I spent most of my life in the United States, where we grew up hearing that the "squeaky wheel gets the oil." When I moved to Australia eight years ago, I was surprised to discover "tall poppy syndrome," a uniquely Australian phrase that reveals a strong discomfort with people who think too highly of themselves.
In her book, The Loudest Duck: Moving Beyond Diversity while Embracing Differences to Achieve Success at Work, Laura Liswood discusses how each of us brings our "grandmothers" to work. In America, I went to work with my grandmother's voice in my head, reminding me that I needed to speak up and ask for what I wanted. Meanwhile, she points out that in Japan, workers would have heard their grandmothers say that, "the nail that sticks out gets hammered down," and Chinese workers would have grown up hearing that "the loudest duck gets shot."
I spent years as a member of multiple Diversity & Inclusion groups at work. Over that time, it became more and more clear that the diversity we were trying to build, while important, wouldn't be enough if we didn't also build a safe and inclusive work environment where wheels, nails, and ducks could all participate and be heard.
Liswood highlights the issue of diversity without inclusion in her book, stating that "with diversity comes asymmetrical power." Imagine a meeting in America, where the dominant culture had "squeaky wheel grandmothers." As multiple Americans speak up (and often over each other) to have their opinions heard, the individual with a "duck grandmother" may be sitting there quietly. While this is a result of their cultural background, their silence may be mistaken for not having anything to contribute to the discussion. When it comes time for promotions and raises, who is the dominant "squeaky wheel boss" more likely to reward - the "squeaky wheel employee" who mirrors their style in the meeting, or the "duck employee", who may have equally great ideas, but wasn't comfortable speaking up in a large meeting?
There are a number of ways to combat unconscious exclusion. In situations where you have people from multiple cultures, it's important to build different structures into your business interactions. In the meeting described above, the chairperson could practice these three strategies to be more inclusive:
1) Send a meeting agenda in advance. This gives everyone time to think about the agenda topics and from their views. Providing time to think in advance is especially important for meetings with introverts and people for whom the dominant language isn't their primary language.
2) Go around the table (or video conference) and ask each person for their opinion. I prefer this method over just calling on someone who is quiet, as singling a quiet person out may make them more uncomfortable. You could also try saying, "Jane, I'd like to hear your opinion. I'll come to you for your thoughts in a minute." This gives the person a minute to get their thoughts together and prepare what they want to say.
3) Offer to have a follow-up conversation after the meeting. I have found when I run training for an especially quiet group, many people will often seek me out afterwards to discuss the course content, ask questions, or give me feedback. By making yourself available after the meeting, you're likely to hear from the people who were uncomfortable speaking up in a group setting.
What's your favourite tip for making meetings more inclusive?