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Most workplaces have some sort of in-group. And everyone is aware — consciously or subconsciously — of the things that define who’s more likely to be accepted and successful.

This creates pressure to conform. People who are different from that in-group won’t want their differences to count against them.

This means that even when a workplace or team is diverse, many people might not feel safe to be themselves — their whole authentic selves. They might feel it’s just too risky to be vulnerable. So what’s going on instead?

GIF depicting someone who is scared

Scared Animation GIF by @loretaaaaaa.

🎭 Do you cover?

Covering is downplaying what makes you different.

Research from Deloitte and Kenji Yoshino, New York University School of Law, suggests that covering is widespread and fundamentally undermines inclusion.

They found that the ways people cover fit into four sets of covering behaviors.

👉 Appearance-based covering is modifying how you look, how you sound and the things you use

👉 Affiliation covering describes downplaying or avoiding behaviors that might make people think stereotypically about you.

👉 Association-based covering is avoiding contact with other members of your group.

👉 Advocacy-based covering is where you are reluctant to talk about or “stick up for” issues that affect a group of people you share a characteristic with.

Many of us feel the need to cover ourselves. This pressure to conform means we waste energy on fitting in that we could channel into more productive things. And we may also avoid interactions and contributions that could add business value and personal value.

Hiding parts of ourselves at work is:

❌ Exhausting

❌ Painful

❌ Bad for productivity

❌ Bad for development

But there are 2 simple steps you can take to help members of your team feel they can be themselves.

➡️ Step 1: Be respectfully curious

Use conversation starters or exercises to create opportunities to be a little bit vulnerable.

Make sure that they:

✅ Invite people to open up without forcing them

✅ Could apply to anyone (and don’t put anyone or any group under a magnifying glass)

✅ Give you a chance to model vulnerability

"One of the things I think about as a leader is the way I start conversations around something really important that we need to deliver. And that starting point is 'how are you doing? How's your family? And how are we doing as a team?'... It gives the sense that the whole self is seen." - CATHERINE ROOME, PRESIDENT & LEAD EXECUTIVE, TECHNICAL SAFETY BC

Step 2: Show you value what makes people different

Asking people to open up isn’t enough.

Most of us need active confirmation that we’re respected and valued. If we’re bringing a vulnerable part of ourselves to work, we need affirmation even more.

GIF of two people having a conversation

Remind yourself to be active and clear about telling people you value them. Make it a habit, especially in moments when someone is ‘uncovering’ something that makes them different.

Use more phrases like these:

💬 “I really trust you with this.”

💬 “I respect that you did that.”

💬 “I value the perspectives you bring.”

💬 “That’s one of the reasons you’re great to work with.”

💬 “Tell me more about that.”

🗝️ Your key takeaway

Be respectfully curious and create opportunities for people to open up and feel seen without forcing anyone. Actively show that you value people, especially when they bring vulnerable parts of themselves to work.

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