The Journey Towards Diversity and Inclusion: A Few Lessons Learned

Are you in or are you out? Never in my lifetime has this question been more top of mind than in the social and political climate we face today in our country.

I have reflected on the idea of inclusion more in the last year than ever before—as a parent, a leader, a human being. As a parent, I focus on teaching my children to be kind, share, and always include others. As a leader, I am charged with the responsibility to model and foster a culture at Groupon where our people feel respected and valued for their diverse perspectives. Yet, how do we possibly inspire a workforce globally to live and lead with an inclusive mindset? Perhaps one thought, one action, one person at a time.

At the heart of what it means to be inclusive, I have found one very important element: empathy. My personal journey with empathy has been full of twists and turns.

I began my career as a clinical psychologist where in a therapy setting it is empathy—the ability to understand and share the feelings of another—that builds trusting relationships with patients, day in and day out. It is the process that is often the agent of true healing.

A few years later, I transitioned into the business field as a management consultant and executive coach. Those of us who have spent any time in the corporate world know that we are quickly drawn into focusing on outcomes and results over process. After all, focusing on the top and bottom line is the key to surviving and thriving for any company. Not long after my transition, I realized how quickly I had assimilated into this new world. My natural laser focus on action and results quickly led to feedback that I needed to be more collaborative and bring others along the way. When one of the best bosses I had ever had told me to watch out for being “a bull in a china shop,” I came to the realization. How had I lost a skill that I had spent so many years building, using, and refining? More importantly, how do I get it back so that I can be the kind of leader I want to be?

My journey has taught me three big lessons about being a more inclusive leader and a champion for building a culture at Groupon where people from different backgrounds all feel like they belong. Let me be clear, it’s not that I have somehow “arrived.” I don’t even think there’s any such thing. It’s about daily reflection and practice—it’s about the process.

  1. Don’t be afraid to raise the mirror to yourself. We all have biases and judgments, it’s the price we pay for being human. It’s not that we have them that matters, it’s what we do with them. It’s about how we talk, do, use, or misuse these biases that impacts those around us. Understand the biases you have – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Knowing and doing something about the poor behaviors that hold us back is what takes us to the next level. For example, do you tend to give more air time to the loudest person in the room? Are you more critical towards those whom you see as different from you? Unless you push yourself outside of your comfort zone, you can’t know your triggers and get ahead of acting on them, even unconsciously and this could hold you back from becoming a truly inclusive colleague and leader. Know yourself and strive for this level of self-awareness.
  2. Drop the ego and let the best ideas win. The “it’s all about me” mindset gets in the way more often than anything else in creating an inclusive environment. This is when you seek to be understood before understanding others. From this person, you hear more often—“Here’s what I think…” and “Here’s what I want….” instead of “What’s YOUR idea?” and “How do YOU think we should approach the situation?” They key of course, is striking a good balance. Ask yourself—do you do a lot more talking than listening? More telling than asking? Unless you are willing to drop the ego, conflict becomes about blame rather than collaboration and divide rather than shared purpose and alignment. Though it takes longer, I’ve learned time and time again—a “we’re in this together” approach breeds more effective problem solving, conflict resolution, and breakthrough innovation.
  3. Put yourself in the shoes of the other for genuine perspective taking. This, to me, is the real definition of empathy and the key to working across organizational and cultural boundaries. If you work in a global company, you can’t lead without this. But, having empathy is not the same as showing empathy. The real culture change happens when we all go from just thinking and feeling to actually doing. What does this look like? If you have employees who are based in other countries—ask them about their culture and norms, what works and doesn’t work? Ask your team to tell you about their aspirations and how you can help them get there. Ask your peers—what can I do to remove barriers and support your success? Ask your boss—what can I do to make your life easier? Try starting with the other person first for just a week and see what happens. Most importantly, don’t just ask, be sure to act. That’s about integrity.

The best part about these behaviors is that they can all be learned. With focus, practice and commitment, they can become habits. These are just a few of the habits we are aiming to build at Groupon. And, the result? Well, when you place conscious effort on the process of building your relationships, teams, and company—simply put, the outcome can be transformational.

About the Author

Karishma Patel Buford is the Global Head of Talent Development at Diversity at Groupon where she leads strategy and execution globally for leadership development, performance management, succession management, high potential development, and inclusion and diversity.