Why Inclusion Matters

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Diversity needs a re-think. For the past decade, organisations have focused on ‘diversity’ while ‘inclusion’ remains in the background. Given demographic shifts, a multi-generational workforce, more people working outside their home country and a greater number of working women, the attention on diversity is understandable. If we define diversity as differences in race, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, work experiences, philosophical perspectives and thinking styles, we can surmise that organisations are diverse. But may not be inclusive. The business case for diversity is clear, but how does a company get everyone to actually work together, as one team? Inclusion offers answers.

Organisations are diverse, of course, and zig zag along the path of inclusion. If inclusion means fully engaging all employees, there must now be a greater effort to engage, listen and include under-represented groups. To be inclusive is to be part of a group, involved with decisions and directions. With shifting populations and labour migration, human capital investment plays an integral role to sustainable growth, along with diversity and inclusion.

The World Economic Forum Human Capital Report (2013) covered 112 countries and predicted severe global talent shortages. Reviewing the Asia data, gaps of talent continued to increase, exacerbated by an aging population and greater demand for skilled labour in Singapore, China, and Japan. Within the next decade, Indonesia’s need for skilled workers is projected to grow between 55 to 122 million. Outside of Asia, the picture is not much better. This external ‘war for talent’ parallels an internal corporate battle to include differences in work experiences, socioeconomic backgrounds, education and communication styles. With this complexity it is easier to focus on one element of diversity, but that only creates a backlash. Or worse, some inclusion directives morph into PR campaigns, resulting in ‘diversity fatigue’, overshadowing the positive benefits of inclusion.

Fortune, Harvard Business Review and Medium have recently written about the negative impact of diversity initiatives with white men, women, and men of colour. When pronouncements focus on one element (white women in leadership) diversity becomes selectively inclusive, excluding other equally relevant groups, as the point is not to be selective, but merely inclusive. Ellen McGirt’s article, Why Race and Culture Matter in the C-Suite, highlights how diversity has been ineffective “for black men in corporate America.” The more we talk about diversity, the “more prone and isolated some black executives feel.” Feeling left out from diversity initiatives is not a recent trend, as the US 1965 Immigration Act omitted Asians and Asian-Americans . Katherine Philips from the Columbia Business School wrote How Diversity Makes Us Smarter, highlighting greater interpersonal conflict navigating diverse teams. No doubt conflict and tension exist, so organisations need to get better at inclusion to avoid the after-effect of exclusion and dejection.

There is plenty of research that shows how diversity improves companies, it’s not diversity that makes a company better; it is how to listen and include collective voices in order to create corporate growth. Some organisations start with recruitment targets to build a diverse talent base, which may work in the short run. For gender balance a few organisations tout a balanced and diverse slate for interviews. But does greater diversity lead to greater inclusion? Inclusion starts with the recruitment process, well before the employee walks in the door. The on-boarding process should begin after the contracts are signed, and continue for the first few months of employment. Regular career conversations show interest and builds engagement. If an employee feels excluded from meetings, passed over for promotions, or overlooked at executive events, they’ll vote with their feet.

Ignoring inclusion is to lose employees and diminish brand reputation. Inclusion may be the key, but takes more time than hiring diversely. So why would this not be part of all corporate stratagem?

Old habit and processes die hard. The world of work has changed dramatically, but organisational structures often lag behind. Leadership models and competency frameworks (many of which originated from US or UK) are irrelevant for a global workforce. Yet development programs are still designed with an outdated framework. Talent reviews look for ‘’executive presence’’, but the subjective nature of “presence” is biased. This elusive quality is often equated with presentation skills, commanding a room, and confidence. But each of those criteria are very different cross-culturally. Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trend (2014), noted that “61 percent of employees report they are “covering” on some personal dimension to assimilate in their organization.” Moreover, if these leadership capabilities require covering up to fit in and move up the corporate ladder, there’s scant chance of building a diverse pipeline of talent. It is easier to shape talent to be in our image rather than managing diversity.

In the words of the poet Kate Tempest

You’re handed the mould and told — fit in to this. And maybe one day you could be really big.”

It is difficult to learn how to understand differences when the corporate structure rewards specific behaviors and traits. Rewards hinder inclusion because it revolves around a culture of fitting in rather than standing out. We all gravitate towards similarities, others who talk and behave like us. This ‘similarity’ bias seeps into every organisational process and program. Cultural training can help build awareness, but only when we accept differences rather than try to shape diverse employees to be ‘more like us’. A few years ago, a New York based investment bank rolled out a global communication program to break down cultural barriers. The end result was an assimilation process that slowly eroded the culturally diverse talent recruited into the bank.

The focus on building diversity has overshadowed the more difficult inclusion piece. Building inclusion starts with understanding what we don’t know. Implicit bias training fills this blind spot, building awareness to uncover what’s (or who’s) missing. But rolling out a global implicit bias program without cultural nuances misses the mark. A senior HR executive with a global insurance firm in Hong Kong said to me ‘’We disregard 40% of the content from North America, we forget 30% of the online bias training, and walk away wondering what we’re supposed to do now?” The challenges with global ‘diversity training’ is the developmental skills often reflect the majority, so there is little in the way of inclusion. Implicit bias training works best when we engage others in a dialogue rather than observing from a laptop. It is the conversation in the room specifically having a dialogue with people different from us should that challenges bias and raises everyone’s effort. As Katherine Philips suggests, “ when we hear dissent from someone who is different from us, it provokes more thought than when it comes from someone who looks like us.” On-line training may save costs but does little on average to impact mindsets. Having facilitated sessions with diverse groups, delivered before performance reviews and talent sessions, will often produce strong positive effects.

We need to shift our perspective to see a broader population. In order to benefit from diversity, move away from ‘’fixing’’ individuals and move towards repairing organisational processes. There are always deficiencies if you want to look in that direction. But pivoting from ‘what is wrong’ to exploring ‘what’s working’ creates a positive expectation through differences (or similarities) in strengths, interests and character.

Thus inclusion begins, as strengths (and weaknesses) are unique to individuals. Focusing on strengths also broadens perspective rather than viewing people through a prescribed leadership construct. When strengths guide a conversation, talent processes and assessments become inclusive by default, moving inclusion towards a more active engagement. According to Neal Mayerson at the VIA Institute, strengths drive greater satisfaction, “64% employees linked their strengths to success and only 36% believed correcting a weakness builds success.” When work aligns with strengths and connected with values, organisations tap into the motivation of employees. Therefore using strengths ensures a diverse pipeline of engaged talent.

Diversity training, experimenting with broad interventions or borrowing from best practices all help to promote inclusion. However, a one-size-diversity-intervention does not fit everywhere. Although academic theory supports these approaches, data analytics collected internally offers better solutions. Combing through larger data sets, organisations can target interventions for a more positive inclusion outcome of improved performance or increased innovation. There is power in data to drive change, but the real value comes from having the right people (a data scientist) to ask the right question and the autonomy to do their work. Simple internal labour market data — statistics on joiners and leavers — mapped across diversity reveals which intervention work and which do not, pinpointing where to place your training investments. Previous lacklustre diversity success can be reinvigorated using data. Standing at the diversity threshold, data is remarkable for movement-building and driving significant change.

What can organisations do to make the workplace more inclusive? First, get the messaging right. Make it inclusive, and learn how to appreciate difference. This is critical to advance collaboration and capture collective intelligence. Reshape thinking from deficits to strengths and ask different questions. Dispense with labelling others, and look for individual talents, along with the whole person. Recruit a data scientist and provide full autonomy to mine data and expose the richness of diversity to identify future opportunities.


Jane writes on diversity, inclusion, and finding meaningful careers at The Horan Group