GUEST OPINION | The alchemy of inclusion

At an event a few weeks ago I ran into one of the many satisfied customers of our employment division. This particular customer is a senior executive with a major retailing chain who oversees more than 250 stores in the United States and Canada including a dozen or so in the Puget Sound region. “I can’t get over it,” he told me. “In every store where we have hired people from your employment agency, in-store sales have improved, productivity has improved, morale has improved, and absenteeism has gone down. What’s going on here?”

What this customer is experiencing is the remarkable power of inclusion and diversity to make organizations stronger and more effective. We see it every day in our work — in the classrooms of our inclusive preschools, in our businesses with their integrated workforces, and in the rapidly growing number of local employers who are experiencing the power of inclusion first hand. When people of all abilities engage together in learning, play, and work everyone benefits.

“We are all bundles of potential,” says the organizational theorist Margaret Wheatley. “Relationships evoke those potentials.” When we have relationships only with people like ourselves, we tend to get more of the same. But when we add diversity to our surroundings, when we began to develop relationships with people who experience the world differently than we do, new qualities are evoked that would never have been realized in any other way.

We see the same effect very powerfully in the natural world around us. The noted ecologist Joanna Macy points to the magic of ordinary water. “From the respective qualities of oxygen and hydrogen,” she writes, “one could never have anticipated the properties that emerge when these elements interact and make water.”

Yet I wonder — if humans were in charge of these things would those hydrogen molecules be segregated in “special” classrooms or excluded from the workforce because they are so different from we oxygen types who consider ourselves and our abilities to be “typical.” How is it that our thinking as a society has led us to segregation when the very world around us is built on the principles of diversity and the power of inclusion to evoke essential qualities greater than the sum of their parts?

That inclusion is so fundamental to the world around us may help explain the extraordinary “aha” stories I hear from people who experience this natural alchemy for themselves. A few months ago, for example, one of our job coaches took a highly capable young man who has a developmental condition of some sort to what we call a trial work experience at a restaurant in Burien. The idea is that the young man would try restaurant work for a week or two to see if he liked it.

Not only did he like working in the restaurant, but the restaurant liked him. When the trial period ended the other employees demanded that the owner hire this young man to be a permanent part of their team. The employees felt so strongly they threatened to quit, every one of them, if this young man were not hired. He was hired, and this restaurant has become a better place to work, the employees more productive, the customers more satisfied, and the business more successful — not just because of his productivity, but because of the qualities he evokes in everyone else that make the team stronger.

This is the alchemy of inclusion. It’s as natural as the water we drink, and it works. Try some today.


Tom Everill is the President and CEO of Northwest Center.  Contact him at inside@nwcenter.org.

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