How To Build Inclusive Culture

Have you hired a diverse team, and you can’t see any benefits for the organization? If that is all you have done, then chances are you have more friction, demotivated employees, and bigger attrition among minorities. What went wrong? Diversity by itself doesn’t bring anything. To reap the benefits of having a diverse team, you need to be inclusive. Inclusion is where all the magic happens.

Diversity is about understanding and valuing the different personal, physical, and social characteristics of the employees. Inclusion is about processes, policies, and behaviors that the organization puts in place to acknowledge, accept, and promote employee differences and needs. Diversity leads to innovation. Inclusion removes discrimination and intolerance and leads to belonging. Diversity and inclusion can’t live without each other. Hiring a diverse group of people who will be discriminated against and won’t feel they belong will end up in disaster. Having an inclusive workplace without ever hiring anyone with a diverse background will end up with a stale culture and low innovation.

Why inclusion matters

Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman caution leaders not to overlook the importance of inclusion. There is a strong correlation between the perception of inclusion and the leadership effectiveness of the leader. Those who were rated poorly on valuing diversity and inclusion were also rated poorly on their overall leadership effectiveness.

Inclusion has a measurable positive impact on the performance of the organization. As research by Deloitte showed, inclusive organizations are twice as likely to meet and exceed financial targets, three times as likely to be high-performing, six times more likely to be innovative and agile, and eight times more likely to achieve better business outcomes.

Deloitte’s research indicates that inclusive leadership matters as it can drive up to 70% higher proportion of employees who feel included. This increase in individual inclusion translates into a 17% increase in perceived team performance, a 20% increase in decision-making quality, and a 29% increase in collaboration.

Being inclusive is not easy

Helen Turnbull points to the results of various surveys she ran to see how people feel about inclusive cultures in their organizations. Typically, over 50% of people claim that others in their organizations are trying to create an inclusive environment, while over 90% of people would say the same about themselves. Not surprisingly, we all feel that we are inclusive, but we don’t see that behavior in others.

It is almost certain that you have serious blind spots. Especially if you belong to a privileged majority. Because of your place in society, you were never really forced to confront your biases or experience how they can impact the lives of others. You may even be offended if I call you being privileged. You may claim that you are not a billionaire and that I don’t know your hardship. And you are right. I don’t. And yet, if you are part of the majority, I would still claim that your hardship most likely doesn’t compare to anything that members of the minority have to deal with.

There is a concept in psychology called perceptual distortion. It manifests in myriad ways, but one can be tracked to how we see others in our in-group and out-group. When this distortion happens, we see the in-group members more similar to us, as compared with the individual from the out-group. The positive behavior, traits, and outcomes are ascribed to the in-group, while the negative to the out-group. This is how racism, ageism, sexism, and other prejudices work.

You need to fight it. In many groups, there is grudging respect to the skills and capabilities of someone different. We trust their skills because we saw them in action. But we often don’t trust their intentions because, well, because they are not part of the in-group and we don’t know them. We assume their intentions can’t be the same as ours because they are not part of our in-group.

How do you build a more inclusive culture?

Learn to decouple – no one likes inconsistency. If there is inconsistency, our brain works very hard to find balance again. Say you like your friends Jim and Jill. When you find that Jim is also a friend of Jill, your brain is happy. You like them both, and they like each other. Good. But say you find out Jim hates Jill. There is an inconsistency. You like them both, so how come they don’t like each other? That doesn’t make sense. And so your brain will work hard to make sense of it. One way it does it is to decide that Jill is no good. You like Jim, Jim hates Jill, and therefore Jill is bad. So you also hate Jill. We associate bad things with people and events based on what someone we trust thinks about them. The alternative is to decouple things. Jim hates Jill, and that is his problem. It has no impact on how you feel about Jill.

It is not easy to decouple the person and the belief. Only because you believe something different from what I believe doesn’t make you or me a bad person. In 2020, we went through a very turbulent presidential election in the USA, with Donald Trump and Joe Biden finishing pretty close to each other. It was incredibly sad to see the deep division in the society that vilifies those who voted for the other candidate. The best quote of the election that tried to build bridges and decouple the person and the belief was by Joe Biden, “We may be opponents, but we are not enemies.” It illustrates the importance of this decoupling beautifully, and it is key to having a respectful, productive conflict, and it is the first step towards inclusion.

Work on self-awareness and be humble – foster self-awareness and show that you are aware of your blind spots and biases. Acknowledge and work on removing flaws from the processes and policies to ensure a genuinely unbiased environment. This will require you to be humble and not afraid to be vulnerable. Be modest about what you can do, admit your mistakes, and give an opportunity to others to shine.

Start with trust and be respectful – it starts with trust. Trust not only in the capabilities of its individuals but also in their intentions. We all mean well. Even those from the out-group mean well and work towards the same goal. That’s when you can have a respectful disagreement without taking things personally and feeling being threatened. Learn to approach every new person you meet with implicit trust and it will make your interactions much smoother and more inclusive.

Promote respectful conflict and feedback – one of the top biases that mess up your efforts for an inclusive workplace is affinity bias. Human beings are more comfortable around others who are similar to us. If someone differs, we are more guarded and even try to avoid them. You need to recognize this aspect of human nature and find ways to mitigate it. It boils down to building an open, feedback based culture and not shying away from conflict. If someone is too different, we don’t know how to disagree respectfully. So we either behave with disrespect, or we avoid interacting and arguing with them. Neither helps with inclusion. Managing conflict within a diverse organization is simply much more challenging and requires effort and skill. A place to start is to genuinely want to know others who are different from us and get comfortable around them.

When we talk about feedback and conflict, we need to realize what it means and how it can go wrong. Good feedback is given with the aim to help. That should go without saying. However, the question still is, help with what. A lot of feedback is meant to help people to fit in, to be assimilated into the majority culture. That is not inclusion. The feedback might be well-meant but still influenced by biases. And it may create an environment that is at first glance inclusive but, deep down, is promoting inequality. Your feedback needs celebrate differences and to help the person be the best version of themselves.

Foster belonging – anthropologist Bonnie A. Nardi, a professor at the University of California, conducted a study of the culture of online games joining World of Warcraft, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game released in 2004 that is being played by more than a hundred million players around the world. Later on, she wrote a book, My Life as a Night Elf Priest, that compiles data from the three years of the study. Nardi comments on the big difference between the real world and the world of the game from a sociological perspective. In the real world, you can see easily that you are different from other cultures. Suppose you travel to a different continent and walk the streets of a small city. In that case, you are immediately identified as someone who doesn’t belong. In the game, you are just another player. Everyone belongs. Regardless of your real-life differences, you don’t need to fear being judged for who you are in the game. A feeling of belonging is an incredibly powerful motivator. It removes the stress of being an outsider and allows you to be authentic.

Watch out for the small daily interactions and micro-messages – inclusion is being built by small daily interactions and micro-messages. Every sentence you say has an impact. Every sentence you don’t say also has an impact. As we go through our day, we continuously send and receive messages. Some are conscious some are unconscious. You see it all around you in the way people interact with you. You may not hear it said out loud, but you will experience it through the small interactions and micro-messaged. When you want to build an inclusive environment, you need to make a deliberate effort to change these little messages. You need to go out of your way to reinforce that the people different from you belong. You need to pay special attention to them to cancel out any unconscious bias you can have. Otherwise, your lack of focus can be seen as sending a micro-message that they don’t matter or that you are trying to avoid them. Look for mini-opportunities to include others. You want to create a feeling of belonging in every single person on the team, in every single interaction.

Create psychological safety and show compassion – one of the keys to inclusive culture is to build psychological safety. If the employees from underrepresented groups worry about speaking up, you won’t get benefits from diversity. And more importantly, you fail at creating belonging, so you will fail at retaining these people. During times of stress, all our prejudices and biases bubble up as we rely more on gut feeling and instinct than on any thoughtful logical thinking. Under pressure, we default to fight or flight responses. No time for deliberate decision making. Show compassion and understanding. Especially during a crisis, it is essential to acknowledge that your employees have other things on their mind than just work. They worry about their families, maybe even their lives. By being understanding of their life circumstances, you will help to create psychological safety, not to mention a ton of goodwill.

Share personal stories and promote curiosity – be curious and open-minded about others. Listen and try to understand where they are coming from. Don’t judge. One of the best ways to build a diverse team where people with different opinions and beliefs can still get along is to encourage sharing personal stories. Humans thrive on stories. Stories help us bond and understand a little bit better the motivations behind other people’s behavior. It also allows us to realize that we are all the same with similar problems and ambitions. Emotional stories and acts of kindness are potent tools for relationship building as they help release the hormone oxytocin. As Paul Zak claims, that in turn helps to act morally and feel more empathy for others. It removes the divide between self and others, between in-groups and out-groups.

Be open and show cultural intelligence – being open to new experiences and to one’s intellectual fallibility are two very different things. I may be open to trying new food or travel to a new place, but that doesn’t make me open-minded. Only when I’m willing to question my beliefs and admit to myself that I might be wrong about something is the time when I become open-minded. It is the time when I’m willing to change my mind without feeling threatened. Learn to show empathy and understanding towards others and be willing to adapt to accommodate the needs of those different from you.

Promote authenticity and mean it – being who you are is an important aspect to be comfortable with the people around you. Only by being able to be authentic, you can feel that you belong. Promote authenticity and make sure it is not held against those who are different. As Sylvia Ann Hewlett notes, research has shown that 41% of professionals of color feel they need to compromise their authenticity to conform with expected standards for professional image and executive presence with their company. Similarly, a significant percentage of LGBT employees believe that pretending to be in a heterosexual relationship, changing their mannerisms and clothing, or hiding LGBT friendships helped their career.

Enable collaboration and empower others – strive to empower others and let them do the work the way they feel comfortable. Don’t shut down thinking that is different from yours. Build psychological safety so everyone can contribute to the best of their abilities. True collaboration requires people to be comfortable to argue with passion for their ideas. It means they need to feel that it is okay to do so, and that means they can’t worry about being ridiculed or punished for speaking their minds. Giving everyone an equal opportunity to contribute to the best of their abilities, using their strengths, and get better is a vital part of an inclusive culture. Provide sponsorship programs for minorities by pairing them with experienced mentors and sponsors. Mentorship alone is not enough. Sponsorship and strong advocacy are much more powerful.

Provide the right equipment – in the times of covid-19 lockdowns, closed schools, and work from home, it has become apparent more than ever how non-inclusive our lives are. There is a huge difference in the opportunity to learn kids from well-off and low-income families have. The first group has their own computer, reliable access to the internet, their own room. The other shares a room with siblings, have a lousy internet connection, and may not even have a computer to attend the online class. The same goes for your employees. If you want to be truly inclusive, you need to be equitable in providing them with the means to do their work. It may not be easy to do, but you can’t claim to be inclusive if some of your employees even struggle to connect to the internet from their homes or don’t have an environment suitable for work. They are immediately disadvantaged. It will most likely show on their long-term performance, ability to speak up on online meetings, confidence, and ultimately career opportunities.

Keep marketing the right behavior – one of the best ways to force someone to rethink their behavior is to point out that it is not aligned with society’s norm. Too often, people don’t feel the need to change because they justify their behavior to themselves by saying, “everyone does it.” If you point out that they are in the minority and almost no one does it, chances are good they will try to change the way they behave. In our hearts, we want to go with the herd. We tend to copy others. We follow the same trends as our friends. We are trying to fit in with the rest of the group. We look at others to understand what is appropriate, normal, and beneficial. When we realize there is a danger of not being a part of the group, we do our best to get back in.

Introduce inclusive processes and policies – recognize bias and teach others how to recognize it. However, don’t rely on some de-biasing training only. Create processes and policies that will mitigate bias in decision making. Introduce policies to codify the right social norms. Laws and company policies can strengthen the social norms and give those following them a moral and legal authority to educate, if needed, punish those who violate these norms. A good example might be laws against smoking in public that popped up over the last decade in many countries worldwide. With these policies codifying the social norm that smoking is harmful to those around us, non-smokers got a tool to reinforce what the accepted social norm looks like. It led to an increased willingness to sanction those who deviate from the social norm.

Putting it all together

Be crystal clear on your commitment to diversity and inclusion. Make it a priority. Don’t be satisfied with the status quo. Be committed and show it. Make inclusion a core value in the organization and hold leaders accountable for diversity goals. Organizations may have different values, but innovative teams have a couple of shared core values. They value inclusion, curiosity, respect, humility, and honest exchange of opinions.

As a leader, always look for diverse opinions and diverse sources of information. Don’t isolate yourself so that all your information about the world or the company comes from one channel or one individual. Don’t succumb to the desire to ignore those who are different from you or who present opinions you disagree with. And most importantly watch out for the small daily interactions and micro-messages and make sure you are inclusive.


What is your take on the topic? How do you build an inclusive culture? Do you even try? What are the benefits and the drawbacks? What major failures did you experience?

Photo: geralt / Pixabay.com

Follow me on Twitter: @GeekyLeader

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.