Generous exclusion in work gatherings

When we gather, how do we draw boundaries in ways that give people a sense of place and belonging? This is one of the questions with which Priya Parker grapples in her book, “The art of gathering: How we meet and why it matters.” Parker suggests that we need to engage in intentional exclusion and that exclusion can be a kind and generous act. Excluding certain people can help other people feel included.

But, how do we align this idea with a greater push for inclusivity in organizations? One of the key goals of workplace diversity initiatives is to increase inclusion so that people feel more integrated and valued. At work, we want people to feel like they can participate, have a voice, feel safe, and belong.

Parker argues that exclusion can actually better serve diversity goals, if diversity is the purpose of the gathering: “Excluding thoughtfully allows you to focus on a specific, underexplored relationship” (p. 48). When we craft purposeful gatherings, differences can be highlighted which stimulate engaged conversation. If we fail to draw boundaries in service of inclusion, Parker argues, we dilute the gathering: “If everyone is invited, no one is invited—in the sense of being truly held by the group. By closing the door, you create the room” (p. 38). I have thought about the importance of boundaries in my own work on creative pairs—a clear boundary is critical for establishing a sense of psychological safety. We need to craft a safe container so we can create and work freely.

The rise of affinity groups in organizations points to one way that thoughtful exclusion is already making its way into thinking about inclusion in organizations. For example, Salesforce has over 10 “equality groups,” including Earthforce (community for sustainability), Latinoforce (Latinx community), Outforce (LBGTQ community), and Faithforce (community for all faiths). These groups form around a common purpose, interest, or ideology with the goal of establishing a place where people can get support and resources, enabling greater opportunities. If you don’t align with the purpose or shared interest, the group isn’t right for you. As Lisa Leslie has recently argued, though, we don’t yet fully understand the unintended consequences related to these types of initiatives.

In thinking about gatherings and inclusion in organizations, it seems critical to acknowledge the inherent tensions that emerge when we gather and meet. As Bernardo Ferdman suggests, thinking about inclusion in organizations involves paradoxes around (1) experiences of belongingness versus distinctiveness, (2) boundaries and norms that are stable and well-defined versus shifting and open, and (3) experiences of comfort versus discomfort.

Parker advises returning to purpose. She urges us to think more intentionally about why we are gathering: What is the purpose? What are we trying to achieve? Answering these questions should guide the design of the gathering. Who should be invited? Where should the gathering take place? What activities will be central to the gathering? Parker’s book provides a roadmap for engaging with these questions. Bringing this level of intentionality to work gatherings and making tough choices about who we should include (and potentially exclude) offers a pathway to deepening our connections at work and better establishing a place for everyone.

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