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  • Writer's pictureSherry

From Difference to Distance: Rethinking Inclusion with Fred Falker

What if our current understanding of diversity and inclusion is fundamentally flawed? In this newsletter, you will meet Fred Falker, who has been an organizational and leadership development consultant for over 30 years and focuses on inclusion. He is the President of Falker Consulting Group in St. Louis, Missouri.

I recently watched Fred's TED talk and found it quite captivating so I reached out to meet him through LinkedIn and it worked! We connected and I appreciated the time to get to know him and his work. He shared a new perspective on diversity, equity, and inclusion called the Distance Paradigm. He prefers talking about inclusion, which he says necessarily includes diversity and equity. He presents a powerful and practical approach to connecting with others which gets to the core of inclusiveness and relationships.

Here is my discussion with Fred who reminds us that, "there is nothing dividing us, one from another. All that lies between us is space and opportunity."

Sherry Benjamins: Tell me about how you navigated to the work of helping leaders with inclusion.

Fred Falker: I have been consulting for the past 30 years in organizational leadership, performance management, customer service, and the diversity and inclusion arena. I avoided calling myself a diversity consultant for a long time because I did not want to be labeled. Now I fully embrace the idea of helping organizations develop inclusive cultures. More recently, clients have been asking for deeper support in the area of inclusion and diversity. This is where I am focused now. Many organizations have been working in the diversity, equity, and inclusion area for a long time. When you ask them about progress made or what has changed over the years, they say more awareness, but little else. They all seem to acknowledge is they have been long on activities but short on results.

Sherry: You mentioned a paradigm shift in our discussion. Tell us more about that.

Fred: Historically, we have always believed that we are divided by our differences, e.g., race, ethnicity, gender and gender identity, generation, and religion. Our beliefs are supported by what we see. All around us, we see the lines of difference, and they do seem to divide us.

Here is the shift to consider. Nature does not draw lines; we do—all of them. So nothing stands between us humans, no walls, barriers, obstacles, or fault lines. There is nothing we need to remove, navigate, tear down, set aside, or bridge; instead, there is only emotional distance that we can choose to reduce.

We see that "differences" are the lines we draw to help us make sense of the world we inhabit. Safe, unsafe. Us, them. Right, wrong. We cannot stop seeing the lines we draw. But we can learn to recognize that they are our creations. For example, I might ask you where you draw the line for who is and who is not an African-American. It does not matter how you answer the question. It will be a line that someone has drawn. I remind people that a line accepted by many was called the one-drop rule, which essentially said you could not pass for white if you had even one drop of black blood. Once we recognize the fact that we draw the lines, we free ourselves from their tyranny. We have allowed the lines we have drawn to keep us from seeing each other as fully human. We need not continue to do that. I ask my clients to consider the costs of seeing these lines.

The shift occurs when you realize that distance rather than our differences separate us. The old paradigm around differences has been out there a long time and what I have learned is that this new focus of looking at distance is more right for what we as humans naturally lean into than the current DEI "difference" paradigm.

Sherry: If we are hardwired to connect, then why do we avoid relationships?

Fred: Early on, we learned to distance ourselves from others. By drawing lines, our parents taught us who is us and who is them. The lesson our parents wanted us to learn was that we should distance ourselves from them. Whatever we might feel now about that, I think it's important to recognize that our parents did it out of love for us and to keep us safe. We have to learn now that the lines we see, our differences, are not barriers to connection.

Sherry: How can leaders shift from seeing the "lines" to sensing relationships?

Fred: We need to know the human being before us, not learn more about the lines of difference. What is our relationship with our employees? Are we close or far away from them emotionally? By focusing on the lines, we turn people into objects. Seeing them as human beings allows us to focus on our relationships with them.

Sherry: How are organizations becoming more inclusive?

Fred: The best organizations are beginning to ask, "What does inclusion mean for our company?" The current DEI model focuses on activities and practices. Leaders who consider starting with the conditions that we want people to experience will quickly advance inclusion and culture. However, success is more than checking off a list of activities. What allows an employee to feel included? It takes an invitation to feel included. The vast majority of people at work probably do not feel excluded. But then they do not feel included either. And that is a huge correctable loss.

I find the organizations that are making this work best right now are the ones that have thought about and invested in culture. They want to live up to and bring their values to life in the workplace. Now they are making sure inclusion permeates every aspect of their culture—so that all employees both know that they belong and that the matter. They are also beginning to make sure the value of inclusion is reflected in their decision-making. Employees want to experience inclusion, not just hear people talk about it.

Sherry: Is there a simple answer here?

Fred: The simple answer is to adopt a new mindset, shifting from differences to distance. This is especially true when it comes to creating inclusive cultures where all employees feel a sense of belonging. If we want the best for our employees and hope to get the best from them, this must be done.

Sherry: Where do we start to make this change?

Fred: We can teach distance paradigm principles and begin to think about inclusion as a condition for employees and an act of leadership. It is essential to know where they are now and then develop a plan for moving forward. What kind of organization do we want to be? What must we start doing now to be that organization? I need to add, diversity, equity, and fairness are necessary ingredients of inclusive organizational cultures.

Sherry: What have you learned about yourself through this work?

Fred: I have learned that I can be a better human being by focusing on reducing distance. I did not think I was a bad one. I have also learned to accept more responsibility for how I treat people that I encounter. I can always be more inclusive.

Sherry: What do you recommend to other leaders who are now focusing on inclusion and cultures that engage everyone?

Fred: I suggest my clients start asking themselves these questions. Are things getting better in terms of culture in our organization? Are we getting the outcomes we want? Can we measure our improvement? Are we a healthy work community for all of our employees? If the answers to any of these questions are no, begin rethinking inclusion.

Thank you Fred for sharing your perspective and having us think in a new way which opens dialogue and furthers the human connection.

More about Fred

Fred is the President of Falker Consulting Group, Inc., a consulting and human resource development training firm and former Director of Workforce Development for the Saint Louis Zoo. He has worked as an organizational development consultant for more than 30 years, helping organizations with performance management, customer service, and inclusion & diversity consulting and training. At the Saint Louis Zoo, his work focused on helping the organization establish it as one of the best places to work, serve and volunteer in the country.

Over the past twenty-five years, Fred has developed and introduced a fundamentally new and better approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion. This approach goes beyond today's anti-racism and unconscious/implicit bias training. Instead of focusing on the differences between people, Fred focuses on the distance between them and the behaviors that drive connection, inclusion, and belonging.

Fred has partnered with Chapman & Co. Leadership Institute to develop a program called Include to bring distance paradigm thinking and behavioral change into organizations. Fred is also currently working on a book detailing this transformative way of thinking about inclusion and diversity titled, Seeing the Box: Connecting with People.

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