Inclusion doesn't just happen – it takes work.

November 14, 2019 Brittany J. Harris

6-minute read

Listen to Brittany's Workhuman® Radio interview here.

“We want our employees to bring their ‘whole selves’ to work.”

group of friends hanging outThis and similar statements are not few and far between among the many organizations who espouse a culture of inclusion. Likewise, there is no shortage of think pieces, self-help articles, or best practices that encourage individuals to lead happy, healthier lives by modeling authenticity and “showing up” daily as their best selves. Certainly, the intention behind this work and such statements are well-founded and even substantiated by studies that suggest organizations benefit when employees feel valued for what makes them unique.

While a carefully crafted vision or values statement affirming inclusion sounds good, I would suggest that truly realizing and activating a culture where everyone can show up and be their best, authentic, and “whole self” takes work.

Management research scholar Lynn Shore developed a model that suggests inclusion exists at the intersection of belongingness and value in uniqueness. I believe this model is a great starting point in conceptualizing what is required for organizations to embark on the work toward inclusion.

Belongingness refers to the extent to which one feels like they are part of the group or culture – an “insider.” Value in uniqueness refers to the extent to which one feels as though what makes them unique or different from the group will be valued and appreciated. This model posits that inclusion can only happen where there is both high belongingness and high value in uniqueness.

The Winters Group framework

What happens when there isn’t belongingness or value in uniqueness?

Where there is low belongingness and low value in uniqueness, people experience the opposite of inclusion – exclusion. My anecdotal observation is that very few organizations find themselves here in this day and age, so I won’t stay here long. The second quadrant is where I see more organizations find themselves in their work toward inclusion.

Where there is high belongingness but low value in uniqueness, organizations perpetuate a culture of assimilation. This means an individual is treated as part of the culture, or considered an “insider,” but only when they conform to the dominant norms of the culture and minimize what makes them different.

A culture of assimilation may compel people to downplay aspects of their identity that are different, or “cover,” in the workplace. It may also impact the extent to which people with invisible differences feel safe to disclose things about themselves. All of this can be exhausting for individuals who experience it – which counters organizational strides toward inclusion. A culture of assimilation makes it near impossible for individuals to show up as their “whole selves,” yet many organizations find themselves here despite language that espouses inclusion. 

Alternatively, where there is a high value in uniqueness but low belongingness, we experience differentiation. This is indicative of a culture where one’s differences or capabilities are valued – let’s say, to reach a particular market or meet a business need – but the individual is not seen as part of the larger culture. This might manifest as “tokenism.” For example, an organization may strive to increase representation of Latinx employees to meet the needs of their diverse clientele, and even value that these hires may be bilingual. But if the organization is not creating a culture where Latinx employees truly feel they belong, they won’t yield the expected productivity, retention, and performance.

Inclusion happens where there is a high value in what makes me different and I am treated as an insider and part of the broader culture. Think about the difference between being forced to assimilate into a culture vs. being a stakeholder in creating it. This is the goal. This is where we experience many of the benefits associated with inclusion – high performance, engagement, retention. While many organizations intend to foster inclusion, they sometimes yield a different impact because of their inability to create a culture of belongingness and value differences/uniqueness.

What can organizations and leaders do?

  1. Educate. Diversity training gets a “bad rap” these days, but when done well, D&I education and learning has the capacity to shift perspectives, build skills, and empower action. D&I education should involve a developmental approach – meeting people where they are in their journeys and in the organization. Inasmuch as a leader has a very different role and sphere of influence within an organization than an individual contributor, their D&I learning curriculum should reflect this reality. Education and learning should focus on building skills and fostering greater self-understanding (e.g., culture, identity, cross-cultural communication styles, cultural patterns in the workplace, power, equality versus equity).
  2. Inquire. Understand how different groups may be experiencing the organization differently. I’ve found that many organizations conduct employee engagement surveys. However, very few segment results by various demographics or include specific questions that elicit perspectives and experiences related to inclusion. Survey tools and analysis that do not include relevant demographic data (e.g., race, gender, generation, ability) can perpetuate an assumption of sameness – in experiences and identity.
  3. Interrogate. What are the organization’s espoused versus enacted values? Sure, the website and policy handbook may say one thing, but what are employees experiencing? What underlying messages are leaders sending in unspoken norms, behaviors, and systems – how they conduct meetings; reward accomplishments; identify, hire, and develop talent; speak up on issues that occur beyond the workplace? Convene leaders to take an honest and critical approach to identifying where the organization aspires to be and where it truly is.
  4. Expect. Develop systems that enforce accountability and an ongoing commitment to inclusion. Think of it this way – if delivering on sales goals and targets is important to a role, an organization would likely require a candidate or employee demonstrate their capacity to do so before being hired and while in the role. If inclusion is an espoused value, it will only happen if leaders and employees alike are expected to demonstrate it in their roles. Organizations should leverage tools, culturally competent interview prompts, and role competencies that connect back to skills associated with fostering a culture of inclusion.

I often share that systems and cultures of inequity or assimilation don’t just appear out of thin air. Cultures and systems are created and perpetuated by people – people (like us) with biases, identities, and most importantly, power. We have the power to get closer to cultures where individuals can truly be their whole and best selves. We just have to be committed to doing the work.

(Brittany J. Harris  will present a session entitled “Embodying Authenticity in the Workplace” at Workhuman® Live in San Antonio, May 11-14, 2020.)

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About the Author

Brittany J. Harris

Brittany is vice president, learning & innovation at The Winters Group, Inc.

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