Nutshell: What is inclusion?

Written by
Future Talent Learning

01 Oct 2020

01 Oct 2020 • by Future Talent Learning

Understanding what inclusion means is a crucial starting point for becoming a more inclusive leader.

We all know that sport matters beyond the field of play, for good or ill. During South Africa’s apartheid regime, the predominantly white South African rugby team the Springboks came to represent everything that was wrong about the system, triggering boycotts and protests around the world. So, when South Africa hosted the Rugby World Cup in 1995, just a year after the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as the first non-white, post-apartheid President, it might not have been the most obvious opportunity to celebrate the country’s new dawn. But no. Mandela understood that, to succeed, the country needed everyone on board, white Springboks and their fans included. When he attended the Cup final wearing a Springboks jersey, he proved himself more than willing and able to put aside the past and embrace former allies and enemies alike, including the very people who had imprisoned him for 27 years. He remains a towering example of the mantra of American civil rights activist, Pauli Murray, who famously noted that “when my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them”.

It’s remarkable how many of our twentieth century heroes are associated with movements that challenged – and continue to challenge - the most obvious and heinous forms of exclusion and discrimination: Mahatma Gandhi, whose non-violent protests against the iniquities of colonialism still resonate today; Martin Luther King, leader of the American civil rights movement in the 1960s; legions of suffragists and suffragettes led by the likes of Emmeline Pankhurst, who fought the world over for women’s suffrage; LGBQT+ campaigners who still face huge challenges today, and, of course, Nelson Mandela himself.

Even in the most unreconstructed of workplaces today, we are, of course, a million miles away from the institutional racism of the South African apartheid regime. But that doesn’t mean that all is well in the world of diversity, equality or inclusion (DEI), whether we’re talking about society more generally or the average workplace. The US’s Civil Rights Act may have been part of the American legislative landscape for almost five decades, but many black Americans still feel they face systematic discrimination at work. The UK’s Equal Pay Act (now part of 2010’s Equality Act) is over 40 years old, but we’re still some way away from closing that gender pay gap. Legal protection for under-represented groups is one thing; making diversity and inclusion a reality on the ground is quite another.

What these landmark pieces of legislation did do was to acknowledge the iniquity – and limitations - of what came before. These days, we should know better. Evidence for the importance of heterogeneous workforces, made up of people with a wide range of characteristics and experiences, is legion. We know that properly diverse workforces of people who are engaged and encouraged to contribute are not just ethically sound; they also offer commercial value and competitive advantage. Widening the talent pool drives performance, creativity and innovation.

Management consultants, McKinsey, have been making the business case for diversity for a number of years. Their 2020 report also shines a light on the importance of inclusion, even for workplaces that are already relatively diverse. We are learning that the D in DEI really does need to be accompanied by that equality and inclusion. As diversity activist, Verna Myers, has noted, "Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance."

The key question is, of course, how.

Diversity in the round

Before we start to marshal those dance cards, we need first to understand who should be on the invitation list. Our understanding of what we mean by “diversity” has also developed and changed over the years. Traditionally, it’s been a shorthand for the need to recruit and retain people who reflect and represent demographic difference such as age, race, gender or socio-economic background – and that remains crucial. Many under-represented groups are, well, still under-represented in the average workplace. More recently, we’ve also acknowledged the significance of a new difference dimension: a greater awareness of diversity based on the range of ways in which we think and process information, and the different perspectives and insights that brings.  

In his book, Rebel Ideas, journalist and thinker, Matthew Syed, introduces us to the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to harnessing this cognitive diversity. For Syed, homogeneity in teams may not be a problem for simple, linear tasks - we’d all choose to clone Usain Bolt for a sprint relay team, for example – but we also know that the world of work is not like that. With even the most routine work tasks subject to complexity and change, we need the “uplift in collective intelligence” that cognitive diversity brings.

He uses the simple example of a team of ten people coming together to share creative ideas. If they all have useful ideas, but they’re all the same ideas, then the result is…10 useful ideas. On the other hand, if those ten people each bring 10 different ideas, then there’ll be 100 useful ideas to consider.

The challenge, as Syed acknowledges, is that we rather like being surrounded by people who are like us and who can confirm our own special genius. It’s not that long ago that we’d be comfortable recruiting and promoting on the basis of “culture fit”. But that’s not just a real limiter on creativity; it can also encourage a harmful tendency to reinforce blind spots and biases and a failure to spot errors that we all need to guard against. Instead, we need to think constantly about the benefits of “culture add”, even if that makes it harder to reach consensus or potentially lead to tensions.

Syed is clear that properly diverse teams can be more challenging, and feel less comfortable, than cosy homogeneity. But a certain amount of well-managed and healthy conflict between colleagues who offer a range of valuable perspectives and challenges can be the grit in the oyster that creates a much-needed pearl. The trade-off between cultures where everyone agrees and those characterised by healthy debate and dissent is clear: true diversity will lead to better results, more creativity and more innovation.

In his book, Syed tells the inspirational story of Stanley Sedgewick, a quietly spoken, crossword-solving clerk who spent much of the Second World War cracking Nazi codes alongside mathematical geniuses like Alan Turing. It turns out that the powers-that-be at Bletchley Park recognised that the ability to solve crosswords had much in common with cryptography. By embracing, rather than shying away from, cognitive diversity, bringing together teams of rebels (crossword-solvers and others) rather than clones (yet more mathematicians), Bletchley Park became home to teams who could draw on multiple perspectives to create that powerful collective intelligence. The rest, as they say, is history.

Diversity and inclusion (or lack thereof) can also be related to personal situation and context.

It may be related to the situation in which we find ourselves as individuals. Think, for example, of the special challenges often faced by working parents or carers, writ large during Covid pandemic lockdowns. It’s not always easy to take time off for that school sports day or play, whatever demographic characteristics we might have.

There are also specific work contexts where feelings of otherness and exclusion are exacerbated by the culture of that organisation or industry sector. Top ad man, Rory Sutherland, talks of a culture in the creative industries that disproportionately advantages people who are physically attractive, for example. Certain sectors might place a greater value – consciously or otherwise – on younger people or extroverts. Regional accents might be a career-limiter in other contexts. Organisations that score well in terms of gender or racial diversity may still hire almost exclusively from a small group of privately educated Oxbridge graduates.

That means we also need to think about what the status quo is for our organisations and be even more intentional about re-drawing that inclusion circle as wide as possible.

Diversity, “real” inclusion and belonging

We know, then, that diversity – in the broadest sense possible – is a route to organisational success; diverse teams make better decisions and benefit the bottom line. But hiring a diverse band of rebels, or an awareness that our cultures are getting in the way, is only part of the story. It’s inclusion that encourages those rebels and outliers to stay, contribute and thrive. And that needs us to think carefully about what we mean by inclusion and its close cousin, belonging.

That’s not easy. Laura Sherbin of the Center for Talent Innovation reminds us that inclusive leadership can be an all too elusive thing. Take, for example, where to start. Measuring organisational diversity can be relatively straightforward, once systems to do so are in place and we acknowledge what diversity means for our organisations; quantifying feelings around inclusion is much trickier. Creating true cultures of inclusion is also more nuanced than simply focussing on under-represented groups in isolation, let alone expecting them to do the heavy lifting when it comes to taking on responsibility for change. Company LGBTQ+ networks or black women’s meet-ups play an important role in recognising and empowering disadvantaged groups, but, on their own, they’re not enough to support “real”, wider inclusion. There’s increasing evidence that singling out groups can even reinforce a sense of them and us “otherness”. Tackling a problem that is systemic, deeply engrained in organisations and cultures, needs a bit more finesse – and a focus on people as individuals.

In a Harvard Business Review article, Columbia Business School’s Michael Shlepian explores why people often feel they don’t “belong” at work through the concept of “identity threat”, defined as any situation that makes people feel different from others – and not in a positive, enabling way. That could be, for example, a manager talking to a low-paid employee about exotic holiday plans, an extrovert berating an introverted colleague for seeming stand-offish, or a co-worker who expresses surprise that a black colleague doesn’t conform to a stereotype, like being a basketball fan. Shlepian found that people from under-represented groups felt themselves in identity-threatening situations on average a staggering 11 times every week. Unsurprisingly, this presents a major barrier to people feeling that they can be themselves and contribute fully at work, to the feeling that they truly belong in their organisations.

Shlepian’s research also differentiates between what he calls real inclusion versus surface inclusion. When people felt included, involved, and accepted (real inclusion), they felt like they belonged in the workplace. When employees felt like others asked for their input only because they were supposed to, or sought their opinion as someone who represents a social group or type (surface inclusion), they felt like they belonged less. It might explain why simply adding an equal opportunities statement to a job ad might not have the desired effect; inclusion strategies need to be much more finessed. When being included for surface-level reasons, such as seeking a minority opinion, people often felt singled out on the basis of their demographics – again actively working against inclusion efforts. Schlepian concludes that people want “their social group to be included and their individual self to belong”.

The importance of individual belonging is also central to a book by Kathryn Jacob, Sue Unerman and Mark Edwards. In Belonging, the authors’ key message is that the responsibility for creating inclusive cultures is a matter for everyone at work - and also needs to extend to everyone too, including people we might not like or agree with, or who haven’t seen fit to include us in the past, like Dave from Accounts or a rugby stadium full of white Springbok supporters in post-apartheid South Africa. Diversity should not be zero sum game where if one group gains another has to lose.

In their Manifesto for Belonging, the authors outline four key factors that support belonging cultures. The first two reflect ongoing attempts to put in place diversity-friendly processes and protocols around recruitment, promotion and decision-making, making them as bias-free and transparent as possible. The second two focus on organisational and individual behaviours and cultures, focussed on psychological safety, emotional intelligence and empathy. The Manifesto calls for a world where “everyone should feel safe to bring their real selves to work”, to contribute and belong without having to struggle to speak up for, or hide, their own identity, or feeling defensive because they already represent the status quo.

The Belonging authors are also clear that there is no one-size-fits-all template for difference. While not underplaying the unique – and valid – grievances, issues and needs of under-represented groups, they also call for a focus on the commonalities we all face at work. A sense of otherness can be found in even the most unexpected places. A 2019 report from Deloitte explored the concept of “covering”, the phenomenon that makes us feel we have to downplay or hide certain aspects of our identities. Alongside less unexpected evidence of widespread covering among women, Black, Asian and gay employees, the survey found that 45% of white, straight men also felt unable to bring their true selves to work.

Being entirely open or authentic at work may, of course, be a mixed blessing. No one wants a disengaged or volatile boss or having us constantly parading our personal anxieties or less attractive traits at inappropriate moments. But that’s not the same as feeling we have little choice but to suppress aspects of our core identity, background or experiences to try to fit in with prevailing work cultures. Putting on a professional front is one thing; feeling we have to bend ourselves entirely out of shape is another.

Belonging reminds us that the original fairy tale of Cinderella and her Prince Charming has a darker side than we usually care to acknowledge. In the original Brothers Grimm version, Cinderella’s step-sisters do indeed make that glass slipper fit, but only after her stepmother insists on cutting off a toe or two. It seems that the hapless prince only notices when the blood starts to pour. We may not see blood every day, but work environments where we need to cut off aspects of ourselves in order to fit in can have the same painful and counter-productive effect.

Towards inclusive leadership: start with ourselves

While everyone at work has a role to play in inclusion, it’s also clear that leaders have a special responsibility for creating inclusive cultures and that sense of belonging.

Authors, Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy, believe that, to do that, we need to lead from the front. They suggest that it’s not possible to be truly successful leaders if we suppress our full selves - the self that allows us to feel, to be present, and to be human at work. For Fosslein and West Duffy, authentic leadership requires a deep understanding of who we are, whether that’s where we come from, how we identify or how we’re feeling. Being comfortable in our own skins allows us to bring our humanity to work – and extend it to others.

They embrace the idea of belonging by extending Verna Myers’ summary of the relationship between diversity and inclusion: “Diversity is having a seat at the table, inclusion is having a voice, and belonging is having that voice be heard.”

They also offer a neat visual way to think about inclusion and the psychological safety we need to create cultures of belonging.

We could add as many diverse rings as we like to their Venn diagram but, without that sense of inclusion and belonging, we’d still only be scratching the surface when it comes to maximising the contribution everyone at work can make when they feel safe and enabled to do so, when they feel they belong.

Inclusion doesn’t just happen; it needs to be built, developed and nurtured deliberately and intentionally. And making that happen can mean navigating some tricky terrain. Having good awareness of ourselves and our work contexts is a great starting point. We also need to stay attuned to the inclusion opportunities that present themselves day-to-day, whether that’s how we allocate tasks, chair meetings or learn from the people around us. We need to be curious about ourselves and others, clarify out thinking, build our practice and create cultures where we can have open-dialogue about the challenges and opportunities that inclusion brings. 

Identity and belonging

We’ve seen that the relationship between identity, inclusion and belonging is neither straightforward, nor easy. Our individual identities might be important to us, but we don’t always want to be defined, constrained or pigeonholed by them – and we certainly don’t want them to create barriers to contributing fully at work. American social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, has some interesting views on the pros and cons of identity politics. For Haidt, identity politics is not, in itself, inherently problematic. The key is how it manifests itself. If groups who share an identity use their collective power to draw one of those Mandela-like larger circles to emphasise commonalities with others, all to the good. But if that identity is used in an exclusive way, to unite a group against what it perceives as a common enemy, then the dangers for a multi-faceted and polarised society – and workplaces - are clear. Instead of a tendency to shut down debate, to create cultures where “silence is safer”, he encourages us to create trusting environments where people can, without fear of shame or humiliation, speak up, have open and honest conversations and share their opinions in good faith.

That’s not a bad way to view the challenges we face when it comes to leading inclusively. To quote one of our twentieth century heroes, Mahatma Gandhi, “Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilization”.  That’s the task ahead of us. Inclusive leadership means creating those open cultures, valuing each person’s unique talents and perspectives, allowing individuals to be who they are and celebrating the different perspectives they bring. It involves prioritising psychological safety and building trust with others. It means creating inclusive organisations where everyone feels they truly belong. The climate in which we work demands it. Transformational leadership readily embraces the challenge and constantly looks to rise to it.


Test your understanding

  1. Outline what is meant by cognitive diversity.
  2. Describe what Michael Shlepian means by “real” vs “surface” inclusion.

What does it mean for you?

  1. Reflect on the prevailing culture of your own organisation. What are the primary barriers to diversity and inclusion in your own context?


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