A couple of weeks ago I was part of BerLearn’s fireside chat on the topic ‘How to become an inclusive learning organisation’. After an overwhelming demand and the feedback, I decided to write an article as a summary of the main points addressed in this introductory webinar. Some points might be very obvious, others-not so much, it all depends on your background and experience.

Just to be clear and to manage expectations: in this article I do not address the points of neurodiversity or diversity of the learning methods and tools. This is not the goal of this particular article. Additionally, the points mentioned here are not solely applicable to the companies: it could be also a university, school or any other institution that sees learning as an important part of the organisational culture.

It’s a known fact, that multi-cultural teams are a source for creativity and innovation. However, when diversity is not managed, it not only lacks its promised benefits, but also backfires and sometimes, results in negative and even tragic consequences: three-quarters of the world’s major conflicts have a cultural dimension. The 21st of Ma, World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development, is a reminder of the world’s cultural richness and of the essential role of intercultural dialogue for achieving peace and sustainable development. That’s where diversity management or inclusion comes into place: diversity is just a mix, but inclusion is making that mix work. Forget about the ‘golden rule’ of communication ‘Treat others how YOU want to be treated’. In today’s increasingly diverse and complex world, ‘Treat others how THEY want to be treated’ is a lot more inclusive and respectful.

In short, when it comes to cultural diversity, we are all different in the ways we behave, communicate, show respect, appreciation, anger, confusion and embarrassment. Sometimes, these ways might not even be obvious if you are not familiar with them. Same goes with the way we give and receive feedback. And this is exactly the topic of our first point.

1. Feedback in Learning

Let’s check this simple graph as a reference ( please note that it is used as an oversimplification and generalisation as an example).

Imagine you are a US American working in a German company. Your performance of the quarter is impeccable: you over-achieved your target of the quarter, solved some crazy challenges and basically saved the face of the company! If you were in the US, you would expect some sort of appreciation from your colleagues and boss. But you are in Germany- forget it! In some cultures, like Germany, Russia or Turkey, there is no such thing as ‘positive feedback’- people don’t go around patting you on the shoulder everytime you achieve something- you are just doing your job, right? What is a potential danger here? If you are not familiar with this, you may find yourself disengaged, demotivated, not appreciated and your efforts not seen. But don’t worry, sometimes, if your boss does not talk to you, it simply means you’re doing a great job! No feedback=good feedback.

Let’s imagine another example: Your employee is falling behind the deadline and their performance has dropped dramatically over the last few months. Being from a culture that tends to deliver bad news in a very careful manner, spicing it up with whichever positive feedback you can think of (Think of a burger: positive-negative-positive), you skillfully present your frustration and disappointment in your employee performance in a way that doesn’t offend them or comes across as too direct or rude. What could be the result? Your employee simply doesn’t notice that the negative feedback has been communicated at all since the positives outweigh the negatives!

Think about the opposite situation: you deliver a feedback in a very direct manner ‘no beating around the bush’ and to the point — many people from a different culture might find your feedback too direct, harsh and even rude, why can’t you just ‘be nice’?

How is it related to Learning and Development? Identify and assess employee needs when it comes to feedback: some would need an extra smile and a comment, showing that you’re here, cheering them on and seeing their progress. Others might find such feedback unnecessary and distracting. Think of an online test: Think of a performance review: Could it be too harsh? What language are you using? Would that be appropriate for this particular employee? Could it be too indirect? Align it with a company culture and communication style.

2. Diversity of suppliers

It was an early Monday morning. I was standing in the middle of the room, facing 30 senior engineers, all male, all white, all at least 45 years of age. Had I been in a a bar I would probably gotten a very different treatment… but here I was, a young woman with a big smile on her face and energetic voice, with the goal to help the group improve their emotional intelligence and communication skills in diverse teams, set to spend the next few days learning, challenging and facilitating. I could see the change in their facial expression the moment I walked into the room: some surprised, others- skeptical, some rolling their eyes. Even before I had a chance to say anything! Apparently, they expected someone who is just like them- a male, an engineer and their age or older.

The first half an hour they listened politely, but their patience ran out, when, with a big smile on my face, I announced: ‘And now, it’s time to PLAY!’ and took a box with blocks of Lego out of my bag. Some stared in disgust and disbelief for few silent seconds, and others simply responded,

‘I am not 5, what am I doing here!!? Go back to a kindergarten with such approach!! I am a serious person with 20 years of experience leading a team of 50!!’

Likely, I expected such reaction and calmly assured them to bear with me for another 15 minutes, and if after 15 minutes, they still think that they are wasting their time, everyone is free to leave if they wish. Not expecting such reaction and ready to leave in 14.59, they silently obeyed and listened to instructions of the ‘Lego Challenge’, designed to illustrate, how the lack of communication (especially in the remote teams) could cause tension, conflict and misunderstanding. And guess what? 10 minutes later all 30 of them were smiling, running around the room, taking photos and giggling like a crowd of little girls. It worked! The ice started to melt! And everyone stayed until the very end 🙂

How is it related to Learning and Development? Choose your training suppliers wisely, taking into account a different perspective they might bring to your team. Unconsciously, we would definitely relate to someone who is just like us more and automatically fall into affinity bias, causing group-think. Can an experienced, trustworthy trainer, familiar with the industry and your product deliver the same result? Perhaps. Can someone, who is completely different, challenge your team much better, take them outside of their comfort zone and turn their reality and embedded values, harmful to the organisation upside down? More likely than not. That’s probably why reverse mentorship programs are becoming increasingly popular around the world, which is a topic of our next point.

3. Reverse Mentorship

There is a wide tendency to embrace mentorship programs following a classic approach: senior employees mentor someone junior. In the past few years several companies have embraced a very interesting approach to mentoring: junior mentoring someone senior. You might find it bizarre at first (What can a junior person with barely any experience teach at the executive level?), but it definitely works. Additionally, such mentorship programs do not necessarily have to focus on age only.

KPMG, for example, launched a reverse mentoring scheme in 2018, with a goal to pair partners with black heritage colleagues, so those working at more senior levels can truly understand the challenges those from diverse backgrounds face in the workplace. This could also be junior or mid-level female talent matched with the male senior leaders, for them to understand the challenges of being a woman in the workplace, and struggle to get a promotion to the executive level. This helps to win by-in of the leaders and bridges grassroot and top-down approach to diversity management. Is your learning organisation future-proof?

How is it related to Learning and Development? When you connect two people who otherwise might have never met and create safe space for the to learn from each other, magic things might happen. Not only you give an opportunity for someone senior to learn how younger generations, thinks and behaves (who, sometimes are the main customers of the organisation), technology, the challenges of being from a minority group or a woman in business; but it also creates a by-in from the senior level and (hopefully) creates a role model and a committed advocate for diversity in the organisation on a senior level.

4. Character selection

Imagine, you are from a small town in the middle of nowhere, you are short and bulky, with long blue hair, you wear glasses and are passionate about basketball. Unfortunately, all basketball players look nothing like you- they are tall, muscly, strong and their lifestyle seems out of reach as they live in lavish big houses in the capital cities of the world. You believe that you will never be like them since you have nothing in common with them, like you’re from two different planets. You quit basketball before even getting more serious into that. One day, you accidentally discover that a new rising star of basketball is also short, has funny-looking short red hair, terrible eyesight, but solved it with contact lenses and also comes from a small town. Your dream seems a lot closer now because the role model looks like you.

Think about it: when we have role models or protagonists that resonate with us, we feel a lot more engaged and motivated to read a book, watch a movie, develop a skill or complete an online course! Because now, it seems a lot more feasible and realistic to reach ou goal. If every book or movie about leadership is told from a perspective of a 60- year old white man in a suit who was born in New York into a family of a lawyer or a Harvard professor, many of us would probably never ourselves as leaders because we have nothing in common with him.

Think of these role models and how they changed the world: Oprah Whipfrey, Valentina Tereshkova (first woman in space, and til today, the only woman to have been on a solo space mission), Pablo Pineda (first person with Down syndrome to ever graduate from university), Tom Whittaker ( first disabled person to climb to the summit of Mount Everest), Malala Yousafzai… If a role model looks like you, you are likely to aspire to be like them, listen them, and believe that your goals are a lot more closer and realistic than before!

How is it related to Learning and Development? Choose your protagonists that speak the language of your target audience (learners). E.g. If you are developing an international junior customer support team, it would probably make more sense to also use a young non-German character as a protagonist since they would be able to relate a lot more. The same goes to books, online courses, videos and articles you share, invited speakers at internal conferences and many other things.

5. Language choice

Words can hurt, words can slap and make you bleed. How many books have you read that addressed a protagonist as ‘he’ ? How many online courses have you watched/conferences you attended that addressed the audience as ‘Hey guys!’? And you might have wondered if this course is for males only and if you are good/qualified enough to be here.

Or did it ever happen that you addressed someone as ‘she’ or ‘he’ accidentally in public even tho they have explicitly mentioned that they are gender-neutral and prefer to be addressed by their first name or with a pronoun ‘they’? Or you might’ve heard that women only apply for jobs when they feel they’ve met 100% of the requirements, while men will apply when they feel they’ve met 60% of them. Additionally, studies show, that masculine-oriented words in the job descriptions can can significantly reduce the number of women applying to your open positions, appealing to women. These could be words like:

  • Ninja
  • Rockstar
  • Determined
  • Decisive
  • Assertive
  • Autonomous
  • Aggressive
  • Dominant/Dominating
  • Independent

But how is it related to Learning and Development? Just like in recruiting, ensure to use inclusive language and use neutral words that do not carry any masculine sub-meaning. Your learners are the centre of your course design and are likely to be more engaged and complete it, if they feel that the workshop/LMS course addresses them personally and they feel like they belong there. Use your word wisely! Avoid using ‘hey guys!’ when addressing a mixed-gender group, replace ‘he’ with ‘they’ and ensure that your external trainers and coaches follow the same standard.

6. Safe Space

Safe and Brave space are paramount in learning and development because it creates a dialogue, addresses the elephant in the room and makes your learners think for themselves. I would describe safe space is when a newly joined intern feels comfortable enough to sit in the room with all seniors and not feel neglected or ‘unwanted’ to be there. Brave space is when that intern is feeling comfortable enough to ask a question at that meeting.

Allow a culture that promotes curiosity, failure and challenging the staus quo. Safe space is when you feel good and comfortable in ‘your own skin’, when you feel heard and don’t need to pretend to be someone else to ‘fit-in’. Brave space is when you feel confident enough to challenge the status quo and move towards the edge to discover what’s beyond it.We feel and perform best when we can be ourselves, and we learn better when our basic psychological needs have been met.

But how is it related to Learning and Development? Your learner’s progress and ability to learn depends not just on the quality of the company workshops, a trainer, coach and lunch-and-learn topics, but also on the comfort and safety they feel at work and the strength of their relationships with colleagues and ability to ‘fail’ without being punished.

Last but not least, it is important to realise that inclusion is not just the classic categories like gender, age, sexual orientation, special ability, education and cultural background. It also includes a diversity of thought, personality type (I highly recommend the book Quiet by Susan Cain), family composition (if you are a parent or not) and non-work related experience.

If you are passionate about Learning and Development, check out our community BerLearn

Olla Jongerius

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