Inclusion Is the New Diversity

Tony was on the Executive Leadership team. The senior leaders were charged with identifying a new board member from within their internal groups. Susan reported to Tony, and although her last performance review was lower than she had expected based on her boss’s assessment of her decisiveness and strategy setting, she was considered to have high potential in the organization based on her productivity and attention to detail.

While Tony briefly considered nominating Susan for the open board seat, he quickly ruled her out and moved on to other candidates. His reasoning was that Susan’s work style was more expressive and collaborative rather than the analytical, conceptual leadership style favored by the current board members.

Tony’s unconscious bias against a thinking style that differed from his caused Susan to miss out on an advancement opportunity. What’s more, the leadership team missed out on expanding their ranks to include a wider mix of behaviors and talents in the boardroom to generate well-rounded strategies that trickle down to teams and staff, setting the tone for tomorrow’s leaders.

What happened here to Susan, Tony, and the board is a common example of a company’s failure to prioritize inclusive leadership: management’s support of a collaborative culture that transparently encourages input from employees with different ideas and perspectives.

The Importance of Thinking Differently

Leadership development programs are extremely challenging to get right. Many strategies traditionally used for leadership development no longer make sense in a knowledge economy where it’s important to find ways to unlock the potential of all employees—for example, focusing most of the attention on an elite group when everyone needs to be learning, or promoting only one type of thinker. It has become an imperative to ensure that a company’s collective brainpower is harnessed, not just that of a small group, and that managers find ways to inclusively support and advance people who represent a wide diversity of thinking styles and approaches.

A growing number of progressive companies are starting to recognize this new reality and integrate it into their talent development strategies by recruiting, recognizing, and rewarding “cognitive diversity,” which refers to the range of differences and responses in how employees think and solve problems. Organizations that figure out how to do it right when it comes to cognitive diversity will be able to create a more inclusive culture and get a leg up in the talent war.

Here are some ideas on what today’s leaders, managers, and organizations can do to build a more inclusive culture, which has become key to developing a truly diverse group of future leaders:

Understand the link between diversity and inclusion. Corporate America is undergoing an evolution in how it defines the concept of diversity. The traditional views on creating a diverse workforce based solely on creating more balance, fairness, and equal workplace protection in demographic categories such as gender, age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, etc. are no longer alone sufficient. A growing number of organizations have concluded that this threshold is too low on its own and needs to be expanded, recognizing that diversity simply cannot be leveraged without inclusion.

Successful diversity initiatives now need to go beyond the moral and legal imperative of simply integrating people with different demographics into the workplace. They must incorporate consideration of how people think and problem-solve, not just how they are defined by external differences. The new diverse team is oriented around inclusion: the ability to combine everyone’s unique traits and perspectives to more effectively problem-solve and reach business goals. Understanding this ongoing shift in how employees think about diversity is crucial to creating relevant talent development programs.

Pay attention to biases. Are you surrounded by people who are primarily within your own functional area or who share your general viewpoint on most topics? When grooming tomorrow’s leaders, it’s important to incorporate a diverse web of perspectives to broaden the organization’s thinking. Yet hidden biases can prevent inclusion by keeping leaders from tapping on different kinds of thinkers in their network. While you may believe that you are free from biases, the fact is that if you have a brain, you have some type of bias—and it’s likely subconscious. Since the human brain only has the ability to process about 40 pieces of information at any given time (out of about 11 million that the brain is exposed to in that moment), the subconscious mind creates these biases to help sort information through perceptions and preferences.

While handy for controlling information overload, internal filters can also lead you to quickly jump to conclusions and make decisions based on stereotypes. Such biases can negatively impact an organization’s leadership development initiatives by creating a culture where some personalities and thinking styles are rewarded and others are ignored. Since leaders play an integral role in how bias is transmitted in organizations, be mindful that subtle cues you give in your daily interactions can have a strong influence on whose voices are heard and whose are silenced.

To lead more inclusively, watch for:

  • Whose opinions you value and whose you discredit
  • Who you praise publicly and who you ignore
  • If and how your leadership team avoids group-think by recognizing and valuing everyone’s unique contribution
  • How you react when considering someone for a promotion who is different than you or the type of person to whom you normally are drawn
  • If, when it comes to talent development, you find yourself strongly affiliating only with people who think and act like you

Watch for power dynamics. Part of creating an inclusive culture is about finding ways to change the way that hierarchies traditionally work. While the actual reporting relationships themselves may stay the same, inclusion involves creating a feeling of safety, which can be difficult to achieve when leading from a hierarchical mindset. For example, if a high-potential employee feels like she might be disregarded or lose credibility if she says something that her boss disagrees with, she might opt to keep her innovative idea to herself, hurting the entire organization.

I saw this principle in action (in reverse) recently with a senior leader I coached, whom I’ll call Jeff. Jeff felt comfortable giving up a certain amount of control when Lisa, who was recently hired as the first female team lead in the organization, came up with a new idea that ran counter to how Jeff’s team had always done things. Jeff stayed open to the possibility that Lisa’s different way of thinking about a team problem might lead everyone to a better solution. Like Jeff, leaders should try to stay as receptive to alternative approaches as possible. Create opportunities for everyone in the group to express opinions, and stay open to changing your mind or rethinking a topic even when someone whom you outrank suggests it.

Build a trusting environment. Creating the type of inclusive environment where tomorrow’s leaders can thrive also involves building trust. Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, has pointed out that successful companies foster teams that provide “psychological safety” to every team member. This means that each person is encouraged to be themselves and speak freely without fear of rejection or humiliation. This climate of mutual respect allows people to share their thoughts and ideas in an atmosphere of empathy and trust.

There’s no definitive way to create this type of trusting environment, but Duhigg’s recent reporting on research at Google holds some clues on how to get started. Google found that when members of their teams shared personal revelations during team meetings, those emotional conversations helped to create a safe space where people felt they could engage in interpersonal risk-taking and share ideas. Encouraging team members to take turns in conversations and engage in other empathetic behaviors like these can help establish the type of authentic bonds where trusting professional relationships can flourish, and upcoming future leaders can thrive.

We’ll continue this discussion in my next post, where I’ll share four additional strategies on what leaders and organizations can do to create and support a more inclusive culture—including what we can learn from our generational differences.

Rebecca is an internationally acclaimed and sought-after keynote speaker, leadership expert and contributing editor for Harvard Business Review and the Huffington Post.

Learn more about SHAMBAUGH’s leadership solutions and other offerings by visiting:

Rebecca is author of the best-selling books It’s Not a Glass Ceiling, It’s a Sticky FloorLeadership Secrets of Hillary Clinton, and Make Room for Her: Why Companies Need an Integrated Leadership Model to Achieve Extraordinary Results.


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