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Volume 23 No. 17
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How sports values align with inclusion, diversity

Photo: getty images
Photo: getty images
Photo: getty images

I’m a newcomer to the business of sports. Although I’m an advocate for sports participation at all levels and in all phases of life, I don’t have a favorite sport or team. My sports experience — as a competitive gymnast, predawn runner for over 40 years, soccer mom and parent of a Division I offensive lineman — taught me firsthand that sports delivers on the promise of fair play, self-reliance, perseverance, humility, the value of strong defense and teamwork. As an SBJ reader, you know this already.

My life’s work for the past 20 years has been in inclusion and diversity (I+D). What you may not realize is that the distinctive qualities and values baked into sports can help propel sports organizations toward meeting and exceeding the goal of becoming more inclusive and more diverse.

FAIR PLAY

Sport is built on the respect for the rules and equal treatment of everyone involved in the game. When I+D is elevated or called out by leadership as important to the organization, some will feel elated and step up to embrace it. Some people will be slow to respond and push back. All responses are valid and should be expected because I+D signifies that the rules (process and behaviors) used to “play the game” with the organization have changed. 

Approaching I+D with a mindset of fair play ensures that the organization invests in researching, reviewing, testing and communicating what leadership hopes to achieve. It also requires leaders to be willing to engage in active debate. When change is imposed, fair play is restored with consistency. In my experience, many I+D efforts are derailed not because they lack vision but because there is a lack of consistency — and people lose their sense of fair play.

SELF RELIANCE

I+D is not a spectator sport. Everyone in the organization is in the game. If people are not self-motivated, true progress will not happen. As a parent, I required each of our children to play a team sport until age 12. Because it was a rule, we helped them practice and remember schedules, and we attended and cheered them on at games. If they chose to continue to play, they had to be self-motivated; I executed all of my duties as a parent, but I would no longer cheer from the sidelines. I believed that they needed to learn self-reliance and self-motivation if they were going to advance. It also resulted in them experiencing true joy that only comes from self-realization.  

I+D is no different. Organizations, and especially leaders, must exhibit self-reliance. Too often I am asked to deliver I+D training only to discover that the entire I+D strategy rests on an instructor’s ability to teach people what to do/not do. Additionally, I’m sometimes asked to create a high-impact, emotional experience in the classroom. Both of these are signs that people are expected to be informed spectators and not fully engaged participants. Anyone who has taken golf lessons knows that playing golf is the only way to be a golfer. Furthermore, playing golf has enough emotional content and does not need artificial scare tactics from instructors, fans, etc.

PERSEVERANCE

Achieving peak performance and expert status is a long-term investment. If you apply to I+D the 10,000-hour rule for mastering a skill, you’ll need to invest the equivalent of 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, 44 weeks a year for 5½ years!! Treat I+D like a playbook. Study, learn, practice, do. REPEAT. 

Set goals and share specific expectations but give people the flexibility to progress at their own pace. Realize that it is possible for the same person to be accepting and inclusive of one aspect of diversity while being indifferent or intolerant of another.

HUMILITY

Regardless of your race, ethnicity, gender identity, communication/thinking style, sexual orientation, religion, generational age, etc., the only personal identity (diversity) you know is YOURS. Everyone, including people like me, needs to practice and improve how we relate and adapt to people who are different. 

There’s no practice squad or minor leagues in I+D. You learn the game as you play it in front of the crowd. You will make mistakes and so will others. Be humble and ask for help. There’s nothing wrong with asking, “Which pronouns do you use?” Or, “Is it important for me to include your ethnicity or race when describing you?” Assume positive intent whenever possible. But most of all encourage and recognize small wins — especially your own.

DEFENSE KNOWING HOW NOT TO LOSE

My football-playing son was also a nationally ranked wrestler. As he headed into his final regional tournament, his younger sister asked, “How will you win with a broken finger?” He responded, “Not lose.”

In I+D, simply accept that you and others are not going to get it right. The current buzz concept is bias. Bias simply describes how the human brain is wired to discover, remember then pre-select patterns. Neuroscience tells us that it’s easier to detect bias in others than in ourselves. More important, if we interrupt our thinking (see box), we have the opportunity to select a different, hopefully better, response. 

I’m often asked, “What’s the ROI on I+D?” Ultimately, inclusion is the essential behavior that makes diverse teams excel. Inclusion is about acknowledging, respecting and becoming more comfortable with differences. When people feel included and BELIEVE they are valued, they are more likely to speak candidly, respectfully challenge each other and build trust-based relationships. In a truly inclusive environment, individuals don’t feel the pressure to fit in. Each person is wholly present and has the potential to perform at their peak. So, what’s the ROI on building and maintaining a peak-performing team?

Arlene Roane is a principal at Human Advantage and the Inclusion & Diversity Area Practice leader.

INTERRUPTING BIAS

Here’s a simple approach that’s easy to remember (It’s an acronym for BIAS):

Be ready … with a simple statement or question: “Why do you say that about him/her/that group?

Identify the statement/behavior: “Are you saying that no women are qualified for that role because they don’t work as hard?”

Assume positive intent: “You’ve always attempted to make fair decisions and go beyond the minimum … ”

Set limits: “I respect your opinion and yet not including a woman as a finalist for this role is not an option. Let’s keep looking.”