Many business leaders talk about the value of diversity, claiming that they view the individual differences between their employees as a source of tremendous strength. These same leaders might even back it up by broadening their recruitment strategies, looking beyond top MBA programs for job candidates, seeking hires from other industries, and/or prioritizing minority applicants. But then, their business doesn’t actually improve. When this happens, it’s because diversity alone is not enough.
Inclusion is when you combine diversity with caring, and it’s far more powerful. Whereas diversity is measured in numbers, (e.g., “We have 15 Black, nine Hispanic, and three Asian employees.”), inclusion is measured by how those employees feel in the work environment. To measure inclusion, you need to go beyond the hard statistical data and consider your team through the lens of empathy. This requires a lot more effort than looking at the demographic breakdown of the company, but the added effort pays off. This sort of empathy unlocks the strength that true inclusion can provide.
A tunnel-vision focus on diversity at the expense of inclusion prevents employees from demonstrating two key behaviors: engagement and authenticity. Feeling like an outsider prevents employees from showing up as their full, authentic selves. Each individual’s unique perspective is the source of their best contributions to the workplace and the strength that increased diversity offers. However, if a company hires from diverse backgrounds, and a manager shoots down the first couple of ideas that a new employee offers with a dismissive, “That’s not how we do things here,” then that act will have negated the benefit of adding diversity.
Most employees will respond to that kind of hostility by trying to assimilate. In doing so, the employee learns to think in accordance with the company culture, obliterating their own perspective in the process. Once this happens, even as the company brings in new talent, they simultaneously stifle innovation, which inevitably will lead to decreased market share. On the other hand, if you can create an inclusive environment, where your employees feel authentically engaged in their work, you will gain a huge competitive advantage.
Having a strong culture of caring will go a long way toward fostering inclusion, but there are three specific tactics to bring everyone onto the playing field: promoting edge players, valuing all viewpoints, and meeting people where they are.
Promote Edge Players
When I see a company struggle with inter-office communication, the first thing I ask is, “What are the silos?” — meaning where are the barriers between sectors or departments that keep them from sharing information? Communication breakdowns cause a host of problems, including costly infighting, a lack of innovation, and reduced engagement from those who believe they are part of the “out” group.
The solution is to get the silos to start communicating again. One of the best ways to do that is to find and promote edge players. An edge player is someone with the necessary expertise to understand two distinct fields within the business—for example, operations and finance—and play in both. People who specialize in those separate fields not only perform different functions, they tend to speak different business languages. The operations side focuses on serving the customer, whereas in finance, everything often revolves around numbers and spreadsheets. In certain organizations, members of one team, say operations, might feel more valued by upper management, and as such, behave arrogantly and demean or minimize the contributions of the finance group, or vice versa. In reality, these are just two sides of the same coin, and they’re both trying to do what’s best for the company. But neither can do that if they don’t communicate.
An example of an edge player would be someone who understands a balance sheet and working capital. They can explain to the finance team the importance of investing in people, while they help the operations folks see how handling (or mishandling) inventory impacts the bottom line. Seek out the people in your organization who have the experience to help build these bridges, and then position them to do so. Give them more responsibility, and ask them to start sharing their knowledge with their colleagues. If each team is led by an edge player, then you will quickly sew up the gaps in your organization.
Value All Viewpoints
To build an inclusive organization, leaders need to expand their view of what constitutes a contribution. An organization that succeeds in recruiting a diverse workforce will have access to a range of opinions about how best to solve a problem, but only if leaders are able to draw these thoughts out and know how to leverage this variety of opinions.
Often, new employees have a tendency to hang back in meetings, to feel that they need to get the lay of the land before they can contribute. This is natural, as people tend to develop a sense of psychological security at their own rate. But leadership can accelerate this process by establishing a culture of caring and openness that invites new employees to join the conversation. Management can and should go a step farther to engage new employees and get their perspectives, starting out one-on-one in a safe environment, and then encouraging them to share their views in groups.
Often, people stuck in the day-to-day of company operations become blind to glaring inefficiencies. Each time a new pair of eyes enters the ecosystem, you have an opportunity to remedy that. Make sure that everyone shares and contributes—new and established, naturally loquacious and quiet. Leave no one out. Listen. Synthesize. Encourage respectful disagreement. This is how you can begin to leverage diversity.
Meet People Where They Are
In any discussion about diversity and inclusion, we must pay special attention to historically disadvantaged groups. It is easy to feel like an outsider if you are the only Black person in a company, or the only Asian American, the only immigrant, or the only disabled person in an office. It is incumbent on you, as a leader, whatever your background, to meet people where they are, as they are, by creating an environment that genuinely values and cares for people of every background.
Even though it’s been proven again and again that overcoming challenges fosters the greatest contributors, we as a society still hold unconscious biases against people who probably deserve our admiration. Both in society and at work, we often fail to amplify these voices. But if we are going to break down barriers and leverage all the talent that our communities, our country, and the world have to offer, we have to expand our view of “qualified,” respect the different career journeys that people have, and recognize the unique strengths they bring. As I heard one well respected leader say, “If it’s not painful, if we’re not breaking a process, then we’re not trying hard enough and taking the actions needed for change.”
There are two things that will help everyone on the journey to creating an inclusive work environment and culture—listening and striving to see the entire person. From my perspective as a white male, when somebody from a disadvantaged community shares their experience, I listen to it, respecting what they say but acknowledging that I may never fully understand. And then I commit to continue listening, sharing perspectives, and slowly bring them together over time. Inclusion takes long-term commitment, with progress made in small interactions and intentional effort.