What Inclusion Means to Me

As a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant, my clients often ask me, “what does inclusion mean?” But the more apt question would be, “what does inclusion mean to you?” We each carry within ourselves entirely unique backgrounds and identities, and those subjective experiences invariably determine what we consider truly inclusive environments. As a result, inclusion will look, sound, and feel completely different to different people.

So what does inclusion mean to me, Heather Younger? 

Let’s start with the basics.

To me, inclusion does not mean the exclusion of others. It means embracing every member of your team with open arms despite whatever differences distinguish them. But it also means not quite erasing those differences for the sake of superficial unity. In honoring those distinctions, we transform would-be outsiders into welcomed insiders.

To me, inclusion means full and unconditional acceptance. I often say that acceptance sets us all free, and I believe this is so because acceptance is the primal core of our needs. When we’re born into our parents’ arms, we want them to accept us—flaws and all. We have a deep-set desire to be seen and loved for who we are, and one way to do this at work is to accept our people however they come to us, including their past baggage. Inclusion is the comfort in meeting others in their fullness, and accepting whatever messiness or complexity that entails.

To me, inclusion means empowering those we lead, not belittling them by way of passing judgment, micromanaging, or banishing all talk of personal matters from the office. It means you work with them to collaboratively push through tough projects, you demonstrate trust by intentionally delegating big projects, and you respectfully ask about their personal life to signal you care about their entire experience as a human. When employees notice this level of compassion, they feel they can show up for their workday as their authentic selves.

To me, inclusion means having tough conversations. This includes welcoming dissenting or controversial opinions to the discussion, because everyone should feel safe enough to voice their perspective in an inclusive environment, even if it goes against the grain. It’s really easy for us to invite those we like, those who look like or act like us, or those we agree with to the table. Nonetheless, our invitations, whether implicit or explicit, must advance and include the whole of our team, especially those from minority viewpoints or identities. In this sense, inclusion is an acknowledgement that every team member is a human being worthy of respect, dignity, and the benefit of the doubt. It is both the invitation to speak and the validation that you heard them that makes all the difference in helping everyone feel supported.

Perhaps the crux of my definition of inclusion is an emphasis on family in the broadest sense of the word. As I deliver keynotes on stage on this very topic, my sole purpose is to bring everyone into community with me, and create a safe atmosphere of mutual acceptance. My goal is to create a family, even temporarily. If my audience feels truly accepted, just for a moment, I know I’ve done my job and created a culture of inclusion, and that’s what inclusion means to me.

How Our Authentic Stories Can Bring About Greater Good

After a lifetime of trying to minimize my difference—the difference between me and my white mother, the difference between me and my coworkers, the difference between me and other thought leaders—I am now being pulled out of the shadows and into the spotlight to share my story. These past few years, I’ve felt compelled to share my journey of overcoming adversity, being an outsider in the workplace, and existing as an outcast in a biracial household. My Jewish grandmother was dissatisfied with whom my mother had chosen to start a family with (i.e., someone Black and Christian), which complicated our relationship since I was a symbolic embodiment of that sin, so to speak. As an adult, I now see the professional skills this experience of exclusion instilled in me, and I feel how this story resonates with the audiences I share it with.

It’s a strange and uncomfortable process, simply because I’ve been conditioned to find safety in hiding my story. But when the call to action is so loud and so resolute, it’s important to follow that call for the greater good. As I’ve discovered my leadership style over the course of my career, I’ve learned that a caring leader is someone who is comfortable being vulnerable with those they lead, thus fulfilling a higher—albeit more difficult—purpose. 

About eight years ago, before my current role as an employee advocate, I became good friends with an Orthodox Jewish coworker whom I had hired as a sales representative. He wore a yarmulke, attended an Orthodox synagogue, adhered to kosher eating guidelines—and he did all of this openly and with pride. He knew a little bit about my Jewish background, but not the entire picture. At that point, I was still in the process of becoming comfortable bringing my full self to work, complicated family history and all. However, he was generally aware of my Jewish heritage, and it allowed us to forge a strong connection.

A few years down the road, he invited me to his son’s upcoming bar mitzvah. Now here’s the truth: at that point in my life, I had never attended or even been invited to a bar mitzvah, despite my half-Jewish upbringing. After all, I was never welcome at those kinds of events as the “black sheep” of the family. Admittedly, I was a bit surprised, a bit nervous, and of course very honored by his invitation. He had no idea how special that small gesture was to me, yet his act of grace and courtesy made a big impact on my relationship with my Jewish identity.

I attended the ceremony, perhaps with a little trepidation. In the past, I’ve written about how my Jewish grandmother would keep me hidden from her community because she was ashamed to have a biracial granddaughter, and since then, I’ve been anxious to reenter Jewish spaces. To my suprise, everyone at this Orthodox synagogue was extremely welcoming, accepting, and warm. I felt as if I was in a judgment-free zone, where no one even cared that I looked different than the rest of the crowd. At the end of the day, I finally felt accepted and included in a community I had always been a part of, but in which I had never felt truly welcomed. 

Recently, I shared this particular story with a corporate client who was trying to grasp the meaning of inclusion. The key takeaways helped elucidate what inclusion means to me: don’t lead with fear if someone on your team is different from you. Instead, lead with curiosity and courage, and stand in solidarity with them as you honor (not erase) that very difference. Be proud of your alignment with other communities, and welcome others into that process who you believe might benefit from that proximity to diversity. This is exactly what my Orthodox Jewish friend did for me, and I now pay that grace forward by telling our story.

My life and career is full of these kinds of stories, and I’m now witnessing the power they hold if wielded responsibly. As I become more comfortable opening up as a caring leader, I can attest to the profound potency that vulnerability carries as a teaching tool. I encourage you to take stock of your own stories, and consider what lessons you can pass along if you just take center stage for a moment.

How to Be a Congruent Leader at Work

How to be a congruent leader

One of the topics I discuss in my upcoming book under self-leadership is the idea of leadership congruence. 

In other words, are we who we say we are? 

We may think we are a certain way, but how do we actually show up? And is that in alignment with the person we are and aspire to be?

For example, I work out 6 days per week and others might perceive me as fairly healthy, but I struggle with eating well. I often lack self-control to make the right choices, or to exercise intentionality with what I eat. In fact, it’s a constant struggle. Because I’m not perfect in any regard, I work on becoming more congruent everyday. It will be easier, of course, once I stop buying snacks for my kids who are waiting to return to school.

Congruence between values and behavior is a vital but often overlooked aspect of leadership – and it’s what differentiates the most successful leaders with the most engaged teams. 

When you are congruent, your beliefs and your actions are in complete harmony.

So, how do we become more congruent? Here are a few things to consider: 

1. Practice mindful self-awareness

Practicing mindful self-awareness gives you the ability to examine your thoughts and reflect on your actions at the end of each day. By asking yourself how aligned you were with who you believe yourself to be, you can assess how congruent you were, and where you could do better tomorrow.

2. Do a congruency audit

Ask your employees, friends or family – and whoever else you feel most comfortable with – to give you some honest feedback. Have them describe you in three words and notice which words come up most often. That will help you decipher whether you’re portraying who you believe yourself to be.

3. Notice how you lead

Have you ever asked your employees or team to “do as I say, not as I do”? If you want to be a leader who inspires loyalty, employee satisfaction, and team cohesion, consider how you can better align your words with your actions. For example, if you regularly leave the office early to play golf or get home before rush-hour traffic, consider whether you would allow your team to do the same. 

As you bring more noticing to the ways in which you lead, allow your values to guide you as you begin to practice congruent leadership each and every day. 

What Mental Toughness Has to Do With Caring Leadership

Resilience

I’m excited to announce that my forthcoming book, The Art of Caring Leadership: How Leading With Heart Uplifts Teams is now available for pre-order on Amazon. Writing this book has been a long journey – and it’s not over yet!

As I put the finishing edits on the book, one topic that has been top of mind for me is how, in these upside down and unprecedented times, we need to care more than ever for our employees and, at the same time, somehow help them cultivate resilience… especially for those who are being disproportionately impacted by the concurrent crises.

At first glance, “mental toughness” might seem like the antithesis of caring leadership, but strengthening our reactions to the events spiraling around us is how we develop the capacity to show up fully and be present for the people we lead.

There are four practices that have helped me remain mentally tough and allow me to continue to show up for you from a place of caring leadership and service, which you can learn more about below.

1. Intentionality

Having an intentional mindset is about noticing how we respond to circumstances and interpret them as either adverse or challenging. When it comes to mental toughness, we can practice shifting our initial response to something as “bad” and instead looking for the positive. You can ask yourself, “What in this circumstance will help me move forward?” In my TED talk, I share how flipping this switch has helped me so much in my life and business. I reframe things constantly.

2. Forward Focus

The second practice is ensuring that my mission and my vision for myself and/or my organization and my team are so robust and create such positive emotion for me that I have no choice but to grab onto them—even when times are tough. When I can take steps that support that clear and enduring mission and vision, I can continue to move forward rather than remaining frozen in place. Alignment requires that I keep my eyes focused ahead at all times instead of getting mired in the past when things haven’t gone the way I hoped they would. My mission and my vision are instead my North Star and keep me moving forward. 

3. Be Courageous

The third way that I remain mentally tough and resilient is by being courageous. We can wear our courage like a barrier or shield that allows us to bounce or repel obstacles in our way, because we realize these obstacles are inconsequential when it comes to reaching our goals.

4. Fake the Funk

One of the final ways you can cultivate mental strength and toughness is by—as I always like to say—”faking the funk until you make it.” In other words, sometimes you might not feel a certain way, but regardless you have to tell yourself that you are the person you hope to be. If we tell ourselves that often enough, we can become the person we say we are—just by virtue of how we talk to ourselves. 

This practice strengthens our mental toughness and helps us step out of victim mode. Instead of, “Woe is me,” we can say, “I’m a successful CEO of a growing business where I have a message that is impactful, that will change lives, and that has services that will help people.” 

Even if, on some days, you don’t feel a certain way, that affirmation—that faking the feeling until it actually happens—is a huge part of maintaining mental toughness so that we can continue to show up fully for the people we lead.