A Welcoming Culture Begins with You!

I’m a big fan of the 2014 film, The Hundred-Foot Journey. In fact, I’ve watched it several times. The film tells the story of an Indian family who flees their homeland and settles in a small town in France, setting up a restaurant 100 feet across from a traditional French cuisine restaurant. What ensues next is a culinary and ideological battle between the two cultures, as the Indian family faces discrimination and hatred from the local townspeople. However, after the French employees try to burn down the competing restaurant in an attempted hate crime, the conservative French owner realizes her own role in inciting violence and bias, and commits to making amends.

She helps clean up the Indian restaurant, and even employs the Indian son who is a burgeoning chef of immense potential. After he eventually rises to fame in the Paris restaurant scene, he returns to the small town where the two restaurants begin a collaborative partnership, and connect through intercultural exchange.

In my opinion, the movie is an inspiring story about the value of belonging, and how each and every one of us plays a role in creating cultures of inclusion. It’s a demonstration of what hatred can do, but an even more compelling demonstration of the healing love can achieve in its wake.

So how does this apply to the workplace? As caring leaders, we can all learn from the film’s message of personal responsibility in welcoming others.

Take for example the French restaurant owner, who had to overcome her own biases against the Indian family. She had to work through her own feelings of fear and doubt, and lack of information about their culture. But as she sees her impact on the people around her, she reconciles with her power and uses it for good, ultimately helping to change public perception.

Her journey can describe many of us who strive to be allies to others, and act as a case study of what to do when confronting our own judgments. 

If you as a leader recognize that others value your opinion, take advantage of that power to combat stigma and bias. Organizational morals are established from the top down, so start with yourself if you aim to change the culture of your workplace. 

If you can visibly signal that you prioritize inclusion, belonging, and open-mindedness, others will follow suit and engage in productive introspection.

To be clear, The Hundred-Foot Journey is after all still a movie, and not every interaction between disparate groups will be as picture-perfect as the film might have you believe. 

But, we still need to wrestle with our individual roles in systems of bias at work:

How do we, as individuals, create welcoming environments? 

Are there other champions of inclusion in our workplace that we can team up with? 

How do we consciously choose to rise above hatred and lead from a place of love instead? 

How can we use our privilege to change the minds of those that look and think like we do? 

These are the questions we need to be asking ourselves, even if we’re unsure of how to answer them. 

The caring leader makes an effort to reflect on their own preconceived notions, deconstruct them, and think in a judgment-free manner moving forward. If we can find the common ground between us, I believe we’ll discover that even less than 100 feet separate our individual journeys.

Aligning With Your Aspirational Leadership Identity

As humans, most of us are naturally inclined to dream big. We’re always searching for a bigger house, a better job, a greater salary—we’re constantly thinking about the next step in our personal or professional lives. Oftentimes, these aspirations can motivate us to work harder and smarter to achieve them, but I find that the majority of us are confused about how to make that jump from the present state of things to the more idealized future.

Our leadership identities are no different—we all want to be better, more effective leaders in the workplace, capable of inspiring anyone and everyone. With that in mind, it’s crucial you regularly ask yourself the following question: who do I want to be, who am I currently, and how do I close that gap?

In a past article, I spoke about the importance of aligning organizational values to avoid miscommunication and organizational incongruence. But that’s on the structural level; what I’m referring to now is on the micro, or individual level. Is there congruence between who you think you are and how you’re actually perceived by others? Do your leadership actions parallel your leadership philosophy? What steps can you take to align your present self with your future, more enhanced self?

When I work out in my house, I usually exercise in front of a window. The other day, I noticed myself fixating on my reflection, and how I could see two versions of myself represented. On the one hand, I saw the Heather I currently am. On the other hand, I saw the Heather I strive to be: she’s more content, healthier, and a little more in shape. I wondered what types of choices I could make to move myself closer to that idealized sense of self. Working out was a step in the right direction, but I realized I needed to go deeper than that.

This is the kind of introspection caring leaders should be engaging in on a regular basis. It requires examining your personal history, critical incidents in your life, your personality, your communication style, and everything else that impacts how you interact with others, and determining what about those influences is preventing you from doing and being better. I also recommend soliciting feedback from those who look to you for guidance, and learning how you’re perceived from an outside perspective. You can use 360-degree feedback assessments, performance reviews, or even one-on-one conversations with your peers or managers. However you choose to connect with constructive criticism, it’s a pivotal part of aligning with your aspirational leadership identity.

For caring leaders, it is an intentional choice to say, “I want my people to know I care for them, so I’m going to take specific actions to make sure they know.” When we think about who we want to be, it’s easy to get paralyzed with fear, uncertainty, or harmful self-judgment. But making that intentional choice to reflect and recalibrate is a valid and necessary first step towards self-improvement. Don’t be too hard on yourself, and give yourself the space to make internal improvements over time. Whoever you strive to be as a leader, know that one day you will get there, and that you (and perhaps you alone) have the most agency in seizing that future.