Engagement: One Key to Make Inclusion Work

Most executives recognize the importance of nurturing a diverse and inclusive culture in their organization; its impact on employee engagement, for instance, can be great. But there is often a disconnect between an organization’s need for engagement and what it is willing to do to achieve it.

For example, a 2013 study by Gallup titled “State of the American Workforce” found only 30 percent of the workforce is truly engaged, meaning the remaining 70 percent are either disengaged at best or discouraged about their jobs at worst.

Another study published in March by MSW Research offered similar statistics: only 29 percent of 1,500 employees surveyed nationwide said they were fully engaged, while 26 percent admitted they were disengaged. That means 71 percent of the workforce lacks total commitment.

Executive and managerial actions and behaviors directly affect engagement, especially in a diverse environment where there are likely to be different perspectives. This poses a quandary for executives who recognize the value of engagement but wonder about the most effective ways to increase it in a diverse culture. The challenge is to nurture an environment that everyone views as inclusive. This is not an easy task.

Inclusion Obstacles

After-work parties or meet-and-greet gatherings for new employees are somewhat effective to set the tone for an engaged and inclusive environment, but being welcomed is never enough because the path to true engagement depends on employees’ perspectives. They want to feel that their contributions are appreciated and valued. This is where CDOs’ efforts tend to stall.

In some cases, management sees its responsibilities fulfilled by limiting its objective to establishing a diverse workforce without considering the steps necessary to develop an engaged and inclusive one. Management may become its own worst enemy by using the wrong metrics. It is acting from an extremely limited perspective by failing to seriously consider what makes employees feel engaged and included. This failure to consider the relationship between engagement, diversity and inclusion can indicate that diversity and inclusion are viewed more as cosmetic benefits rather than vital contributions to the success of the organization.

Another obstacle to an inclusive environment is hiring managers’ tendency to prefer recruits who resemble the manager’s culture and attitude. Diverse employees will notice either an ethnically unchanging workforce or, if multicultural, a uniformity of attitude that excludes diverse opinions. Associates are likely to question whether that commitment to diversity and inclusion they read on a company website reflects reality.

A third issue occurs when employees lack connection with their immediate supervisor. Employees who encounter this barrier are likely to experience the same disconnect with upper management, especially if they have no exposure to top executives. Diverse employees are often more sensitive to these conditions, all of which have to be addressed if inclusion is to be achieved. If not, a lack of engagement and a growing employee exodus are the result.

Real engagement is reflected by the actions and daily behaviors of those at the front line who are responsible for demonstrating the sincere implementation of an engagement and inclusion strategy. Management can demonstrate this commitment by launching a training program that teaches employees how to engage in authentic discussion and encourages leaders to listen to all employees’ concerns about how they expect to be treated.

Training may also be necessary to promote appropriate behaviors that encourage a free flow of information and discussion. It can be a valuable tool to encourage engagement and inclusion because it helps all sides develop a willingness to offer and listen to a variety of opinions from those who may have otherwise been reticent because they do not feel valued or respected.

Understanding the interconnection of diversity, inclusion and engagement is fundamental to achieving a welcoming environment. The MSW study, in partnership with Dale Carnegie Training, examined functional and emotional elements that affect engagement. (Editor’s note: The authors work for Dale Carnegie Training). The survey concluded that emotional engagement is exemplified through three critical drivers: pride in the organization, belief in the senior leadership team and a sense that the immediate manager or supervisor cares about the employee as a person.

Of the three drivers, employees placed greatest emphasis on a caring supervisor. In their survey responses, employees cited the immediate supervisor’s attitudes and actions as having the greatest impact on either engaging in and identifying with the organization or becoming apathetic and disengaged. The study found that although gender and ethnicity were not necessarily critical variables for employee engagement, managers and supervisors need to pay special attention to their relationships with diverse employees.

That does not mean there should be separate standards when interacting with diverse employees. The immediate supervisor’s actions will be viewed as a barometer of the organization’s commitment to inclusion. As such, it is incumbent upon the supervisor to equally apply human relations skills so no one is made to feel separate or different.

Achieving an inclusive environment depends on thoughtful use and careful application of some fundamental skills:

Be a good listener. No one at any level who offers a suggestion or concern appreciates being tuned out.

Take a sincere interest in people. A caring manager can single-handedly affect everyone’s engagement level.

Make employees feel valued and important. Workers who are made to feel unimportant will treat the organization the same way, thereby eroding any chance for a committed and engaged culture.

Respect other points of view. This is especially important in a diverse environment. Even if there is disagreement, a healthy conversation that avoids put-downs or patronizing talk can go a long way to gain an individual’s appreciation.

Insist upon follow-up action. Actions must back up words, especially from middle and upper management. Employees who recognize that the supervisor made an honest attempt to address their concerns tend to be more appreciative, even if the issue cannot be resolved to their satisfaction.

How to Make It Work

To achieve high engagement in a diverse workplace, there has to be ownership for any relevant programs throughout the organization. There should be aggressive programs for talent and leadership development and performance management. Carefully crafted mentoring programs that connect leaders in the organization with diverse candidates who can feed the management pipeline can be particularly effective.

In addition, it is important for outreach to include initiatives partnering with other organizations, such as associations or special-interest groups, to keep that pipeline active. Special councils or training groups also can be effective. One caveat: diversity and inclusion programs should contain goals that are clearly defined and easily measured so leaders can determine progress and where course corrections are necessary.

Another fundamental best practice is to ensure the organization’s environment is conducive to diversity and inclusion. For instance, in a mentoring program, the hierarchy should not be separate from ongoing interactions between mentor and employee.

Further, executives who emphasize inclusion but leave the implementation to lower-level managers without adequately reviewing their work can create a climate of disengagement. Such a scenario is avoided when management accepts and believes — and shows through their daily actions — that diversity and inclusion are business imperatives that can lead to organizational success. These executives also tend to bring more perspectives to the table, enable more robust discussions about strategy and improve the chances for better business outcomes.

Celebrating Success

An organization knows it is successful when it can consistently recruit, retain and promote talent from disparate backgrounds. But that means starting with a strategic focus on developing talent that is in line with the business strategy. Executives who accept that businesses should reflect their marketplace ought to apply the same perspective when developing and nurturing talent. Although it may be difficult, especially for large corporations that have more pronounced hierarchies, it behooves midlevel and senior executives to take an active role in ensuring talent development options are plentiful and accessible, particularly for employees with diverse backgrounds.

Engagement can do much to contribute to the success of a committed diversity and inclusion program. In an August Forbes article, contributor Sylvia Vorhauser-Smith cites several companies that have made employee engagement a priority. “Committing to an intentional culture that’s open, transparent and enables employees to thrive is important to retaining top performers,” she wrote.

Among her examples are: Recreational Equipment, which actively uses social media for employees and management to share their thoughts about the company and its direction; DHL Express, which openly thanks and rewards employees for their contributions; and SAP, which Vorhauser-Smith said values collaboration. “Leaders listen to employee feedback and encourage it,” she said. Her conclusion is that these are excellent workplaces because of employee engagement.

Reports like these and other studies on workforce engagement and inclusion confirm the benefits to the organization and its position in the marketplace. Further, the emotional attachment that comes from engagement goes beyond each individual’s identification with the company. That identification tends to drive creativity and innovation as employees are spurred to expend extra effort to help the organization achieve its goals.

Supervisors and all the managers and executives above them are ultimately responsible for nurturing an inclusive environment, one designed to bring out the best in every worker. A diverse environment that requires sensitivity to other views and cultures, and thoughtful and appropriate interactions, can yield powerful results when developing a committed workforce.

Mahan Tavakoli is regional vice president and chief diversity officer, and Vickie Henson is director, design and development for Dale Carnegie Training. They can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.