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Inclusion at work: insights from musicals? Let’s start at the very beginning…

With story-lines involving love, drama, fantasy, personal journeys and big adventures, told through immersive, uplifting or dramatic music and songs, musical theatre is, for many, a fantastic source of escapism. But the impact of musicals can go beyond this, and can leave us, not just with a few catchy songs in our heads, also with some thoughts and lessons which can help us in our lives away from the theatre. Care to see examples of how this can be true about helping us with inclusion? Here are a few of my favourite things:

The sound of music

It is only fair to start with one of the ultimate classics. More specifically, let’s focus on what brought Maria to the Von Trapp family in the first place. Maria stands out from her peers in the nunnery where she is living while deciding whether to become a nun; she is a free-spirit who enjoys singing her heart out and spending her time on the hills, at the detriment of the rules of monastic life. This presents a conundrum to Mother Abbess and the other nuns, who ask “How do you solve a problem like Maria?”. In their musical reflection, they go on to ask “How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?”, and end up realising that you just cannot, as they send her to become governess to the Von Trapp family, in the hope that it will help her find the path she needs to take. And the rest, as they say, is history (and in this case, it really is).

So what does this teach us about inclusion? That people leaders sometimes ought to channel their inner Mother Abbess. Some people, especially at the start of their careers, will find themselves in positions which will not suit their personal preferences and behavioural strengths. Rather than view them as poor performers and dismiss any potential they may have, managers should seek to help them recognise where they get their energy from, and support them to try different paths.

In some circumstances, leaders should also recognise that different traits, as foreign to the rest of their teams as they may be, could be a valuable addition to bring an edge to their teams, and help drive some change for the better. To stay with the nun-related musical analogy, think less of The sound of music in this case, more of Sister Act!

Avenue Q

Avenue Q, often seen as an adult version of Sesame Street, brings together a range of characters, all facing life-crises of various sorts, and finding support and friendship in one another. When Princeton, a recent college graduate in search for his purpose in life, wrongly assumes that Kate Monster, an assistant teacher dreaming of opening a school for Monsters, and Trekkie Monster, a recluse spending his days watching porn on the internet, are related because they are both Monsters, Kate gets offended and accuses Princeton of being racist. Princeton goes on to point out that Kate’s school for Monsters isn’t inclusive, and that she’s also a little bit racist, before going on to explain that “Everyone’s a little bit racist, sometimes”. Joined by other characters, they all end up agreeing that “If we all could just admit that we are racist a little bit, even though we all know that it's wrong, maybe it would help us get along!”

Of course, the tone and language here are purposefully provocative, however as far as unconscious bias training goes, it is an effective way to bring the topic to life! The point Princeton makes is a critical one for all of us, especially when making people-related decisions. The first step in mitigating unconscious bias is to understand and accept one's own biases. Unconscious bias training is now widely available and used, in particular as part of recruitment processes. While they tend to provide good basic level knowledge on what unconscious bias is about, how it affects decision making, and why it drives decisions which go against building a diverse and inclusive workforce, I have personally found that the most impactful exercise to do is to assess your own biases. Training will help you realise that unconscious bias exists, and understand it better, however to help manage it, the best is to hold the mirror up, and understand where you stand. Implicit Association Tests (IATs) are good ways to do this, and Harvard offer a free test (noting that results, although anonymous, feed into their research). It helped me identify and manage some strong areas of bias, and should help you realise that everyone’s a little bit biased!

Let's stay a bit longer on Avenue Q, and this time we meet Rod, a Republican, serious and slightly obsessive banker, and his roommate Nicky, who has a much more laid back personality. Nicky suspects that Rod might be gay, and although the latter vehemently denies it (he goes on later to sing about his “girlfriend who lives in Canada”), Rod wants to make sure Nicky would feel comfortable coming out to him, singing “If you were gay, that’d be okay” - going as far as “I’d shout hooray”, and assuring him that “you can count on me to always be beside you everyday to tell you it’s okay”.

Rod is not only being a good friend, he is showing himself as a great ally - even if he is being a little clumsy about it with stereotypes and repeatedly pointing out that he is not gay, something we have probably also witnessed in real life!

Creating a network of allies has been a key focus for many companies developing their inclusion strategies, and it is most advanced in support of the LGBTQ+ community. Stonewall, a leading charity in support of this community, who works with companies to help them develop their inclusion approaches, and reviews corporations’ efforts to build an inclusive environment for LGBTQ+ personnel in their annual report, lists the existence of a strong allies network as a key factor in inclusive companies. I have been lucky to work in several companies (including my current one) encouraging and educating allies, and while I have always been fortunate to be surrounded by supportive colleagues, it does give me an extra boost to just see that colleagues identify themselves as allies.


Wicked, a retelling of The Wizard of Oz from a different perspective, focuses on the story of Elphaba, how she became the Wicked Witch of the West, and her complicated relationship with fellow witch-to-be Galinda (who becomes Glinda the Good Witch). Elphaba, who was born with green skin, finds herself as a roommate to Galinda, when they both join Shiz University. After starting off on the wrong foot, the two girls eventually get along for a brief period of time, during which Galinda, with her bubbly, confident and outgoing personality, decides to take her shy and self-conscious green-skinned friend as her next project, aiming to make her “popular”, like she is herself, convinced that this is the only way to succeed; as she sings, “It's not about aptitude, it's the way you're viewed”. Galinda is keen to show Elphaba how to “hang with the right cohorts, (...) be good at sports, know the slang you've got to know”, and with all of this, “instead of dreary who-you-were (well, are), there's nothing that can stop you from becoming popular”.

Of course, the lesson here is not about following Galinda’s advice, quite the opposite. This is about how we should use empathy to drive inclusion, by making an active effort to understand others and help turn their singularities into strengths. Back in 2018, an article in Forbes addressed empathy in an eye-catching way, as a solution to the employee engagement challenges estimated by Gallup to cost American companies $600 billion in lost productivity. Beyond the catchy and impressive headline, the article shares other survey findings showing clearly that people put great importance on empathy as a key source of job satisfaction. It also shares quick tips for leaders to develop empathy, which starts, quite obviously, by listening, and then showing understanding and acting accordingly. This, however, isn’t just about people leaders. Everyone of us, in all roles, can make a difference to others with empathy, be it in the way we welcome new colleagues into the team and help them settle, enter into a conversation with someone who seems to be facing challenges, or simply in our everyday interactions. If Galinda had tried to understand Elphaba better rather than try and turn her into a new version of herself, Oz could have remained a much quieter place!

Les Misérables

For our final stop, let’s revisit another classic and staple of the West End, Les Misérables (affectionately known as “Les Mis” - what would Victor Hugo make of this?). The story is set in the early 19th century, and follows Jean Valjean who is trying to build a new life after spending 19 years in prison, set against the backdrop of a revolutionary movement trying to overthrow the government. As Jean Valjean rises up the social ladder again to become a wealthy factory owner, we meet Fantine, a worker in his establishment. Fantine is a single mother who has had to leave her daughter Cosette in the care of a couple of disreputable innkeepers, the Thénardier, who end up exploiting her. Fantine accumulates pressures and setbacks, on top of financial troubles to cover her daughter’s care, she refuses her supervisor’s advances, which triggers his resentment, and her co-workers’ jealousy. This hostile environment gets Fantine into a fight one day with her colleagues, who end up getting her fired, and, “at the end of the day”, gets her further into a downward spiral (spoiler alert - things don’t end well for Fantine..).

Like Fantine, many of us come to work with our own baggage, and worries of many sorts, which can impact how engaged we are, our morale at work and ultimately how we perform. These personal challenges form part of who we are, and the days of the “leaving your home problems at home” approach are long gone. Never more than this year has the issue of mental health and wellbeing at work been of prime importance and messages of looking after one another consistent across most leaders. Mutual support, and an acknowledgement that everyone around us is dealing with personal challenges of varying degrees and importance (which goes back to empathy), are critical to developing an inclusive culture. And for those, like Fantine, who have the added pressure of inappropriate behaviours against them from within their team, a robust support structure needs to be in place. Most companies these days offer access to an Employee Assistance Programme to discuss personal challenges, and to independent channels to report inappropriate or unethical behaviours, however much effort remains to be done to ensure consistent awareness across all employees of these channels, and to foster a culture where people feel safe speaking up and seeking help.

That’s it for our little tour of musicals and what I believe we can learn from them. So next time you are facing a challenging situation, don’t hesitate to break into song, and let the likes of Mother Abbess, Princeton or Rod help you find the solution. And next time (because there will be a next time!) you find yourself in Broadway or the West End, and go and get your ice cream at the interval of a musical, take a minute to reflect on what you’re seeing, and how it may help you in your personal or working life - unless you are watching Cats, then don’t even try and just enjoy the singing and dancing...


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