When We Don’t Consciously Invite Others, We Unconsciously Exclude Them

I once worked with a team that practiced what felt like an egalitarian decision-making process. We would meet, discuss challenges and collectively come up with strategies to move forward.

Sounds great, doesn’t it?

But over time, I noticed something odd: a few days after our team meetings, I would return to work to find the decisions that we made were moot, and the manager was moving in a different direction.

At first, I had no idea what initiated these changes. But eventually I solved the puzzle: my male manager and certain members of our department were having additional, informal get-togethers after work at a local bar. There, they would talk shop and new decisions were made about who to hire, promote and assign to important projects.

Though I was never invited, I later learned that it wasn’t gender-based. White women at all levels in our department were invited. But I never scored an invitation. Later, I figured it had something to do with being the only woman of color in my department.

“Acting naturally” is seldom inclusive

I don’t believe they excluded me because they disliked me, per se, but I do know it was because I was different from the “in-group.” Research on affinity bias shows that we are naturally drawn to people who are like us. Affinity bias often leads us to invite people like us and notice when people like us are missing from the gathering.

Conversely, it means we often don’t consciously realize our oversight when we’ve excluded people who are different from us.

In other words: acting “naturally” doesn’t cut it — not if you’re committed to being inclusive every day and in every way. Unless we consciously invite and include, we could be unconsciously excluding others.

It might seem like no big deal: A casual drink here, a few networking events there with like-minded colleagues isn’t so bad, right?

Unfortunately, these seemingly innocuous meetups have consequences, and most of them fall on the employees from underestimated backgrounds.

The solution is to invite people from underestimated backgrounds to these kinds of events, no matter what. That means being intentionally open and curious about people who are different from us — the subject of last week’s Inclusion Is Leadership on LinkedIn.

Choosing curiosity is up to all of us, but I believe managers and leaders have a particular responsibility to lead by example. So always invite everyone, especially if it’s a “casual, informal” gathering.

It’s not difficult to invite someone to an event, and believe me, it makes a big difference. I think we can all relate, perhaps from experiences in our childhood, to how good it feels to be included. And conversely, how hurtful it feels to be excluded.

In some ways, we’re no different now than at five years old (I see it everyday, as that’s the age my son is as I’m writing this!).

It still feels good to be included, and we each have the power to extend inclusive invitations to our colleagues, neighbors and community.

Earlier I wrote that making inclusive invitations is part of the solution. The other part is on the structural side: organizing inclusive events that welcome employees from all backgrounds. In my next letter to you, I’ll share steps for creating inclusive events to begin with.

Has someone in your life made you feel especially included? Have you done the same for others? Let’s shift the narrative.

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