I love my job. I feel really fortunate to be able to say that. It is not perfect and I am not unrealistic about the dark underbelly of work. However, I truly love what I do. I am a workplace consultant and, to me, nothing is more satisfying than enabling the change within organizations that allows for human transformation. No, I am not saving the world but I am helping individuals grow and learn and that is very rewarding.
My company, Jennifer Brown Consulting, works with many companies in the Fortune 500 including many in the F100 and F50 which means that we impact a lot of people in a lot of different industries and professions. Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending one of our client sessions focusing on strategies for diversity and inclusion. This is a topic that we work on with many of our clients and one that is personally very significant. Anyone who regularly reads my blog or has spent any significant amount of time talking to me knows how passionate I am about the topic of inclusion. As someone who has felt like an outsider for most of my life (for reasons not too obvious to most), the topic of inclusion resonates with me on a very deep level. So, yesterday, I was particularly fascinated by one of the sessions focused on insiders and outsiders. This was a component of a workshop topic that I talked about in my last blog post – unconscious bias. Yesterday’s activity illustrated how there are insiders and outsiders in organizations and allowed the participants to experience what it feels like to be an insider or an outsider. Interestingly enough, neither felt really good.
This, not surprisingly, got me to thinking about how insider and outsider behavior plays itself out in all aspects of our lives. We all, instinctively, want to be insiders. Even those who pride themselves on being outsiders are insiders in their outsider community. It is human nature to want to be part of something and to be either at or close to the center of it. We want to be included and we want to be granted access. We expend a great deal of energy focusing on how to get this access or become an insider in many aspects of our lives – work, community, family, etc. We think about how to make sure our children make the right teams, go to the right schools, hang out with the right kids. We want to have access to the school administration, the community leaders, the leaders within our companies. We are constantly striving to get deeper inside because it is our nature to get close to power. Very few people would turn down the opportunity to have lunch with the president (political leanings aside). In contrast, however, how much time do we actually spend making sure that others have the same kind of access? How often do we pay attention to greasing the wheels or paving the way for others to get them into the insiders club? Sure, some do, but, for the most part, that is not where our focus lies.
Much like our unconscious bias, most of this goes on without us being consciously aware. So, of course we are not consciously excluding others (maybe sometimes we are but that is not our natural tendency) but we are also not consciously trying to include others. We rarely employ the tactic of “paying it forward” because we are so caught up in the struggle to get ourselves further inside. For those of us who have ever felt like we have been kept out or have not benefitted from the assistance of someone helping to pull us in, the feelings attached to that are very painful. We feel rejected, unworthy, untrusted, disliked, marginalized, and the list goes on. And, if we were to consciously pay attention to the behaviors of keeping someone out, we would feel guilty and uncomfortable and dislike ourselves for this behavior.
Well, this should be simple to solve. Just show everyone what it feels like to be an outsider and force them to be an insider that keeps others out and they will instantly notice how unpleasant both of those are and will immediately change their behavior to be more inclusive and everyone will feel all better and the world will be a wonderful place to live. Whew. That was easy!
But, what if we kind of like feeling special being an insider? What if we get some joy or satisfaction from seeing others who are not part of the special club? After all, for anyone who has flown first class, haven’t you looked back at the suckers in coach and felt a bit superior? Didn’t it feel nice to have the inside track to free drinks, meals in real bowls and silverware? How about the luxuries of those warm cloths to wash your hands before you are served the meal that you selected from the lovely printed menu? Think about how the airlines market to you the prestige of being an elite member. The special access granted to you as a frequent traveler. Or, the way credit cards provide you with exclusive rewards based on how much you spend or the type of card you carry. The messages around us are all about encouraging us to be part of an elite club. And, if everyone were part of these clubs, they would no longer be elite, would they?
Do you think the marketers ever think about how the folks who cannot afford the annual fee for the Platinum American Express card feel? Are they lesser people because they cannot afford the fee or if their credit is not good enough for them to qualify for this card? Of course, these are extreme examples but they are reinforcing the behavior that runs through our society that creates a culture of exclusion rather than a culture of inclusion.
This is certainly no easy problem to solve and I don’t propose to even have an answer to it. However, it makes me think. It builds my awareness that human beings are complex creatures who need to be treated with respect and care. Not everyone is good and not everyone is well-intentioned but I believe that the more we try to be inclusive and accepting, the faster we will become a civilized and productivity society – something we have seemed to have lost sight of.