Diversity and Inclusion – It’s the How, Not Just the Who, That Matters

2dQsoMMIn my work, I put a lot of emphasis on clarity and the use of words. Maybe it’s because I was a lawyer before I transitioned into leadership and organizational consulting. And we lawyers can be picky about words.

In my experience, organizations often misunderstand what “Diversity” and “Inclusion” mean in terms of their business.  Diversity is the “who” in the workforce; what is the composition of our employee population? By contrast, inclusion is the “how”; to what extent are people involved, contributing, and present? How fully are people engaged?

“Diversity” used to be, in the US anyway, corporate code for compliance. It was about whether the organization had “enough” variety in terms of gender/race/sexual orientation/other (legally protected demographic) employees on the payroll. Diversity was perceived as about numbers. It was about who are employees were. If we pay attention to the demographics, our business will be better.

That is outdated, 20th-century thinking, for two reasons.

First, when organizations think about the who in their workforce now, it’s not just about the categories of people who are legally protected- it is not about compliance. A diverse workforce is about a wide range of meaningful differences among people, including culture, generations, thinking styles, work experiences, and more. The narrow definition creates confusion.

Second, and more importantly, diversity in the workforce does not necessarily make for a more productive/effective workforce. Working on teams is usually more difficult (at the outset, at least) with people who think differently and have different backgrounds. To use a simple metaphor, it is often harder to have everyone playing from the same sheet of music if people read the music differently. So it’s not who is there that matters, it’s how they show up at work. How fully are people contributing? Do they feel recognized for their efforts and accomplishments? Are they connected to the result of their work? Are they included in decision-making and planning related to their work? And the answers to these questions are all about inclusion and engagement.

As companies continue to operate more globally and more remotely, relying upon the efforts of an increasingly diverse workforce, they are recognizing the need to engage their people as fully as possible. Everyone needs to be participating, particularly in a challenging economy where lean workforces are the norm.  A disengaged workforce is a luxury that very few companies can afford.

For example, a client of mine in the pharmaceutical industry grew rapidly in the last ten years, operating increasingly in a more global, segmented structure. R&D was on one continent, while manufacturing and marketing operations were on another. Not surprisingly, communications from the different regions were often different. There were functional differences, such as in communication (frequency, tone, timing, etc.). And there were also cultural differences, for example with regard to expectations (hierarchy in reporting relationships, how employees are recognized, etc.). These differences were contributing to breakdowns in communication, inefficiencies, and at times outright conflict. The diversity of the workforce became a series of practical challenges that had to be managed.

In order to move from diversity to inclusion- and thereby to engagement, we developed a process for identifying, surfacing, and discussing how to accommodate and leverage differences in order to drive alignment and improve productivity. This connected to a framework for team alignment, with clear lines of sight to departmental goals and company strategy. And this shift was driven by conversation within the organization’s working teams.

Because managing diversity is about having these conversations in practical, productive, and respectful ways, principles of Conscious Business can play an important role. For example, team members must be willing to take 100% responsibility for their contributions to team dynamics and productivity. They must be able to communicate clearly and respectfully across differences, while keeping connected through shared commitment to organizational effectiveness and personal   development. Perhaps most importantly, they must be willing and able to continue to engage with their colleagues in often-challenging dialogue, which requires a personal commitment to remain centered and involved. This is far easier said than done, but the investment of energy and time is well worth it, because the result is an increase in levels of inclusion, engagement and personal satisfaction.

So let’s shift the conversation and be clear about what matters. Let’s work consciously and purposefully to engage team members working hard in ever-shifting global organizations, acknowledging differences and working together as effectively as possible. By focusing on how we work together, we can be more fully engaged and more successful.



About the author

Andrew is Axialent Faculty Network Member. For over 20 years he has worked globally as a consultant, facilitator, coach and problem-solver for businesses and individuals. Andrew’s work improves his clients’ business results and culture, and enhances individual performance and satisfaction. Andrew brings clarity to complex problems. He helps focus leaders at all levels on what matters most and how to effectively act on it. Read more >



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