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How inclusion can become detrimental to your business

Diversity and inclusion is being championed by today’s most successful businesses, but Dr Karen Morley warns there are consequences for those simply using it as a trend to boost their bottom line.

Diversity Inclusion

With something of an explosion in the growth of diversity and inclusion over the past year, now seems a good time to take stock of what has been achieved. It’s also timely to explore whether there are unintended or harmful consequences that may impede further progress.

While individually or as citizens we may believe in and promote inclusion as an end in itself, the lens a business takes is to consider how it benefits from directing resources and effort to inclusion. And there’s plenty of evidence about the possible benefits:

  • Reversing the talent-blindedness that results from recruiting and promoting people like you brings new and varied talent to the organisation
  • Harnessing the creativity and innovation of diverse perspectives means that customers and stakeholders are better understood and represented, and products and services are better adapted to their needs or produced more efficiently
  • Creating a sense of belonging and safety for employees that is sensitive to the different needs of people from diverse or minority backgrounds makes work more satisfying and increases motivation to perform, loyalty and productivity

Organisations and leaders that see inclusion as foundational to their work have operating systems and values that align inclusion with business purpose. A foundational approach will see the best results; increased leadership inclusion increases workforce engagement, reduces leader workloads and improves decision-making quality.

But what about those organisations that have diversity programs that are not aligned to business purpose?

Some organisations take a forced approach; perhaps the board has decreed they ‘do diversity’. Others hide behind a facade and their approach is fake; perhaps it’s a response to some bad press, but at best they are paying lip service. And then there are the fad followers who ‘do diversity’ because it’s the latest ‘thing’.

Faking it towards failure

Forcing, faking or ‘fadding’ it are more about appearances than they are about reality. Systemic inclusion issues such as those that plague organisational recruitment and promotion systems are not confronted. These approaches suffer from a lack of true top leadership commitment, necessary for change to stick.

These organisations that are forcing, faking or fadding are more likely to go down the quick-fix, diversity training path. There’s plenty of evidence that diversity training may not just fail to promote inclusion but may backfire when not part of a systemic approach, activating biases in the short-term and leading to declines in management diversity in the medium-term.

Organisations tend not to measure the impact of botched approaches to change so it is difficult to get a read on how detrimental forcing, faking or fadding it are. Perhaps the most obvious impacts are in terms of employee, customer and other stakeholder sentiment; the disappointment that comes from dashed expectations and commitments not realised.

On the other hand, can you have too much of a good thing? Yes, you can. Inclusive leadership means being psychologically available, creating meaning and promoting safety, all of which consume limited personal resources. High levels of leadership inclusion become exhausting for both leader and led.

At the same time as there is a greater emphasis on inclusion, there is also a perplexing increase in the desire for conformity and this is potentially detrimental not just to business outcomes but also to the principles of inclusion.

Inclusion means being open not closed to dissent, respecting opposing and alternative points of view and encouraging open-ended debate. Inclusion is how the benefits of diverse thinking are realised.

Inclusion is in effect an antidote to the potential harm of groupthink, unanimous or consensual beliefs. Groupthink, long considered detrimental to good decision-making, should be a red flag.

In a large group, such as an organisation, unanimity ought to be impossible to achieve. Rather than be angry, anxious or frustrated by different views, and attempt to persuade, intimidate or censor those views, organisations should encourage the flourishing of thoughtful debate, seek comfort in respectful disagreement and see value in variation. The process of compromise acknowledges the nuances between perspectives and avoids creating ‘agreement’ that is forced or hollow.

There is not one way to do inclusion. There is not one kind of diversity. The challenges for organisations that want to increase inclusion come at the most macro and micro levels. Systemic organisational practices need to be open to scrutiny and change. Micro-behaviours such as allowing dissent, being curious, listening to different views and identifying compromise solutions likewise should be embedded as a part of ‘how we do things here’. These foundations will ensure that the promises of inclusion can be achieved without harmful side-effects.

Dr. Karen Morley is an Executive Coach, an authority on leadership coaching, and a thought leader on gender and inclusion.

Read next: It’s time to stop fake political correctness and artificial harmony

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