5 Beliefs That Obstruct Diversity & Inclusion

by Frederick Miller & Judith Katz

September 28, 2017

Have you encountered blocks to achieving greater diversity and inclusion in your organization? You're not the only one. 

Most organizations are filled with barriers—rigid structures, poor training processes, outmoded equipment, misguided incentive programs, and discriminatory promotion and assignment practices—that keep people from contributing the full breadth of their skills, ideas, and energies to the organization’s success.

Expressed in conscious and unconscious behaviors, as well as routine practices, procedures, and bylaws, these barriers are typically rooted in the very culture of an organization. They favor people who are most like the founders or senior leaders of the organization. These barriers can be as invisible as air to those they favor but demeaning, discouraging, distracting, exhausting and seemingly insurmountable to those who bump up against them every day.

Barriers can be as tangible as stairways that block access to people in wheelchairs, the sign that reads MEN on the door of the only bathroom on the executive floor, or the lack of domestic partner benefits for the partners of people who are lesbian or gay. Barriers can also be subtle: being excluded from the lunch bunch or the golf outing, being seen as not ready for that leadership position, even people not hearing or remembering your ideas or name.

These barriers are reinforced by common negative beliefs about diversity and inclusion:

  1. Differences create a barrier to higher performance because they bog down the process and lead to conflict.
  2. Diversity means that white men will lose.
  3. Only a few can succeed.
  4. It is too challenging to bring in people from diverse backgrounds.
  5. People who are different should conform.

A diversity in a box approach does not adequately address these barriers. Organizations often turn a blind eye to these barriers, only to discover that they are reinforced by a policy of diversity without inclusion.

Diversity In a Box: Diversity, Inclusion, and Affirmative Action

Too often, people mistakenly use the terms Affirmative Action, Diversity and Inclusion interchangeably, reflecting the fallacy that they are equivalent. They are not. In most people’s minds, diversity programs refer to people of color and women struggling to achieve a place in society. In reality, diversity is an attribute embodied in every individual.

Some organizations increase their diversity in an effort to meet Affirmative Action goals. However, this increase is superficial if the organization is not prepared to include an increased range of differences in its day-to-day activities and interactions.

Unfortunately, most organizations end up with a diversity in a box strategy. They see diversity as getting in the way of success by forcing the organization to do something it doesn’t want to do. Or they see it as an issue to be managed, shaping it and getting it to “fit” in the existing structure of the organization. Still other organizations see diversity as a value and end in itself, unrelated to the mission, vision and purpose of the organization. The result: either a singular focus on representation and awareness or ignoring the issue altogether.

Regardless of the reasons why organizations begin the diversity effort, it is often thought of as an extra—a package of programs and policies run by the Human Resources or in-house training department and never tied to the bottom line. Efforts to change the representation of the organization are taken on with good intentions but are easily sidetracked or minimized when other priorities call.

When diversity is not leveraged, potential benefits to the organization and the individual are lost.

Hiring people of different backgrounds is no longer enough. Their presence in the organization is a start, but until it moves beyond diversity in a box, it will not unleash the full power of diversity and create fertile ground for everyone’s growth in the organization and beyond.

When an organization leverages diversity, it sees things that cannot be seen when working from the basis of sameness. Leveraging diversity results in greater innovation and greater capacity for change. However, just having diversity does not result in leveraging diversity. Leveraging diversity taps into people’s unique power and potential, thus unleashing the talent that exists.

There is a need for radical change. An organization that understands that need opens up the playing field and changes the rules of the game for success. An inclusion breakthrough is required—to leverage the diversity of all people and build an inclusive culture—because old assumptions, old styles, old approaches to problem solving and old line-ups are insufficient to help an organization survive and thrive in a turbulent environment.


This article is an adapted excerpt from The Inclusion Breakthrough by Frederick Miller and Judith Katz.

Topics: Your Organization, Diversity & Inclusion, 25th Anniversary, Organizational Change and Development

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