Despite many HR directors across the country committing to redoubling diversity and inclusion efforts in 2018, many of these efforts have fallen flat. In fact, research suggests there’s more racial segregation in U.S. workplaces today than in the 1970s. Research also indicates that anti-black hiring practices and other forms of institutional privilege are as prevalent today as in the 1980s. And, like it or not, individuals all carry biases that can reinforce inequalities in hiring practices and workplaces by gravitating, consciously or unconsciously, toward familiar people, environments, and ideas.
Despite these conditions and trends, most organizations can acknowledge that efforts to develop diversity and inclusion are important. After all, diverse teams are better at solving problems than homogenous teams. Diverse teams have also been found to be 83 percent more innovative. And companies around the country are committing resources to solving diversity and inclusion (D&I) issues. So where are their efforts around going wrong?
Why Isn’t Diversity Enough?
Diversity is a critical first step to building stronger organizations. But inclusion—deliberate efforts to foster cohesive workforces that understand and embrace diverse individuals—is also critical. As put by The Society of Human Resources (SHRM), “Diversity is only half of the D&I picture. Creating a culture where people are respected and appreciated requires another level of effort that may not be getting the investment it needs.” Indeed, most diversity efforts fail because they don’t emphasize inclusion alongside diversity.
Employees who experience a lack of inclusion at work disengage from community-building activities with teams and coworkers with devastating consequences, diversity expert Howard J. Ross and behavior scientists JonRobert Tartaglione write in Our Search for Belonging. “Contrary to what many cynics have abrasively suggested, ensuring that people feel included is not simply a matter of unnecessary coddling or indicative of a generation plagued by weakness and entitlement.” Without a sense of inclusion or belonging, a person’s cognitive performance declines, and motivation and willpower lag. Additionally, organizations are unable to enjoy benefits of diversity and inclusion such as better customer satisfaction, better market positioning, more successful decision-making, and greater ability to reach organizational goals.
But an inclusive organization can be a tricky business. It requires us to recognize and confront our own conscious and unconscious biases. Those biases can reinforce prejudices, stereotypes, and inequalities, or highlight differing experiences between colleagues—all of which can make for difficult conversation. But addressing biases allows us to engage in meaningful discussion, understand perspectives that run contrary to our worldviews, and ultimately ease gaps in the workplace experience.
Conversations to Foster Inclusion
One challenge for building an inclusive workplace: today’s supercharged environment of polarization. The Pew Research Center has found that Americans are more polarized today than ever before on social and political issues. As D&I expert Mary Frances Winters notes in her book, We Can’t Talk about That At Work, “We are living in times of heightened social conflict around race, religion, and politics.” People feel threatened by terrorism, demographic shifts, and new technology—which leads to tribalism. “When people are fearful, the gut level response is to blame ‘the other tribe(s)’ for their plight.”
So how can you begin a conversation about inclusion at work? Diversity and Inclusion experts Tiffany Jana and Matthew Freeman suggest this starting point: acknowledge that everyone is biased, and that this doesn’t necessarily make us evil or bad. In their book, Overcoming Bias, they argue that the tendency to favor one thing over another is actually a natural human behavior. They write, “People are only biased because that is how we are hardwired.” Bias, for example, allowed early humans to differentiate between a dangerous predator and what might look like a dangerous predator without suffering the consequences of being wrong. “Our brain has evolved to make snap decisions based on making sense of what we see in the blink of an eye. So please don’t judge your biased friends, family, or colleagues too harshly. The people around you are human and are designed to have bias.”
Pushing Toward Inclusion and Equality
Why can inclusion be difficult? Sure, a major component of inclusion requires us to face unpleasant and uncomfortable realities about our biases and limited worldviews. And many of us are coming to the conversation with different experiences of bias itself, which means a one-size-fits-all process is unlikely to be successful.
But inclusion is also difficult to talk about because we often don’t have the tools required for open, honest conversations. The key, Winters writes in We Can’t Talk about That at Work, is to make conversations that are already happening “more productive, supportive, and inclusives, leaving people feeling whole and ultimately resulting in better teamwork, productivity, and engagement.”
1. Inclusion starts with you.
The process begins with each and every one of us. To recognize and address unfairness and inequality, Winters writes, we must explore our own cultural identities to determine how factors like race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, geography, and values shape our beliefs and experiences—and acknowledge that we may be more or less privileged than others. Jana and Freeman add, “With self-awareness, attention, and effort, you can become aware of the way in which bias operates in your life. Then, you can make deliberate choices to minimize the impact your brain’s automatic preferences have on how you treat people.”
2. Once you recognize biases and barriers to inclusion, push through them.
Then, you’ll be ready to “scan to expand.” This concept requires a “deliberate effort to notice individual difference and really pushing the limits of building bridges across them,” Jana and Matthews write in Overcoming Bias. It can be as simple as not seeking out your familiar clique when entering a work function and instead seeking out opportunities to “that will expose you to new people, new ideas, and new places.” Privilege can be blinding. Diverse friendships allow us to gain allies in expanding our worldview and our understanding of others. The keys? Ask questions. Don’t make assumptions. Listen without judgement.
3. Creating organizational readiness for conversations about polarizing topics.
Productive conversations about polarizing topics generally don’t happen on their own. Organizational readiness is required for these types of bold, inclusive conversations. Shared purpose is key, Winters writes, so it’s important that everyone understand why these conversations are taking place and the desired outcome. Selecting the format, the facilitator, the participants, and the agenda are critical steps. “Delving into the differences is the most difficult part of the conversation process. Acknowledging that polarized opinions exist is the first step,” Winters writes.
The Final Word on Going Beyond Diversity
Let’s face it: achieving diversity and inclusion isn’t easy. Facing difficult realities about our biases, beliefs, and limited worldviews isn’t easy, either. But these are worthy challenges. Fostering inclusion and equality helps create workplaces that are more innovative, productive, and engaging, research shows. But the potential benefits are even greater. By
promoting understanding and empathy, inclusion and equality also help cut through today’s polarization and help build stronger communities—one relationship at a time.