A diverse workforce isn’t in itself enough – you have to engender a culture of inclusion if employees and organisations alike are to benefit, says Alison Young
This article was first published in the April 2019 International edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
Your organisation’s commitment to diversity and inclusion may be driven by the business case or simply because it’s the right thing to do. Either way, you probably have a range of activities to help drive more diversity where you need it: public pledges from senior leaders, hard and soft metrics, even diversity champions and networks.
As a result, your key diversity indicators such as the number of women or people of colour at senior level may be improving. However, your organisation may be feeling there is not enough progress, and other measures – including external social media or themes from exit interviews – may confirm the culture still isn’t inclusive.
It’s a dilemma that many organisations face: despite the effort that has been put in, the organisation is still some way from being truly diverse and inclusive.
But diversity – increasing the number of people from minority backgrounds in the organisation – is rarely the single answer to this challenge. What makes the difference is when diversity is coupled with activities to create inclusion. Inclusivity is the only way to sustain an organisational culture where people can be truly themselves and where the talents of all, no matter their difference, are maximised.
Allowed to be yourself
An inclusive culture is one where people don’t have to hide a part of who they are – whether that’s their gay partner, their hidden disability, their ‘ethnic minority’ friends or their dependants. The human need for belonging is so fundamental that when that belonging is blocked, forcing individuals to be different people at work from who they are at home, it can cause disengagement at best, and depression and anxiety at worst. The cost of this ‘covering’ hits the bottom line in the form of lower engagement, missed creativity, greater staff turnover and absenteeism.
But creating an inclusive culture where people can be all of themselves is not an easy fix. While the recruitment of greater diversity into an organisation can be achieved by means of a number of relatively crude levers, enabling those diverse individuals to feel that they belong and that they can contribute their maximum potential at work relies on more subtle shifts. Those shifts begin at the interpersonal level – between one person and another.
These interpersonal dynamics might be between two peers, two people of different seniority, or between a leader and a team member. Away from the public pledges and speeches, it’s what leaders do or say at a work dinner or social event, or in the pauses between agenda items during a meeting, that make the culture inclusive. Or not.
The throwaway comments and gestures in those moments show who leaders truly are away from their role or their status in the organisation. These are the moments that others talk about and use to evaluate the degree to which the organisation really is inclusive.
The minefield in the mind
For a lot of leaders, being inclusive is a political minefield. What’s correct in one situation may be judged inappropriate in another. Indeed, if you’re not a woman/man/person of colour or a person with a disability, for example, how do you really know what is appropriate?
The truth is that no one gets it right all the time, no matter how self-aware. Letting go of the fear of not being appropriately inclusive is a useful first step in being an authentic leader who can create an inclusive culture. Some ways to create an environment where people can be themselves are outlined in the box above. Authentic leaders incorporate those habits into how they work with others every day, enabling them to create a personal connection even if someone doesn’t obviously fit in. They are mindful that the assumptions they make about someone from what they see may not be the whole story because there may be hidden aspects of diversity.
Authentic and inclusive leaders are genuinely curious about others and are aware that it is part of the human condition to judge. They reflect on the biases they know they have as well as others they may not be consciously aware of. They treat people as individuals, engaging fully with them, and welcome feedback so that they can keep learning and changing.
Alison Young is a director of Leaders in Change. @Leader_Insights.
"Letting go of the fear of not being appropriately inclusive is a useful first step in being an authentic leader who can create an inclusive culture"