A Sense of Exclusion at an Inclusion Conference

What is it like to be different in a roomful of people who specialize in difference? One KJCG member found out recently—and her experience holds lessons about the work of inclusion and why it is so important. Before attending the Institute for Leading Diversity & Inclusion™—an event sponsored by Linkage, Inc., and held in Atlanta—participants were assigned to small learning groups based on their experience with the topic. Ideally, this grouping brings together people at similar levels of knowledge to match the right learning with the right individuals.

Sometimes, however, the result is less than ideal, as KJCG financial analyst Ruhama Eshete discovered.  Her specialty in finance put her in a different place from the other group members, all of whom worked in human resources. Nine of the 14 group members came from the same company, an equipment manufacturer. This was no one’s fault—the manufacturer sent a sizable delegation to the conference, which created logistical challenges for the group coordinators—but it did create dynamics that left Ruhama feeling excluded.

Just as the group members’ situations were vastly different, so were their challenges. Most were struggling to make change happen at all in their organizations. Ruhama, like everyone at KJCG, struggles to manage the change that happens every day—continually holding conversations about process, creating and revising Standard Work, and taking other steps to navigate the chaos and keep everyone aligned.

Moreover, the group spent a great deal of time talking about issues within the equipment company. This was hardly surprising, but it did little for the others in the room. “It reminded me of what it is like to be different, to be excluded from contributing my best thinking,” Ruhama noted.

Without a doubt, it also prevented the group from being the best it could have been. Ruhama found no place to contribute her street corner (or perspective) on various issues. As a result, the rest of the group members missed an opportunity to deepen their knowledge—to get closer to a 360-degree vision of diversity and inclusion and what they can do for organizational performance.

The fact that this exclusion was not intentional highlights another learning from KJCG’s inclusion work: the lack of awareness of people in the dominant (or “one-up”) group. For the individuals who worked at the equipment manufacturer, discussing their own problems may well have seemed utterly natural, “the way things are supposed to be”; it may never have occurred to them that others in the group might benefit from focusing elsewhere.

Exclusion can happen for many reasons. Overcoming it requires a change in mindset—a decision to join rather than judge, to broaden the scope of the conversation rather than restrict it to the predominant group’s concerns. As it turned out, the conference held valuable lessons about inclusion—delivered in an unexpected way.

Ruhama Eshete and John Backman contributed to this post.