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  • Writer's pictureTamara Makoni

Who's responsible for inclusion?

The title of this article asks a question. My answer will probably not come as a surprise: everyone is responsible for inclusion. All of us.

That gives rise to two more questions:

  1. Why?

  2. Are we all responsible to the same extent?

Let's take a look.

We all have the power to include - or exclude

Imagine a new person joins your team at work. Your manager introduces him as John, but during an informal chat he reveals that his name is actually Joe. He says he's corrected your manager a few times, but she persists in calling him John - aka the wrong name. He's not happy with this, but Joe doesn't want to cause tension so he answers to 'John' when she's around.

Which name would you call him, Joe or John?

Most of us would probably say we'd call him Joe. That's his name, and he's clearly not comfortable with being called something else. It may seem like a no-brainer - but it isn't. You're making a choice to be inclusive ('in this team we call each other by our rightful names') rather than going along with the status quo (calling him 'John' because that's what a powerful person in your environment does).

Inclusion is a choice that every individual has the power to make. Whether to use someone's preferred pronouns. Whether to flag that the proposed restaurant for a team meal doesn't cater to everyone's dietary needs. Whether to say the gendered "Hi guys" or gender neutral "Hi folks" to a mixed gender group. It's about the seemingly small, everyday things just as much as it is big things like policy decisions.

Not all power is created equal

The example about Joe highlighted a power dynamic. The manager's refusal to call Joe by his actual name sets a tone to the rest of the team.

First, it invites them to follow her lead and call him 'John'. Each team member has the power to decide for themselves which name to use, but the manager's actions can act as a strong disincentive to doing the right thing. Like Joe, they may fear backlash if they take a stand against their manager; being on your manager's bad side is generally not a fun place to be, and can have a negative impact on things like project opportunities and promotion prospects.

Second, it sends a subtle yet strong signal that what works for the manager is more important than being sensitive to team members' needs and respecting their identities. Her negative behaviour persists even after Joe informed her that his name wasn't John.

It's a fact that leaders and those who have influence have an important part to play in building an inclusive culture. Their support for inclusion can increase employees' feelings of inclusion by up to 70% - and even more than this for employees from minority groups. When we consider that feeling included fuels higher team performance, decision-making quality, and collaboration, we can see the stakes are high.

So are we all responsible to the same extent?

My answer is yes. Leaders and those with influence do have a big role to play, as they can use their position to model inclusive behaviours and encourage others around them to make the same choices. But they cannot make the change alone. Even if Joe's manager starts calling him by the right name, if some team members still call him 'John' the problem doesn't go away. We all have our part to play, within our own sphere of influence.

The only way society and companies can be wholly inclusive is if each one of us within these systems makes choices that support inclusion. Without this, as inclusive design expert Kat Holmes says, we must all take some degree of accountability when someone is left out.


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