Being on the outside of an inside joke. Nodding along to a conversation but feeling anxious because you can’t contribute. Fibbing about weekend plans because others may not approve. These experiences aren’t limited to high school — they happen every day in organizations all over the world.
In a 2013 survey of more than 3,000 individuals by New York University professor Kenji Yoshino and Deloitte consultant Christine Smith, 61 percent admitted to “covering” parts of their identity at work. And it’s not just the minority groups who feel they have something to hide. While 83 percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals reported covering, 45 percent of heterosexual white men also said they downplay aspects of their personality to fit in.
Faking it to fit in can have severe consequences. Individual performance falters because employees spend mental energy covering themselves rather than working — while engagement and well-being plummet.
Brain scanning research shows being socially excluded activates the anterior cingulate cortex — the part of the brain activated by physical pain. Being left out hurts just as being hit would, and employees who feel like they don’t fit in often take more sick days and are more likely to quit. Elizabeth Nieto, global chief diversity and inclusion officer at MetLife Inc., said the resulting “lack of engagement or willingness to go the extra mile because individuals are not accepted for who they really are” can be more damaging than attrition.
Covering not only prevents talented employees from fulfilling their potential but also blocks the benefits inherent in a diverse workforce. Nieto said individuals lose energy and gain stress, “but from an organizational perspective, people aren’t sharing aspects that we hired them for. We expect them to be able to innovate or bring customer insight; but if they don’t share those aspects of themselves, the company loses that advantage.”
MetLife’s Inclusive Cure
When insurance company MetLife Inc. purchased life insurancecompany American Life Insurance Co. in 2010, it had an opportunity to become a significant global organization. To achieve this, senior leadership realized the company’s approximately 6,000 people leaders needed to become expert talent managers. A global organizational health survey identified motivational leadership as vital to help the organization’s 65,000 employees perform at their peak.
Within this context, there was an opportunity to increase both leadership diversity and promote inclusion. “As we were transforming our organization and becoming motivational leaders, we needed to engage employees to bring their full selves to work and create an environment of inclusion,” said Elizabeth Nieto, MetLife’s global chief diversity and inclusion officer.
As part of a global talent management program, people leaders participated in three-hour training session called Inclusion Matters, which explores how and why creating an inclusive environment is vital to motivate, engage and get the best from employees. “Bring your whole self to work” was the theme and culture the company wanted to create.
Nieto said faking it, or covering, at work is so damaging to individuals and organizations because it’s almost impossible to detect. “You don’t know when it’s happening,” she said. “We all feel the need to fit in; we can all identify with the feeling of covering and faking and the cost of doing so.”
That universal experience of covering became a program hook to engage individuals who wouldn’t typically identify with discussions around diversity and inclusion. “There are people who feel that diversity isn’t for them, it’s for people who are underrepresented,” Nieto explained. MetLife brought in Kenji Yoshino, New York University law professor and expert on the topic of covering, and “he connected with a broad range of leaders by getting them to think about the feeling of covering and how that might impact the culture they create.”
The program emphasizes that inclusion is for everyone, not just minority populations. Event speakers include women who are underrepresented in leadership; lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals; and middle-aged white males, all who share the experience of covering in some way.
Leaders are vital to cultivate an inclusive culture. In the session, MetLife leaders explore their reactions to difference and how their unconscious biases may affect decision-making. The session raises awareness around microaggressions that make team members feel excluded. Leaders also get tools to create more authentic, meaningful performance and development conversations that motivate employees as well as promote inclusion.
“If you want to be a motivational leader, you have to show something of yourself to other people to get them to connect with you,” Nieto said. “One way to do this is through storytelling. Disclosure allows people to be more authentic, and that culture of authenticity will create less covering.”
Authenticity permeates MetLife’s diversity and inclusion program. “Inclusivity is embedded in our values, our purpose, our leadership competency model,” Nieto said. “Companies that see diversity as a box-checking exercise keep it separate. It becomes all about the reports and the numbers, not changing the culture. But employees always know right away whether or not it’s for real.”
These hoped-for advantages — greater innovation and insight — drive diversity’s ascent up the strategic agenda. Diverse teams also can perform better and be more creative than homogenous ones because of elevated decision-making abilities. And that’s only half the story.
Many companies are successfully recruiting more diverse workforces. But that diverse workforce brings more opportunities for “in”-groups to form, for people to feel left out and for individuals to cover. That’s why diversity alone is bad for business.
To realize improved business results, diversity must come hand in hand with an inclusive culture. Diverse organizations that aren’t inclusive have lower operating profit, more missed opportunities, higher attrition and less discretionary effort. In contrast, businesses with high inclusive engagement have an operating profit almost three times higher than those that don’t, according to Towers Watson & Co.’s 2012 Global Workforce Study.
Too often, businesses fixate on attracting a more diverse workforce to tick boxes and fill quotas without paying attention to how individuals are treated once they arrive. These organizations would be better off with a homogenous workforce than a contrived, diverse one that isn’t inclusive.
“Our recruitment strategy emphasizes sourcing diverse candidates, but we know that is not enough,” said Austin Smith, vice president, global talent management at advertising and communications network Publicis Healthcare Communications Group. The company also works to create an inclusive culture so when those new recruits arrive, they want to stay, contribute and bring their best selves to work. “If you have a diverse group but people don’t feel comfortable expressing themselves, both employee engagement and innovation suffer,” Smith said.
Further, it isn’t just about how employee groups look. Diversity of thought is also important. Cultural, age and gender differences bring that. But to capitalize on diversity, Smith said people need to bring their whole selves to work.
Creating an inclusive culture, where different employees can all say “I belong” without covering can be different because of humans natural tendency to exclude. The brain evolved to associate similarity with safety and difference with threat. We gravitate toward people and things similar to us.
We are primed to spot difference and quickly, unconsciously excluding people who are not “like us.” While the traditional diversity agenda focuses on the “big six” — age, race, religion, gender, sexuality and disability — our brains spot subtle and invisible differences such as education, manners, humor, dress sense, upbringing, politics and values. There are infinite ways that people differ, and therefore infinite opportunities for people to unintentionally exclude others.
More injurious are so-called “trigger differences.” There are certain characteristics in others — whether a limp handshake or a particular accent — that provoke an immediate and strong negative reaction, from avoidance to attack. Even if we recognize trigger differences, it’s difficult to control our reactions to them.
In the 1970s, Mary Rowe coined the term “micro-inequities” to describe subtle behaviors that make people feel excluded, such as interrupting someone or checking a phone while they’re talking. Althoughunintentional and unnoticed by the perpetrator, these microaggressions — as they’re now known — add up to a major effect on performance and health. Over time, microaggressions can lead to alcohol abuse, increase anxiety, stress and depression, and decreased performance. And on a day-to-day basis these unwitting messages say, “You don’t belong.”
Given that studies show being ostracized is more harmful to our well-being than outright harassment — not to mention more damaging to the bottom line — it’s no surprise the majority of employees cover up parts of their personality to downplay their differences. People pick up on cues about what is and isn’t accepted and bend themselves to fit that mold, which is why it’s difficult to tell when they’re covering.
Leadership plays a vital role in sending messages about what is and isn’t desirable. Research published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychologyin March suggests that leaders delegate power in a biased way, with poor-performing leaders more likely to relinquish power to male and white co-workers over female and black co-workers.
This study may have only merely scratched the surface of delegation bias because when leaders assign power only to individuals similar to themselves, it creates an implicit success profile within a company, forcing people to bend themselves out of shape to fit that profile.
“There are a lot of hidden messages in organizations about the expected way to behave, or the things you must like,” MetLife’s Nieto said. “Many white males would say, ‘I’m not into sports but it is expected that I like them, and I know what is going on to be able to fit in.’ People don’t always cover the same thing. They read the audience and hide something about themselves in order to fit in.”
Removing these subtle cues would reduce the need to fake it to fit in. But overcoming unconscious mental shortcuts such as the similarity attraction bias is difficult. A 2014 study, “Reducing implicit racial preferences,” conducted by 24 researchers from the world’s top universities tested 17 different techniques to mitigate unconscious racial bias with 17,021 white participants. Only nine had any effect and of these, two were attempts to cheat the test. Nevertheless, being educated about the universality of unconscious biases provides awareness that is crucial for behavioral change.
An inclusive culture will educate employees about the natural tendency to favor similar people and the effect this has on others as well as provide practical techniques to help leaders promote more inclusion.
Publicis designed a series of workshops to enlighten individuals about their responses to difference and teach them ways to welcome differences, make fairer decisions and build bridges with those at risk of being excluded. These workshops were intentionally not marketed as diversity training. “We found that diversity training sounded dated and elicited resistance,” Smith said. “We labeled it Creating Connections and included it as one piece of a larger innovation initiative to create a great place to work.”