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There is a lot of attention now for creating an inclusive environment, but for many it’s like supporting a good cause, not something that’s good business. Organizations are like: ‘Hire a diverse workforce and trying to include a range of ages, ethnicities, religions and worldviews? Check. Wow, we now have an inclusive workplace!’

Unfortunately, diversity is only half of the picture. To get the benefit of diversity, the challenge is to create a culture where all employees feel heard and included, regardless of personality or backgrounds.

It’s a major investment to bring talent into an organization, so why bring them in if they’re not going to be happy when they get there? Happy employees are 31% more productive. They are 37% better at selling and display three times more creativity than their unhappy counterparts.

Another major reason to focus on an inclusive workplace is our changing workforce. Not only will the number of minority workers have doubled by 2020, in her book Differently Wired, Deborah Reber presents striking statistics about a growing group of people who process information differently. People on the spectrum, people with anxiety, gifted people, and also people with dyslexia or ADHD. One out of 5 people can be considered differently wired; that’s 20% of our workplace. We see this in InterActing, a Boom Chicago program I started for teenagers with autism.

Whether these differences come from people being differently wired or simply reflect people’s different backgrounds, they affect the way people interact, the way they see the world, and the way they create ideas. When employees who are different from their colleagues are allowed to flourish, the company benefits from their ideas, skills and engagement.

So we know that truly inclusive workplaces enhance innovation, job satisfaction, employee retention and the bottom line. And we know that being more inclusive is the best way to get the most out of each individual employee.

The question is: how do we create a workplace that is inclusive, that is open to these valuable new points of view and different ways of thinking? What are the tools we need to harness the potential of an inclusive workplace?

I am a big fan of Keith Sawyer who wrote the book Group Genius. We are often drawn to the idea of the lone genius whose mystical moment of insight changed the world, but that’s not how it works.

Sawyer says: ‘Working together brings out the creativity in each person, providing each other with the spark for the next idea. It is never a single person coming up with a breakthrough – innovation emerges from a series of sparks.’

Innovation follows the same process as an improvised scene, with small sparks gathering over time, multiple dead ends and the reinterpretation of previous ideas. With improvisation the key principle is the concept of YES AND. This means really building on each other’s ideas by embracing them and then adding to them. And both are key. Embracing the new idea; that’s the YES. And building on it by adding to it; that’s the AND.

Here at Boom Chicago, when two actors start a scene and one of them begins by saying, ‘Welcome to the vegetable store. I am sorry but I am out of tomatoes today.’ The other actor then cannot say ‘No, we are at the butcher, and I see tomatoes everywhere.,’ that would end the scene right there, and that is no fun. Instead when the second actor immediately adds something like ‘Oh no, what a disaster, my mother in law is coming for dinner and all she eats is tomato soup’, now we are creating a scene together that is exciting, has stakes and moves forward.

This collaborative mindset is not just important for an improv group such as Boom Chicago. It’s also key for successful work teams. In effective work teams, teammates play off one another, each person’s contribution providing the spark for the next.

And just as important as how yes-and helps come up with new, innovative ideas is what yes-and tells your teammate, subordinate or customer. Yes-and tells the person you’re talking to that they are heard, valued and respected. I always say: Love an idea for a minute — even ideas to which your first response was, ‘Naaaah.’

Really listening is critical for this process to work. Improv actors listen to the new ideas that the other actors offer in their improvised lines, and then they come up with their own ideas. Many people spend too much time planning their own actions and not enough time listening and observing others. When teams practice really listening, each new idea is an extension of the ideas that came before.

This can be very tricky in a real work situation. You’re good at your job. You’ve done this before. You move fast and you know how it’s probably going to go. You’ve got experience and habits.

What happens when you get new information or unexpected data? What happens when you hear from someone whose background gives them a point of view you’re not used to? Or whose mind processes and communicates information in a way very different from our own? Most of us push it away. We think to ourselves – perhaps even subconsciously – ‘What? That new idea? Nah. That is not possible.’ We’re actually not as flexible as we’d like to be.

Now, not every idea is good. Some deserved to be pushed away. And just because someone thinks differently than you do, that doesn’t necessarily make them right. But first, love every idea for a minute. See if there is a kernel there to which you can say, yes and. And if you are going to push it away, choose to push it away.

So that is the challenge, and it can be difficult. But realizing how difficult it is, and that our instinct is to not be flexible – that’s the first step to being open to the new points of view being offered.

Inclusiveness offers businesses – yes even yours! – the possibility to innovate better, reach more customers and clients more successfully and ultimately, to expand the bottom line. Using the collaborative mindset of Yes AND can help get you there. It makes teams feel a stronger sense of connection between each other and helps them utilize the strengths and skills of every unique individual on the team.

Saskia Maas

Saskia-MaasSaskia Maas

Saskia is responsible for business development, production of global corporate programs, strategy, finance, sales and public relations. Saskia has a Masters degree in linguistics from Tilburg University and completed Nyenrode’s prestigious one-year Executive Management Development Program. She recently finished the 18 month leadership program at THNK, the school of Creative Leadership. Saskia is also one of the founders of Inter-Acting, teaching children with autism social understanding and skills through improvisation. Inspired by her youngest son, she led a pilot program for the Hogeschool Fontys in Eindhoven to help autistic students break out of their patterns and routines to embrace the unexpected with improvisation