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Cisco: Inclusive Leadership via Language

By Maulie Dass

Cisco: Inclusive Leadership via Language

By Maulie Dass

Published 05-23-23

Submitted by Cisco Systems, Inc.

A diverse group of people talking at a large table.

Ever start a team meeting with the greeting, “Hey, guys”?

You might realize it’s not inclusive language as you say it, and try to correct with a hesitant, “and gals,” which tends to make the intention moot and the moment awkward. Inclusive language can be tricky, especially when you consider cultural norms and communication patterns. But don’t give up.

As leaders we are not only responsible for delivering business outcomes but ensuring that our team culture supports and accelerates them. As the leader of Cisco Innovation Labs, diversity of thought, inclusion, and belonging all unlock my team’s potential to challenge the status quo, design, and innovate.

So why practice inclusive language? Simply put, to bring your team together. We may never truly know people’s histories, and what you consider unimportant may be a barrier to progress for another person. Using language that builds a positive relationship rather than a wall brings your team together for the jobs to be done–the ones for which you are ultimately accountable. According to a study in Harvard Business Review, people at high-trust companies report 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity than people at low-trust companies.

Language has more power than we realize – it can break down barriers and bring teams together, but it can also erode credibility, stifle ideas, and isolate your team. When it comes to demanding and fast-paced environments, this risk increases, and we compromise our opportunity to innovate.

Your words and actions matter.

“What leaders say and do makes up to a 70 percent difference as to whether an individual reports feeling included” Harvard Business Review 

You may not realize how much your language choices are appreciated until after you put them into practice.

For example, I try to include my pronouns whenever I introduce myself. After I started doing this, a few colleagues shared that this created a more welcoming space for them to do the same and bring their whole selves to work. According to BCG’S BLISS report, “employees who can be their authentic selves are happier, more motivated to give their best, feel like their perspectives matter—and are nearly 2.4 times less likely to quit.”

Another practice I’ve started is to be approachable when communicating around inclusive language during meetings. If I realize I’ve said something that could be potentially harmful, I’ll pause and ask those on the call if what I said was non-inclusive. Then I’ll rephrase what I said. Again, I receive ongoing feedback from team members on how much this openness is appreciated.

When I’m transparent with my active practice of inclusive language, I find others doing the same. By leading by example, it takes away the perception that this is hard work and slows things down, because we are adjusting for inclusion in real time.

There are several categories of language I’d like to point out. Cisco’s policy addresses harmful race-related terms that we often find in code, but that’s just the start:

  • Race. Common examples are master and slave. Another is blacklist and whitelist. I’ll expand on this to say that any time you see colors being used as descriptors, especially if certain colors indicate good or bad, then avoid using them.
  • Gender. I already mentioned the “hey guys” example, but that can be expanded to include “bro,” “man,” and “dude.” Historically, our language included many career roles with “man” creating a default barrier to talent such as fireman, handy man, chairman, etc.
  • Ability and Disability. This includes terms like “handicapped” or using medical conditions in a derogatory way (e.g., “I’m so ADHD today,” “crazy,” “mental,” “psycho,” “OCD” “crippled me,” and “blind spot”).
  • Idioms and acronyms: Spell out your acronyms. When you assume that your audience knows the product line and terminology to the point of understanding industry acronyms, you end up excluding someone.
  • Violent language. Many times, people use violent words in a business context. This is something I’m trying to focus on correcting too. “Killing the presentation,” “pull the trigger,” or “create a battle plan”. Figure 1 offers suggestions to move away from violent language.
  • The “Fire-able Offense” list. These are words you should never use because they constitute harassment or fire-able offenses. These should be universally understood as “never say.”

As you notice your word choices and practice finding inclusive language replacements, it will become easier. Here are some specific suggestions to start implementing for yourself and your team:

  • Focus on your business objectives. What business problem are you trying to solve and who is your ultimate audience or customer? How can inclusive communication accelerate your outcome?
  • Coach your team. For your team, observe the type of language being used. If you hear violent language referring to business activities, you can ask if they need to use those specific words and suggest alternatives.
  • Give feedback the way you’d prefer to hear it. Be empathetic and relatable when you give feedback. Unless it’s truly a team issue, approach people individually to explain your perspective and listen to their point of view. Give them quick, easy fixes to start. Always have alternatives ready–don’t simply tell someone that they used harmful words.
  • Catch people doing things right. Encourage and support your team and their development. Celebrate them when you catch them using inclusive language or pull them aside to share your feedback.
  • Find a buddy for practice. Find a friend or trusted coworker to talk through your own examples and help you practice using more inclusive language. Be sure it’s a safe space with someone you trust to be vulnerable and learn!

To sum up, incorporating inclusive language into my work and everyday life has helped me become a stronger leader. It’s made me more aware, effective, and empathetic, which has led to better outcomes for myself and my team, and our overall organization.

The following links are some resources you can explore to further your awareness and education about inclusive language. Remember – it’s about progress through practice, not perfection!

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