The paradoxical secret to successful inclusion


I used to have a gut resistance to the inclusion part of “Diversity and Inclusion” until I realized what was bugging me about it.  Despite the fact that we are talking about for-profit, corporate settings people would use inclusion in a boundless, PC, almost Kumbaya sense of making sure everyone felt included, everyone belonged in this cozy corporate family.  

But there is a problem with this.  The fact of the matter is, not everyone does belong. And this pretend-belonging cheapens, or even obviates, the experience for those who do.

Before you get on your high horse about not everyone belonging, consider this, does your diverse and inclusive workplace have room for racists? Sexists? Anti-Semites? Maybe yours does, but mine doesn’t.  My values may be relative but they are critical to my inclusion criteria. Most organizations have values-based inclusion criteria and are often proud of them – but don’t forget that there are people who don’t share these values and therefore don’t actually belong.

It isn’t just values that matter in inclusion criteria: schooling, experience, interests, and abilities matter too.  Not everyone belongs everywhere.  Here are some groups I don’t belong to: top ten female marathon runners, the International Association of Accountants, the Harvard Alumni network.  And I don’t care.  Think about all the groups you don’t belong to, do you care?  Of course not.  We only start caring about not belonging when the inclusion criteria seem unfair, when they are irrelevant or meaningless to the group’s stated function or objectives.   Being excluded from top management because you are a woman or dark-skinned is not the same as being excluded because you lack the experience, stamina or brains for a top job.

Inclusion has to be reclaimed from the people who have turned it in to shorthand for “we don’t actively discriminate.” I am entirely in favor of anti-discrimination but equally in favor of inclusion that actually means I feel included. 

Think about the last time you felt included at work, a moment where you thought “I am  really a part of this”.  For me one of the best examples was being part of a team pulling a large meeting together.  We each had distinct duties -I was in charge of an internal trade fair- as well as opportunity to support and provide input across the whole event.  What made me feel included wasn’t just being part of a team with a clear, shared objective but also that I had something unique to contribute.  I had been selected specifically for my strengths.  In a room of diverse thinking styles, nationalities, and backgrounds, I had a place at the table because I was valued.

This is the crux of feeling included: a sense of belonging and of being valued for you.

Feeling belonging and being valued (not just allowed through the door) just cannot happen when inclusion is all-encompassing.  But how can you create successful inclusion without generating negativity or the worry of discrimination?

  1. Think about your inclusion criteria and make sure they are relevant and meaningful to your group’s purpose or objectives.  Be transparent about these criteria and allow debate – it will help you hone in on what really matters and knock out any unconscious biases.

  2. Support a sense of belonging by highlighting common ground: aspirations, objectives, experiences and even group “branding”

  3. Value the unique insights and backgrounds of your group members, play to their strengths

  4. Keep the group small: it is much easier to do the above with a smaller number (e.g. under 50) and larger groups become more of a “mob” with less individuation.

If you are worried that having a bunch of small, inclusive groups won’t translate to being seen as an inclusive organization, think about how people actually decide on their company’s culture. It is not through the corporate website or documented policies, it is through their own experience and what they hear about and see in other areas. If an employee feels included and knows that others do too, it won't matter that they might belong to different groups, the sense of being in an inclusive workplace will permeate.