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The theory of "Air Conditioning"

Many air conditioners demonstrate: a balanced, empathetic diversity fosters a comfortable workspace for all.
Many air conditioners: A balanced, empathetic diversity fosters a comfortable workspace for all.

An important (and perhaps surprising) point of view on diversity and inclusion.

In industries around the world, the advantages of diversity and inclusion are already very clear – diverse companies are more profitable. Add to that the sense of purpose and personal fulfillment, and it's easy to understand the passion that managers have for promoting diversity and inclusion in their organization.

But are there cases where diversity, and even more, inclusion, has a negative effect that harms the organization? Can we even "allow" ourselves to say such a statement in today's reality?

It may sound a bit strange and surprising, but the answers to both of these questions are yes, and that's exactly what lies at the foundation of the theory that we always present to organizations we consult on DEI – the “theory of air conditioning” (one of our “non-registered” trademarks 🙂).

The theory got its name after reading a post by an employee on the autistic spectrum. In the post, he addressed the organization's management and expressed great excitement and gratitude for agreeing to turn off the air conditioning in the meeting room. He simply couldn't actively participate in team meetings because the cold temperature and buzzing noise really hindered his concentration. Naturally, it's encouraging and joyful to read a post with a positive feeling of such an employee. Yet, I put myself as an employee in the same team, and I thought to myself: Did I do something wrong that now I have to participate in entire team meetings without air conditioning, regularly, even in the hot summer? And what will happen if I have to deliver my own presentation during the meeting? This scenario already stresses me out, so without air conditioning? At this stage, one could argue that the result justifies the means, but let's examine the scenario more deeply. You arrived at the office, settled in the meeting room, and requested to turn on the air conditioning because it's really hot for you, but then the manager said it's not possible because of "Joe" (a fictional name), the employee on the autistic spectrum, who can't concentrate with it.

Do you really think that at that moment the thoughts passing through your mind would be about being patient and accommodating?

It's reasonable to assume that what you would say to yourself is, "Why should I, or anyone, give up such a basic right for the sake of one employee? Diversity is so annoying!" From here on, we may want to do much less, and it's possible that we won't want to do anything at all to promote diversity, and in more extreme cases, we might actively work to prevent it.

However, it's important not to take it to the other extreme, and here arises the question of how far can we take it?

The idea is that inclusion is for everyone, including the existing employees in the organization. We also need to consider them genuinely. We don't want to harm existing employees, defining harm as a real negative impact on conditions or the work environment. We need checks and balances so everyone can feel we see them and consider their needs. Here are a few examples to consider.

  • If we constantly turn off the air conditioning in the meeting room and we all suffer from the heat just so that one employee can concentrate, IMHO there is a real harm here.

  • If we tell an employee to change their position, where they feel at home for several years, so that an ultra-orthodox woman employee can sit next to women only, without having previously addressed the issue, there is a problem.

  • There are challenges between men and women when it relates to air con temperature - let’s discuss and find a solution that is applicable for most.

  • On the other hand, in my opinion, if the employees are upset because we added a vegan employee to the team and now they can't go out to a steakhouse for lunch, there is a need to set boundaries. They can go sometimes. They are expected to compromise to include the new team member at other times.

  • If a men-only team opposes the inclusion of a woman because we're used to making “men” jokes, it's highly advisable to inform them (even educate them) about the importance of a safe space for women, as well as for the women and girls in their circles.

We are definitely not undermining feelings because we know how much it adds to the atmosphere when a tradition turns into a ritual (in this case, going out for lunch together at our favorite steakhouse) or the team spirit we love – it contributes to the belonging of the employees. This is the place for an organizational statement – that the manager will pay attention to the employees' concerns, acknowledging that we are all on an important journey of diversity and inclusion that has clear business values and another significant goal, which is to leave a fairer and more equitable world for our children. It's a small and non-painful compromise compared to the outcome that awaits us beyond the corner. Furthermore, it is best to adopt practices of both/and. Integrating a vegan employee doesn't mean that we all have to change all our habits now. In the absolute majority of cases, the vegan employees I've known don't mind if sometimes you go without them - they talk about it openly. We can also bring food from home or a takeaway, and eat together in the office.

We all want to promote diversity and inclusion and look at the world of tomorrow, but it's no less important to look at the present and the current situation in the organization. The process of diversity and inclusion is a delicate and precise one that needs to be done with a lot of thought and empathy for everyone, with a lot of creativity - it's part of the business value. We need to formulate a strategy that takes into account both the new and existing employees and truly sees everyone. For it to truly succeed, we need to give everyone a sense that they are part of a progressive organization and that they have a significant right to be themselves and partners in this journey – not impose "top-down directives" on them.

When looking at the Catalyst research - when Belongingness + Uniqueness happens, you get Inclusion. Having unique needs while feeling like I am a part of the team will create the ultimate Inclusion - this is what compromise and balance feel like at the end of the day. for all of us, with our unique needs.


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