder conversations.

At Summit Leadership Partners we talk about the journey to becoming an inclusive leader which moves through four stages: Unawareness, Awareness, Action and Advocacy. Each of us as leaders must embark on this journey, and we may find that progress is not always linear as we encounter new differences or perspectives. Seeking to understand and being open to new ideas is the underpinning for all of this work.

Based on the research presented and our recent experiences, we suggest that you think of “points of connection” within your own life, team and organizational culture to enhance the creation of belonging and inclusion so you can reap the widespread benefits.