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Inclusion and Power

May 10, 2013 by Jonathan Gilburg

The team we were working with was deciding what to do. They were struggling with a question about where to start with their efforts—what first steps they wanted to take and how to maximize their time. This team was comprised of a cross section of a larger group with representation from different roles and functions, responsibility levels, gender, and race.  Divergent ideas were thrown around by many, and as facilitators we sensed the tension from the struggle and genuine desire for “consensus” and the inability to navigate the path easily in the face of differing opinions.  The discussion was productive, if not a little frustrating, because it was revealing the complexity of their task—to act in a way that would serve the needs of a much larger group.  This diverse cross-section of that larger group was brought together as a catalyst to act in a way that represented the whole. 

Finally one member of the team made a more definitive statement to the effect, “I really think we need to start [here] so we can get momentum in this area…” Uneasy silence followed.  Even though there had been robust discussion only a moment earlier.  What happened?  What changed in an instant?  Why did the conversation stall?  I wondered if the uneasy pause had anything to do with the fact that the team member was a white male in a higher status position. 

As a white male, I felt the sting of awareness, unease, even a sense of paralysis.  How should I address this issue?  It was my responsibility as the paid facilitator to ensure good, clean discussions—to strive for an inclusive and safe process.  I don’t remember what I said or did, if anything, and the conversation eventually rekindled, though people seemed to be speaking in tones that were more guarded and cautious.  It was as if something ominous had just barely touched everyone’s consciousness, and then just as quickly disappeared in the depths leaving us all with a heightened caution.  

This is a familiar episode in the organizations we work for, and I would pose that it is a microcosm of many of the challenges we face in our culture.  How can we act in a way that serves many different opinions, perspectives and needs?  How do we more transparently understand and wield power in service to the greater good?  What are the embedded, unspoken barriers that keep us from truly “including” others in the decision making process?  If we even try to discuss the ‘isms’—racism, classism, paternalism, etc.—we run the risk of alienating people, causing extreme discomfort and unease, and often triggering either defensive posturing or over-accommodation.  There seems to be no good way to navigate this terrain.  And yet, many of our clients are genuinely interested in creating more effective, inclusive workplaces where efforts made have a positive impact across the board with employees and stakeholders

As a company we are dedicated to more effective modes of inclusive and productive organizational conversations—conversations that lead to actions that serve a greater swath of constituents.  We want to develop the “thin end of the wedge” methods of having conversations about these unspoken barriers, the “isms.”  Not diversity training.  But rather, practicing authentic inclusion in a way that addresses openly the power imbalances (perceived and real) that exist either interpersonally or institutionally.  We don’t yet know what that mode or approach is.  We only know that it is needed.

What can we do?  What would you do?