Creating a culture of inclusion is integral to increasing employee engagement, teamwork, and innovation; however, the true advantages of diversity shine through in our team members. By establishing a healthy and safe environment, we can welcome diverse individuals and encourage them to unlock their potential. Whenever I think about this topic, I think about my friend Mike and his journey to acceptance.
I moved to Louisiana eight years ago and met the most amazing people, including Mike. Mike was a driven businessman who took multiple leadership positions in our community, volunteering his time to better our city. Even with this community visibility, he kept a deeply buried secret. Mike was gay. He could never truly express himself in the worries that his community, church, and family would not accept them. In the process of hiding his own identity, Mike began to develop an alcohol addiction. Frequently, Mike would hide his inner pain by binge drinking, suppressing his true self with alcohol. These harmful practices carried over to his business as team members were slowly exposed to his alcoholism. Mike began to lose dedicated employees and even long-time clients. His company was slowly sinking into a pool of debt.
One day I was having a conversation with Mike, and he began to share a completely different family story regarding his nephew Jeff. Jeff was a young, 13-year-old boy who chose to wear a heavy winter jacket all year long. Even in the hot and humid Louisiana summer! Jeff soon shared with Mike that his peers at school had been bullying him about his weight gain, causing significant mental trauma. To protect himself from their painful comments, Jeff had taken to covering his whole body in thick clothes, preventing anyone from seeing what he truly looked like. Telling this story, Mike had tears in his eyes. The thought of his nephew having to hide himself to be accepted resonated with Mike and his own struggles with coming out.
The prejudices that Mike and Jeff faced took a serious toll on both their mental and physical health. Recent research has found that pervasive adversity and social biases increase activation of the amygdala, our brain’s fear center. According to a 2018 Biological Psychiatry article, consistent discrimination reinforces connections between the amygdala and surrounding structures. These neurological stressors then multiply into negative mental and physical symptoms, like depression, substance abuse disorders, and even cardiac arrest. A 2019 study of black South Africans raised during Apartheid found that their brain chemistry was forever changed by their exposure to implicit, explicit, and institutional racism. The same negative junctions between the amygdala and areas of socialization were more evident and strongly cemented in place. These biochemical changes result in poor employee health, decreased productivity, and heightened levels of stress. Discrimination creates lasting changes to its victims, and we must work our hardest to decrease its prevalence.
When prejudice and unconscious bias infiltrate the workplace, we lose our team members’ spark of uniqueness that fosters creativity, innovation, and productivity. In the face of constant adversity, team members may hide under their own “heavy jackets” to be accepted. On-going discrimination prevents our employees from being at their best, forcing them to cover up their true selves. A culture of disrespect and inequality breeds a tense and fearful workplace. When our team members cover themselves with heavy painful jackets, we miss out on their diverse opinions and enriching stories.
We must work our hardest to create a safe and inclusive environment for Mike, Jeff and for everyone. A place where no matter how you look or who you love, you will be wholeheartedly welcomed and accepted. Beyond the benefits to the bottom line, we can improve overall organizational culture and create a lasting personal change for each and every team member. We have far too often been taught to mask our identity, but by creating a culture of inclusion, we encourage employees to take off their heavy painful winter jackets and show their true selves in the workplace.
Dima Ghawi is the founder of a global talent development company with a primary mission for advancing individuals in leadership. Through keynote speeches, training programs and executive coaching, Dima has empowered thousands of professionals across the globe to expand their leadership potential. In addition, she provides guidance to business executives to develop diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies and to implement a multi-year plan for advancing quality leaders from within the organization.