How to foster an inclusive culture in a diverse organization
5 min. read
Creating a company culture that prizes diversity and inclusion involves, among many things, ensuring that each voice within your organization is heard.
If this sounds like feel-good rhetoric, think of it another way: It’s about getting what you’re paying for.
You’ve hired a team of folks who come from different backgrounds and bring a variety of experiences to the table. If you’ve created a culture where every single one of them feels welcome at that table, you’re much more likely to get the benefit of the full brain power that you’re investing in each time you issue a paycheck.
The benefits of this kind of culture are far-reaching. To name just a few, they can include:
- Better decision-making. When you’re considering a diverse set of perspectives, you tend not to fall into groupthink traps that ensnare so many organizations.
- Enhanced innovation. When all your people feel empowered to present their ideas—and when they are all considered—unique and innovative ideas that might yield significant returns are less likely to be overlooked.
Stuck in second gear
Considering the potential benefits, why do so many organizations’ initiatives to foster diverse and inclusive cultures seem to be falling flat?
Organizations are dipping their toes in initiatives designed to create greater diversity and inclusion but are not yet leveraging these principles to the point where it would be a strength. As a report by the Josh Bersin Academy and Perceptyx noted, as many as 80% of companies may simply be going through the motions. Consequently, they’re not yet seeing the aforementioned benefits.
Let’s discuss a few reasons why this is happening. Specifically, this article is less about hiring for diversity—a heavy topic in its own right—and more about how to address the diversity that may already exist within your organization. This article is for leaders at organizations that have made some progress but recognize that there’s still work to do.
Overestimating organizational progress in diversity and inclusion
Our research has found that about 1 out of 3 leaders tends to overestimate their own level of inclusion, believing they’re more inclusive than others report them to be.
To rectify this, organizations need to prioritize principles such as self-awareness in their leadership training. What are the actions that demonstrate inclusive leadership, and what are the actions that work against it? Once those are clearly defined, leaders can honestly and accurately appraise their own behavior.
Furthermore, leaders can be trained to better understand how their own personality preferences may play into inclusive behaviors through assessment. Fortunately, there are validated psychological models that explore and measure peoples’ inclusion-related behaviors and desires. For example, the FIRO-B® model (Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation Behavior) identifies Expressed and Wanted needs for Inclusion:
- Those with high Expressed needs for Inclusion tend to involve others in their activities.
- Those with high Wanted Inclusion needs tend to want to be included.
It’s easy to imagine how a leader with low Expressed needs for Inclusion might inadvertently cause some people working for them to feel left out. If those individuals happen to belong to a group that has traditionally experienced discrimination, this could have a toxic impact.
Once a leader is made aware of these tendencies, however, they can alter their behavior in productive ways. They can intentionally behave in ways that show a higher level of inclusive behaviors than they would personally desire.
The disconnect between top leadership and employee-facing management
Leaders who consider themselves advocates of diversity and inclusion may assume that those working under them are equally committed, when in fact they aren’t. Often concerns or misunderstandings about the program aren’t voiced by many of the people who are responsible for carrying them out.
Consequently, there can be a kind of passive-aggressive resistance that happens. The front-line manager, who probably has the greatest influence on the day-to-day experience of most employees, may not be fully on board with your program.
To address this, take steps to solicit the input of all concerned stakeholders within your organization. And work to secure their buy-in prior to the program’s rollout. If the program has already rolled out and you suspect that it’s being stifled by certain people, take the time to talk to them and find out why. Affirm your commitment and explain your rationales, and try to discover what will shore up their commitment as well.
How to create inclusive leadership capabilities if training dollars are limited
You may be wondering whether you have the resources available to fully pursue your goals for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I). On the surface, this may sound like it would take a lot of expensive training. However, while organizations may vary in funding availability, there are a few things that anyone can do to make this happen.
Do it early on. Don’t wait until your organizational culture is already formed—make it a part of the process of creating your company culture.
Talk about it everywhere. Bring it into town hall meetings, earnings calls, and board meetings. Make all stakeholders a part of those conversations.
Create a culture of practice. Inclusive leadership tends to be thought of as a virtue. But in practical terms, we should be thinking about it as a skill that is developed with time and practice. And like any other learned skill, there will be rough spots and "I could have done that better" moments. You can mitigate some of this by creating a safe space for leaders to practice the principles of inclusive leadership.
Reward effort. Create a culture that rewards inclusion just as you’d reward any other positive contribution.
Finally, whatever you do, be authentic. Make sure your organization isn’t engaging in practices that run counter to your convictions. Dig deep and find out why it’s important to you to create an inclusive culture and leadership style within your organization. Once you’ve identified those motivators, let them guide your process.
This article was written by Sherrie Haynie, Sr. Director of US Professional Services at The Myers-Briggs Company, and first published by Forbes Coaches Council, July 2022.