“We want our employees to bring their ‘whole selves’ to work.”
Statements such as this abound within the many organizations that espouse a culture of inclusion. Similarly, there is no shortage of think pieces, self-help articles, or “best practices” policies that encourage individuals to lead happier, healthier lives by modeling authenticity and “showing up” daily as their best selves. Such statements and policies are usually rooted in good intentions and even substantiated by studies that suggest organizations benefit when employees feel valued for what makes them unique. Although a carefully crafted vision or values statement that affirms inclusion looks good on paper, truly realizing and activating a culture in which all employees can show up and be their best, authentic, and “whole selves” takes work.
In her extensive research on inclusion, management scholar Lynn Shore has developed a model that can help organizations improve their work toward inclusion. This model puts inclusion at the intersection of belongingness (the extent to which one feels that they are part of the group or culture—that is, an “insider”) and being valued for uniqueness (the extent to which one feels that what makes them unique or different from the group will be valued and appreciated). According to this model, inclusion exists only where there is both high belongingness and high value for uniqueness.
What Happens When Either Belongingness or Value for Uniqueness is Low?
Where there is both low belongingness and low value for uniqueness, people experience the opposite of inclusion: exclusion. Fortunately, very few organizations are in that situation. Rather, in their work toward inclusion, most organizations exhibit high belongingness but place a low value on uniqueness. This perpetuates a culture of assimilation in which individuals are treated as part of the culture (or considered “insiders”) 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 (also known as “covering”). It may also affect the extent to which people with invisible differences feel safe to disclose things about themselves. All of those situations can be exhausting to experience—a response that 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, when a high value for uniqueness goes hand in hand with low belongingness, a culture of differentiation exists. In these circumstances, one’s differences or capabilities (say, to reach a particular
market or meet a business need) are valued, but the individual is not seen as part of the larger culture. In that case, the presence of that individual in the workplace might manifest as tokenism. For example, an organization may strive to meet the needs of its diverse clientele by increasing the representation of Latinx individuals among its employees and may even place a high value on bilingualism in those new hires. But if the organization does not also foster a culture in which Latinx employees truly feel that they belong, those employees won’t exhibit the expected productivity, retention, and performance.
Inclusion happens when a high value is placed on what makes someone different and that person is treated as an insider and part of the broader culture. Think about the difference between being forced to assimilate into a culture and being a stakeholder who helps create it. The latter is the goal and is where many of the benefits associated with inclusion are located: high performance, engagement, retention. Although many organizations intend to foster inclusion, they often fall short because they are unable to create a culture of belongingness and place a high value on differences and uniqueness.
What Can Organizations & Leaders Do?
Diversity and inclusion (D&I) training gets a bad rap these days, but when it’s done well it has the capacity to shift perspectives, build skills, and empower action. D&I education should involve a developmental approach that meets people where they are in their journeys and in the organization. Each individual’s D&I learning curriculum should reflect the reality of their unique role and sphere of influence within an organization. Education and learning should focus on building skills and fostering greater self-understanding by addressing topics such as culture, identity, cross-cultural communication styles, cultural patterns in the workplace, power, and the difference between equality and equity.
Find out how different groups’ experiences of the organization vary. Although many organizations conduct employee engagement surveys, very few segment results according to various demographic criteria 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., ethnicity, gender, generation, ability) can perpetuate an assumption of sameness in both experiences and identity.
What are the organization’s espoused values vis-à-vis its enacted values? The website and policy handbook may say one thing, but what are the employees actually experiencing? What underlying messages are leaders communicating in unspoken norms, behaviors, and systems (such as how they conduct meetings; reward accomplishments; identify, hire, and develop talent; or speak up on issues that occur beyond the workplace)? Encourage leaders to take an honest and critical approach to identifying where the organization aspires to be and where it truly is now.
Develop systems that enforce accountability and an ongoing commitment to inclusion. For example, if delivering on sales targets is important to a role, an organization usually requires candidates to demonstrate their capacity to meet that goal before they are hired and current employees to do so in their current positions. Similarly, if inclusion is an espoused value, it will exist only 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.
Systems and cultures of inequity or assimilation don’t just appear out of thin air. Cultures and systems are created and perpetuated by people who all have biases, identities, and, most importantly, power. Those who have power should use it to promote cultures in which individuals can truly be their whole and best selves. It’s simply a matter of being committed to doing the work.
This article originally appeared in Advanced Resources' HR Insights Magazine.