The Problem with Inclusion

There’s a problem or two with diversity and inclusion efforts.

It’s just not the one(s) you probably think.

Similar to the efforts to increase employee engagement – if you can just win the hearts and minds of employees they’ll be more productive, have less turnover, and engender greater customer satisfaction  - inclusion and diversity efforts in some organizations struggle with the proper effective positioning (think marketing) and the changed culture required to be effective.

The advantages of increasing diversity and inclusion for almost any organization are numerous and significant, including better decision-making, greater “stickiness” within the community, better mid-to-long term performance, and broader pools – hence broader talent – of employees, community members, volunteers and /or employees..

The problem with some inclusion and diversity efforts is (at least) twofold.

First, some proponents of inclusion and diversity state the pursuit of social equity as the banner forward – an approach by the way that was largely ineffective as an argument to advance the case in the 1970′s and today plays well mostly only in enclaves like the People’s Republic of Berkeley or in certain spots of Marin or San Francisco. Good as a philosophical foundation and moral compass, lousy as a way to move change forward; like getting kids to eat spinach by using “Eat it, it’s good for you,” the approach is a kite that doesn’t fly.

Social equity and social justice have gotten such a bad rap and become so tarnished as a concept that they are like the hijacking work Dan Savage did with Rick Santorum’s name (e.g.for months if you Googled Santorum’s name the first result you got was a page that gave you Savage’s made-up definition of Santorum  of  ”1 - The frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the by-product of anal sex, 2 - Former Senator Rick Santorum“). Unlike the even battle of words between something like “right to life” and “right to choose,” social equity as a winning clarion call is a loser.

Second, some of the folks that promote social equity as a position statement for inclusion and diversity fail to adapt and promote the culture change required, including knowledge equity, that comes with a shift to greater diversity and inclusion.

Like the person needing to lose weight who is all for getting in shape until they find out it involves them (such as eating less, eating right, sleeping well, and working out), inclusion and diversity proponents can struggle to successfully adjust to a range of individual and organizational behavioral shifts – including their own behavior – that is part of the what’s needed to promote effective change.

The not-so-secret story from the work regarding business process reengineering (BPR) promoted by Michael Hammer and others in the 1990′s was that the promise that mere changes in processes and practices to streamline how stuff gets done will lead to terrific, profitable outcomes was a flawed premise. Organizations, unfortunately, drank the Kool Aid by the caseload; success rates for all the initiatives, once the hangover passed, were in the toilet.

Like some work in the inclusion and diversity area, the culture of organizations – that set of behaviors, values, and artifacts that inform and guides us –  had to change in order for the BPR efforts to work. And successful BPR change often meant that senior managers had to shift their own behaviors.

For inclusion and diversity efforts to work effectively it means that managers, especially those that promote and run those programs, have to exhibit behaviors themselves that are highly inclusive and embrace viewpoints that differ from their own and that promote diversity of thought. Tone from the top counts; model different behavior and folks know that what you say is not what you really want people to do.

For many that type of change is hard work. People who have worked hard to get somewhere in an organizational ladder generally don’t want to give control, or credence, to people who may hold differing views and values. Decision makers, as George Bush might suggest, like the power of being “the decider.”

While inclusion should never be confused with an anything goes arrangement, it does mean that deciders in organizations who want great inclusion and diversity have to behave differently to help create a conduscive culture. It means avoiding at all costs behaviors that are exclusive unless there’s a compelling reason, and inviting views and participants who are diverse and different.

Increasing inclusion and diversity is a no-brainer. Apart from it being the “right thing it’s also the smart thing for teams and organizations. It’s a change that should be made; it’s a change that needs to be made.

But those who are unable and unwilling to make that shift – including inclusion proponents who need to use a more effective approach or changes in their own behavior –  become the biggest problem with inclusion.

Author J. Mike Smith is a executive, career, and leadership team coach, helping individuals, start-ups, teams and groups perform significantly better. Over the past 25 years as a senior business executive, J. Mike has worked with Fortune 500 companies such as Genentech, AT&T, and Visa. You can learn more about J. Mike at Life Back West.

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