Diversity & Inclusion: Leveraging the Differences that Make a Difference
Posted by: Katie Pagel | University of Denver Sports Psychology
“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.”
– Nelson Mandela
As coaches, parents, and athletes, we have witnessed firsthand the power of sport as a vehicle for the development of individual character, resilience, work ethic, etc. What we hear about less, though, is the power of sport in bringing people together. Even in times of hardship, sport allows for a shared experience; it promotes camaraderie and connection. It holds a precious position in the world as a widespread means by which we can foster a greater appreciation for, and understanding of, those different from us. In the paragraphs below, you will find my take on the what, why, and how of diversity and inclusion (D & I). It is only by promoting and valuing diversity, and intentionally building inclusive environments, that we can fully harness the power of sport to, as Mandela said, change the world.
WHAT is D & I?
Before jumping into the why and how of diversity and inclusion, let’s start with the what. These two words have recently (and rightfully) become pillars of American society. At this point, some may even consider the words diversity and inclusion to be used so frequently that they have lost some of their true meaning and power. Instead of holding steady as incredibly crucial aspects of our social fabric, they are migrating dangerously toward popular “buzzwords” that lack the weight that they deserve. For that reason, though they are familiar, it is important to reflect on what these words really mean.
To start, I’ll encourage you to take a moment and define these two words for yourself. What do the words mean to you in your life? Though often taken together (this blog being a firsthand example), it’s important to distinguish between the two. Diversity and inclusion are separate, independent entities; the presence of one does not guarantee the presence of the other.
Put simply, diversity is any significant or meaningful way that a person can differ from another person; diversity is the differences that make a difference. What such differences come to mind when you think about diversity? Most frequently, answers to that question are things we can see (skin color/race, gender, age, etc.). In considering diversity, it is important to bear in mind that there are both visible and invisible sources of diversity. Think of it like an iceberg: only 10% of an iceberg is visible above the water, while 90% is hiding beneath the surface. In that way, only 10% of diversity is visible to the eye while as much as 90% is not observable (ethnicity, national origin, indigenous heritage, sexual orientation, religion, disability status, socioeconomic status, education, etc.). I make this distinction because it is incredibly important to remember that just because someone looks like you (or different from you) does not mean you should automatically assume they are the same as you (or different from you). A final note about this definition of diversity: diversity is not a characteristic of an individual. By that I mean, despite what many of us have come to believe, I would argue that there is no such thing as a “diverse person.” Instead, I would challenge you to consider diversity as a relational concept; diversity occurs when two people with differences that make a difference interact with one another. Thus, every single one of us is an integral contributor to diversifying discussion in the workplace, classroom, or on the field.
Though crucial, diversity alone is not enough. If diversity is the first step, inclusion is the clincher. An inclusive environment is one in which all individuals are treated fairly and respectfully, have equal access to opportunities and resources, and can contribute fully toward the organization/team success. After consciously and intentionally building diversity into your team or organization, deliberate action must be taken to celebrate and embrace the differences that diversity brings (even if not everyone fully understands said differences). In this way, while diversity is the differences that make a difference, inclusion is the ability to leverage the difference for the betterment of both the team/organization as a whole and its individual members.
WHY is D & I Important?
Now that we’ve ironed out the what of diversity and inclusion, we’ll move on to the why. As I mentioned, these terms and practices associated with promoting them have recently taken center stage in America. The number of initiatives in place to foster diversity and inclusion begs the question: why is it important?
Research has shown time and again how diverse and inclusive workplaces (and teams):
- Regularly outperform groups with more homogenous demographics
- Make better business decisions, and reach those decisions faster
- Foster harder working, more thought-provoking teams
- Facilitate greater trust and openness in workgroup communication
- Positively impact job satisfaction, sense of inclusion, workgroup identification, and knowledge sharing
- Display enhanced levels of creativity and innovation
*Source: Greesonbach, 2019
These are just a handful of reasons why diversity and inclusion are needed to leverage the full potential of a team/organization. Another way of conceptualizing the value of diversity and inclusion (and presenting it to your athletes/coaches) is to consider it through the concept of a team. If you have a team made up only of strikers, it is incredibly unlikely that the team will be successful. Without the contributions of strong midfielders, defenders, and a goalie, it will be challenging for the team to optimally perform. In this way, the team’s success is contingent on the diversity associated with the various roles and positions on the field. In parallel, for the team to function at its maximum capacity members must recognize and appreciate the diversity of background and life experience amongst their teammates as much as they do their roles on the field.
While we all know the positive impact sport can have in the life of an athlete, that impact is virtually erased if an athlete experiences social stressors within unsafe and unwelcoming sport environments. For this reason, intentionally creating an inclusive environment within your team should be a top priority of any coach; it is entirely essential in order for your athletes to fully reap the psychosocial benefits provided by sport participation (APA, 2017).
HOW Do We Build an Inclusive Environment?
Once we come to understand the value of diversity and inclusion within groups, the question becomes how to cultivate that type of environment in your organization or team. Though this task is not a small one, it is entirely realistic and attainable – just take things one-step at a time. *Source: APA, 2017
Step 1: Start
- Building a perfect, inclusive environment isn’t realistic. That said, you will not get anywhere if you don’t start (from wherever you’re at).
- Focus on creating an environment that fosters inclusion from the very beginning.
- Encourage conversations between coaches and players about each other’s cultural backgrounds, lives, and interests outside of athletics.
- Model curiosity and inclusive behaviors in your personal interactions with athletes, coaches, parents, etc.
Step 2: Encourage Open Communication
- Open, effective communication optimizes the opportunity for discussion of issues related to inclusion and discrimination
- Ensure all athletes have the opportunity to take part in decision-making and planning for diverse social activities
- Model inclusive language and communication between athletes, coaches, parents, etc.
Step 3: Develop/Implement Effective Strategies
- In order to promote and maintain a positive, welcoming, and safe environment, strategies to deal with prejudicial or discriminatory language/behavior and effective procedures for managing conflict must be implemented – have a plan!
Step 4: Educate and Train Yourself and Your Staff/Team
- Addressing diversity can be uncomfortable, and even frightening, for some; an educational approach is recommended to help assuage said discomfort
- Prioritize educational sessions about diversity issues and cultural awareness
- Recognize, acknowledge, and educate yourself and your staff/team about days/events significant to a wide range of cultures (religious holidays, history months, Pride celebrations, etc.)
In following these steps, we begin building the bridge of connection between our athletes, coworkers, or employees. While this path isn’t always easy (and missteps will occur), I hope that this blog has shown you why the endeavor is not only worthwhile, but also necessary.
Things to Remember:
Like I mentioned, in doing the work to build a diverse and inclusive environment, you will mess up. You will use non-inclusive language, or unintentionally and absentmindedly commit a microaggression. It will happen (I’m sure it happened within this blog!). With that, here are my top four tips for being a multiculturally aware individual:
- Avoid making assumptions.
- Err on the side of curiosity: if you are unsure about something, ask (respectful) questions!
- Commit to continuous learning. Spend time figuring out what you don’t know in regards to diversity and inclusion, and self-educate.
- When you make a mistake, take ownership and apologize (and forgive).
Building an inclusive environment is an ongoing process. It is not something that is “achieved” and then cast aside; rather, it must be actively and continually developed throughout the lifespan of an organization or team. Though that prospect may seem daunting, remember that the first step in promoting diversity and fostering inclusion is easy. Now that you are armed with some knowledge and tools, all you have to do is get out there and start; know that I’m cheering you on from the sidelines, pom-poms, air horn and all!
We hope you enjoyed reading about the importance of promoting diversity and inclusion on the field and in the workplace. Stay tuned for next month’s blog in which more CPEX consultants will add their voices to the D & I conversation by speaking about what diversity means to them. Thanks for reading!
- APA Division 47. (April 2017). Supporting the athlete in society: Diversity and inclusion in sport. SportPsych Works, 5(1). Retrieved from https://www.apadivisions.org/division-47/publications/sportpsychworks/diversity-inclusion.pdf
- Greesonbach, Sarah. (February 22, 2019). Diversity & inclusion research roundup: Top studies you need to know. Retrieved from https://www.glassdoor.com/employers/blog/diversity-inclusion-research-roundup-top-studies-you-need-to-know/