More and more leaders are starting to add diversity and inclusion to their strategic agenda, and it’s about time. The benefits of diverse and inclusive teams have been proven both in the laboratory and in organizations.
Mixed-gender executive boards have outperformed all-male boards by 26 percent during the last six years. Global studies have also shown that organizations with diverse and inclusive cultures are 45 percent more likely to have improved their market share in the last 12 months and have employees who not only give greater discretionary effort, but are also less likely to leave. The experimental research suggests higher market growth is driven by more innovation and better-quality decision-making within diverse and inclusive teams.
The Importance of ‘And’
So why not stick a diversity quota in place and be done with it? Because it’s inclusion that matters. Diversity alone is damaging for individuals and organizations: research links difference alone to lower revenue, performance, employee attachment and well-being, and increased conflict, absenteeism, missed opportunities and more discrimination cases.
Many well-meaning D&I initiatives fail because organizations put corporate policies in place to increase diversity — appointing a chief diversity officer, setting up diverse candidate slates, implementing flexible working policies — without helping individual employees develop a mindset of inclusion. Diversity is delivered at a corporate level, while inclusion requires individuals to alter their attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. Inclusion is more difficult to realize, but so powerful when it happens.
Part of the problem is that few organizations distinguish between diversity and inclusion, let alone measure or target them individually. While diversity can be tracked fairly easily, there are a range of behaviors that make up inclusion, so it’s trickier to pin down and add to an HR leader’s goals.
At a personal level, inclusiveness means spotting personal biases against difference and keeping it in check, adopting curiosity and empathy about different views, insights and ways of being, and adapting behaviors to make it easier for different people to feel accepted and valued for who they are. All of these things go against the innate human discomfort with difference.
Discomfort With Difference
The human brain has evolved to spot differences incredibly quickly. In fact, differences have been perceived as threats since prehistoric times. Individuals are primed to prefer those who are like themselves. These preferences can be thought of as an internal “me magnet” with several layers. The outer layer includes obvious visible differences like gender, race, age or religion. Traditional diversity training only addresses this layer, and the majority of people have learned to keep any conscious discrimination on the basis of these differences in check.
But sensitivity to differences extends beyond the outer layer to subtler things such as dress and style, manners, education, accent, family status and even on to invisible differences such as energy, outlook, humor and values. Me magnets are subconscious and don’t allow individuals to distinguish between the layers. Individuals are automatically programmed to spot all the ways in which someone is not like them, and these differences are registered as threats.
Threats provoke an innate fight or flight response, which leads people to avoid those who are different and instead gravitate to toward those who are like them. Therefore, people tend to make decisions based on what people who remind them of themselves are doing. They socialize and spend time with people who went to the same college, grew up in the same region or share the same cultural norms. In the workplace, this translates to leaders recruiting and promoting people who they identify with.
And so, without malice or intent, those on the outside of the circle are excluded. Therefore, the potential benefits of a diverse workplace can easily be lost. Worse still, those who are excluded suffer too. Research shows feeling ostracized has the same neurological impact as physical pain. When people feel pain, they direct all of their mental resources to reducing it, leaving little capacity for work. So not only does the organization miss out on fresh insights and ideas, those who are excluded perform worse too.
What Does Inclusion Look Like?
Just as occupational health and safety looks after employees’ physical well-being, distress caused by exclusion can be avoided by focusing on psychological safety. In a psychologically safe workplace, different individuals can all say “I belong,” “I fit in without having to change who I am,” and “It’s safe to say what I think.”
Cross-cultural organizational studies reveal that when new employees are encouraged to express their personal identity — rather than focusing on fitting in with the organization’s identity — they are more engaged, perform better and are less likely to quit. Psychological safety also leads to increased discretionary effort — particularly for employees from minority groups. A psychologically safe workplace helps teams to realize the benefits of diversity.
There are three areas on which to focus to build a psychologically safe workplace. The first is raising awareness of the innate reactions to difference by conceptualizing and digging deeper into some obvious differences. For example, Eastern collectivist cultures are more likely to value the group and harmony over the individual, whereas Western individualist cultures tend to focus more on individual achievements. This can cause conflict in global teams when one colleague values interdependence and another expects co-workers to be self-reliant. Having a language and framework with which to explore the difference goes a long way to make people more accepting.
That said, there is no definitive lexicon of difference — everyone has their own triggers that turn them away from certain people.
People can have emotional memories based on past experiences, which lead them to generalize emotions toward others who share similar traits. This is a subconscious shortcut designed to protect from something threatening or painful. By understanding why individuals react in a certain way to these triggers, it’s easier to put attention toward changing the default response. This requires a high level of self-awareness and some frank admissions. Leaders can help by educating employees about instinctive discomforts of difference: it’s normal, and the taboos around discrimination need to be removed. The focus should instead be on how to respond more positively to include those who are different.
Overcoming the Me Magnet
Secondly, to promote inclusion, organizations need to focus on helping people recognize and overcome the biases caused by their personal me magnets. When individuals know what triggers their belief that someone is like them and understand the generalizations they make, they can override their tendency to exclude difference.
The Manford Kuhn 20 statements test, where participants write down 20 statements about themselves beginning with ‘I am …’ offers insight into the way people categorize themselves and others. Recognizing these categorizations gives people the ability to look for points of similarity or connection when they meet others, essentially setting their me magnet to “approach” rather than “avoid.” A curious, open-minded, empathetic attitude will help individuals stay in conversation long enough to uncover those points of similarity. Think about the new car phenomenon when all of a sudden a person starts seeing Toyota Corollas everywhere because he or she is considering buying that make and model. The same goes when meeting new people. When actively looking for similarities rather than focusing on obvious differences, it’s surprising how many can be found.
The third area on which to focus is building bridges — helping employees to become agents of inclusion no matter which group they belong to. Inclusion is not passed down from the top or implemented by the chief diversity officer; it comes down to every individual.
Everyone is fluent in the small things that make them feel excluded. Common instances include being shut down when talking, being overlooked during a greeting or introduction or being on the outside of an inside joke. People rarely realize when others are on the receiving end.
Agents of inclusion spot these microinequities and take action to extend inclusion to others. They understand that when people are singled out, overlooked, ignored or otherwise discounted, that obscures the person. Often mini acts of exclusion are overlooked in favor of more serious and costly discrimination cases, but it’s this everyday psychological pain that limits people’s ability to contribute to their full potential and has a cumulative negative impact on organizational performance.
Building bridges is about removing the sense of “them and us.” It’s not about making everyone agree all the time. It’s a myth that inclusion means collaboration and consensus — it’s OK for people to disagree. If organizations and individuals want to harness the power of all the minds at the table, it takes skill to manage disagreement and conflict. Leaders need to set the expectation that there will be disagreement and that this is to be invited. They also need to equip managers with a clear decision-making process and the skills to listen empathetically and ensure equal airtime.
The fact organizations are beginning to have serious discussions about diversity and inclusion is a huge positive step forward. However, to avoid the damaging effects of diversity alone, bosses need to alter innate beliefs and behaviors by building the skills that underpin inclusion. Understanding personal differences and becoming aware of how those differences are responded to is the core of interpersonal inclusion. With this inclusive foundation in place, leaders can start to reap the benefits of a diverse organization.