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The D&I Dialogues series is a new program hosted by Chicago Booth for alumni, inviting alumni into conversation about these pressing diversity and inclusion business issues with expert guest speakers, on topics ranging from social justice and implicit bias to the business case for diversity.

Chicago Booth’s Carolyn Ou, the director of leadership initiatives at Chicago Booth’s Harry L. Davis Center for Leadership, recently hosted an interactive workshop for alumni on the topic of inclusive leadership as part of this new series.

Carolyn Ou
Carolyn Ou

“I want people to come out of these kinds of discussions with the desire to stay in the conversation and stay in the exploration,” said Ou. “Because that kind of steadiness and commitment to continuously doing this hard, hard work, even if it becomes uncomfortable, is how we’re going to learn and change.”

Ou recently spoke to Booth Stories to share a few ways leaders can enhance their own self-awareness and ultimately foster more-inclusive workspaces:

Chicago Booth: What do you think inclusive leadership looks like?

Ou: I think of inclusive leadership as the practice of creating spaces in which difference is seen and is honored, respected, and integrated. It involves making inclusion a priority and then creating processes that support those behaviors. And it’s about helping people feel safe in exploring what inclusion means and looks like for them.

Chicago Booth: What were your biggest goals in leading the D&I Dialogues workshop with Booth alumni?

Ou: I designed this with the intention of it being a Level 1 conversation. Knowing that people all stand in different places around understanding inclusion, my goal was to create additional awareness around the following questions: Who am I as an inclusive leader? What do I do that really helps create inclusive spaces around me? And what do I do that shuts that down around me? I wanted this workshop to be digestible for anybody regardless of where they are on that particular journey.


“We talked about how leaders need to ask themselves the following: How do I listen? How do I make it safe for someone to share their experiences? How can I respect what that person is sharing without trying to project my own stuff onto it?”

— Carolyn Ou

Chicago Booth: What were some of the exercises you led attendees through?

Ou: One exercise we did was a reflection activity in which everyone asked themselves three questions: What behaviors do I see in myself that really make the space around me more inclusive? What else do I do that gets in the way of inclusion? And what’s my overall impact? On a daily basis, we are each engaging in behaviors that have both positive and negative impacts, so I wanted everyone to be as honest as possible with themselves about that reality. I sent everyone into small groups to discuss their answers both so that they could feel safe sharing and reflecting, and also so they might realize, “That’s a great idea, I might try that next time!”

I also asked everyone to prepare a story about a moment when they felt excluded: perhaps from an opportunity, an event, a conversation, or a group. They broke out into groups of three to share those stories and to also relay back what they heard from each other. Beyond just hearing about another person’s experience, this was about practicing deep listening and empathy, and really being able to create a psychologically safe space for someone to be heard without being judged. When we reflected on this as a group, we talked about how leaders need to ask themselves the following: How do I listen? How do I make it safe for someone to share their experiences? How can I respect what that person is sharing without trying to project my own stuff onto it?

Chicago Booth: What other ideas did you draw on when creating this workshop?

Ou: When I brought up the topic of implicit bias, I introduced a framework called the “Ladder of Inference,” created by Chris Argyris, who is regarded as the father of organizational learning.

It lays out the mental steps in our reasoning and reveals how we receive data, draw conclusions, and adopt certain beliefs about the world. We use those beliefs to further filter out future experiences. This process can lead us to behave in ways that can be very effective, and also very limiting. I recommend people use this framework to deconstruct moments in their own lives, identify the beliefs and underlying bias informing their actions, and reflect on whether there’s a behavior they’re practicing that’s creating an environment that excludes or having other unwanted and negative impacts on others.

“Get really honest about your behaviors and their impacts, and then seek feedback from others, because it’s critical to understand yourself through other people's eyes as well. What will be more critical is to build some experiments based on this data, try something new, observe and reflect on the results, and then experiment again.”

— Carolyn Ou

Chicago Booth: Self-awareness especially seems to be an important factor in creating a culture of inclusivity in one’s workplace or team. How can leaders work to develop their own self-awareness?

Ou: One way is to regularly take time to reflect deeply, asking yourself the three questions I discussed earlier. Get really honest about your behaviors and their impacts, and then seek feedback from others, because it’s critical to understand yourself through other people’s eyes as well. What will be more critical is to build some experiments based on this data, try something new, observe and reflect on the results, and then experiment again. Developing self-awareness can’t be a purely internal process—leaders need to get out into the world and take action and then actively learn from those moments.

Chicago Booth: What are a couple of things you hope alumni took away from this one-hour session?

Ou: I hope everyone walked away with new insights into who they are as an inclusive leader—what they do to support it and how they get in the way of it. I also hope that people left with new ways to continue exploring this topic through actively shifting behaviors and practicing daily out in the world.


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