Perfect can be the Enemy of Good, as we build inclusive workplaces.

We all want to do the right thing. In a workplace, this drive is even more intense. No one wants to say the wrong thing or offend a colleague. However, a fear of failure or taking a misstep can stop you from even getting started in the first place.

Hire Immigrants Ottawa has engaged with hundreds of employers to ask about the key barriers they face to creating more diverse and inclusive workplaces. While systemic and organizational barriers continue to present significant challenges, individuals also shared their personal challenges.

The most frequently shared concern is related to fear. Individuals are afraid to say or do “the wrong thing,” be misunderstood or offend anyone in the workplace. Many individuals fear that they didn’t “know enough” or were not “culturally aware” enough to ask a question of someone from a different background. Everyone is concerned about being politically correct.

These concerns and fears are all valid. The thing is, we all have them. No one is an expert on all individuals, cultures, communities, experiences and perspectives. No diversity and inclusion guru has this down to a science. It is not science and no one gets it right all the time.

While striving to build our understanding of different world views, cultures, communities, intersectional identities and experiences is important – and we should continue to build and flex those muscles – the expectation that we should be perfect is not only unreasonable, it is also dangerous. It can lead to fear and inaction. This can result not only in superficial relationships and missed opportunities for connection, learning and trust-building, but could exclude and alienate people in the workplace.

Nobody is perfect. But we can be good enough to do the important work of building diverse and inclusive workplaces and communities. Here are a few (imperfect) tips:

1. Invest in relationships across difference. Be willing to open-up and share more about yourself. Be authentic and invite opportunities to build trust. You cannot do this without understanding and checking your own power and privilege – as we don’t all start on equal footing or experience the world in the same way. Continue to reach out, even when it may be uncomfortable.

2. Get comfortable with not knowing. Continue to do your homework and use readily available and credible resources to learn more about cultures, countries and communities you don’t know much about. However, don’t expect to know it all. Even if you possess significant understanding or expertise in one area, remember that every person’s experiences are different, and no culture or community is monolithic. Be curious. It’s ok to say, “I’m not sure I know much about that, would you be willing to tell me more?”

3. Listen and learn. Following the above point, actively listen, do ask questions and try to learn. However, do not automatically assume that because someone has a particular identity or experience (race, religion, country of origin, etc.) that they are comfortable answering your questions or being a resource for your learning. Take time to do your own research and seek out public education resources in your community.

4. Get ready to make mistakes. Anyone engaging in building relationships across difference makes mistakes and says the wrong thing. When you do and you notice, acknowledge the mistake and apologize without making excuses. Do not run from the conversation or avoid future conversations if you mess up. Breathe, apologize and move on. If someone is brave enough to share feedback with you or offer advice about the language you use, your approach, etc., take it as a gift – listen and learn. It is hard to provide that feedback, especially if it is about how you referred to them, their community, etc. Again, listen, reflect, apologize and move on.

5. Remember, nobody is perfect. People will inevitably say or do the wrong thing from time to time. You may be the one in the hot seat today, or it may be someone else. Assume good intentions and that no one is trying to offend or hurt anyone.
Working with people who have different life experiences, education, backgrounds, beliefs and passions than you do, brings challenges. How well individuals within a workplace can manage relationships and interactions, deepen understanding, build common ground and strengthen trust is critical to leveraging the diversity within an organization and building success. Courage, humility and space for imperfection are required ingredients to this ongoing journey.

This post is based on the reflections from Ottawa employers about the personal challenges they face in creating more inclusive workplaces.

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