We’re all responsible for creating an inclusive workplace. Yes, even you.

Each of us has power to create positive change where we work

5 min read

November 2019

Two coworkers walking together in office while smiling and talking, with other employees in the background

On National Coming Out Day, Progressive employees gather at our training building in Cleveland—and tune in via live stream from their work locations across the country—to hear fellow Progressive people share their coming out stories or those of their loved ones. Following our most recent event, one of my co-workers shared his own quote above on social media.

Moments like these help us see just how far we’ve come as a company…as a diverse community of co-workers. It’s been a journey for us—one that began more than a decade ago and continues every day. We’ve learned a lot along the way about what it takes to be inclusive, to create an environment where every employee feels comfortable bringing their whole selves to work. And regardless of our role or level, we all play an important part in creating this type of work environment. Each of us have power to create positive change. Sometimes we just need to know where to begin.

A place to start

Becoming aware of one’s unconscious biases—automatic and unintentional mental models that influence behavior—and knowing that we can all be actively managing them to promote greater respect for colleagues and customers is important. But knowing how to do this day in and day out, isn’t always clear. Why? Because our mental models are built on years of lived experiences and what we’ve learned from our unique individual backgrounds. How we each see the world around us is shaped by the media we tune into, our parents, our teachers, where we grew up, where we’ve worked, and so much more. And we rely on these biases to help us sort through and distill down the more than 11 million pieces of information that come at us every second.

A view of the Progressive campus

The fact is, our brains need to rely on these shortcuts so that we don’t go into information overload. When it comes to supporting a diverse and inclusive work environment, we have to actively work to manage our biases. To do that, there are two realities we must recognize:

  • First, your mental models are unique to you based on your backgrounds and your experiences. What respect, listening, or collaboration ideally looks like to you, might be very different for the next person.
  • Second, simply being aware of your biases isn’t enough. Just looking at the problem and detecting what you might need to adjust isn’t actually going to make any change.

At Progressive, we’ve learned this all first-hand. Like many companies who are finding their way within the diversity and inclusion space, we conducted unconscious bias training early on. We had a full-day workshop for managers, and then engaged senior leaders in delivering a similar half-day workshop to non-managers. And while this served as a foundation for much our diversity and inclusion work going forward, we realized after a few years we still had room to grow.

Where to go from there

Our employees began sharing that our initial workshops were definitely eye-opening, but more was needed to help people make it actionable. Specifically, we heard that we needed to focus on the behaviors that demonstrate inclusion, while acknowledging that the ways each of us feels valued, respected or welcomed, may differ. Our people, especially our leaders, wanted to learn ways they can flex their approach to meet the needs of various perspectives and backgrounds.

After prioritizing the skills needed throughout the organization, we introduced the concept of intercultural competence. The aim is to help us understand that our backgrounds and experiences inform and shape how we see and interpret the world around us. And that if we really want to understand others, and be inclusive of all, we have to be able to recognize our own world view and seek to understand others’ as well. Our lives, our work, and our ability to innovate, be creative and, well…be progressive, depend on us being able to see through multiple lenses, and be comfortable doing so.

That led to us introducing intercultural competence to managers through an e-learning series a couple years ago, followed by active discussions with peers. They not only focused on building intercultural competence, but also on applying it every day in their responsibilities as leaders: when they’re coaching, leading a meeting, conducting a presentation, hiring people, delivering feedback or even writing performance reviews.

Many Progressive people who have completed the series and leaned into the discussions with others have said they’ve learned better ways to relate to their team members and peers, have had greater success in motivating others, and have challenged themselves personally and professionally to do more to support Diversity and Inclusion.

Continuing the journey

This work isn’t easy–it takes time, patience, and a willingness to seek out sometimes difficult and challenging conversations. Like many others at Progressive, I’ve personally had to acknowledge and own my biases, examine what I think I know about others, and continuously adjust my behaviors to strive towards greater inclusion. But as I often share, getting inclusion right takes intentional effort.

It means you have to get very comfortable with being uncomfortable. It means putting yourself in situations, or encouraging your organization to create experiences, that take you beyond your own “lenses,” to generate greater empathy for others’ experiences, and to seek to understand. When we can all do that–actively, willingly, and purposefully–we’ll not only have environments where all can feel welcome, but where all can thrive and bring their full selves to work. And you have the power to make your work environment more inclusive starting now.

Here are some actions you can take to create a more inclusive workplace:

  • Ask questions and actively listen to better understand different points of view. Pay attention to what surprises you–it often points to a blind spot.
  • Seek diverse perspectives when solving problems, making decisions and gathering feedback.
  • Make sure all voices are heard and give credit where it’s due. Challenge yourself and others on non-inclusive behaviors.
  • Embed inclusion into your work product and assess how well you leverage diversity for better outcomes.
  • Cultivate inclusive habits by asking for feedback, reflecting on your experiences, pushing beyond your comfort zone and making intentional changes.

Marisa Afzali is the Diversity and Inclusion Manager for Progressive Insurance and has over 15 years of inclusion, diversity and equity experience. Her passion both at work and in her personal life is to build cultures and create spaces where people can thrive, contribute and belong.

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