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15 Jun. 2012 | Comments (0)

Achieving a balanced mix of diverse employees is an important part of D&I work, but this is not enough. It is also important to create an inclusive environment where every employee thrives, flourishes, and feels that he or she belongs. Organizations cannot tap into employees’ full potential and make the most of diversity when efforts to ‘fit in’ distract individuals from their work or when exclusionary environments disengage employees from their organizations. Furthermore, we have the opportunity to enhance the quality of individual experiences through inclusion as people work to contribute to their companies and communities.  

Contemporary leadership theory often emphasizes authenticity and transparency, but at the same time, many organizations explicitly or implicitly compel marginalized talent to conform to mainstream male leadership. The results for organizations and marginalized individuals are dismal. For example, research behind the Catalyst report, The Double-Bind Dilemma for Women in Leadership:  Damned if You Do, Doomed if You Don't, demonstrates that “because they are often evaluated against a ‘masculine’ standard of leadership, women are left with limited and unfavorable options, no matter how they behave and perform as leaders.” The report reminds us how costly it is when organizations constrain what is recognized as effective behaviors and fail to make the most of any segment of talent. 

Similarly, in Covering, Kenji Yoshino discusses the significant individual and societal costs of living incongruently as we downplay a disfavored trait to blend into the mainstream.  He explains that we all have stigmatized attributes, and we all consciously or unconsciously experience pressure to cover up those traits throughout our lives. For example, society pressures ethnic minorities to act like the mainstream by changing their names, accents, or cultural practices.  Workplaces tell women to act like men.  Mainstream populations pressure gay and lesbian individuals to avoid discussing their personal lives or displaying affection in public. Conforming by toning down stigmatized identities is prevalent even in countries and organizations with ideals and policies that embrace diversity and its benefits. Some diversity initiatives are complicit with this dynamic when they focus on ‘fixing’ marginalized individuals by instructing them on how to succeed by acting in accordance with the mainstream standards (e.g. women’s leadership development programs that tell women how to lead in a way congruent with ‘masculine’ ideals of decisiveness, directness, gravitas, dominance, etc.).

When workplace environments suppress individuality and differences, we lose the potential value that different perspectives and ways of working can bring to our business, including the opportunity for groundbreaking innovation that can lead to business growth. We lose the benefits of a constellation of different but complementarily effective leadership styles, and as individuals, we experience the pain of feeling that we’re not good enough. Instead of making the most of diversity for individuals and organizations, we stifle differences and their value.

How can we build organizational cultures upon what draws us together rather than upon what drives us apart?

Brene Brown ( researches vulnerability, shame, and authenticity. Her scholarship helps us understand the contrast between truly belonging versus fitting in. The hustle to fit in requires an inauthentic performance in an attempt to seek acceptance and approval, and it is both a hollow substitute and a barrier to real belonging. True belonging only happens when we present our authentic selves to the world, including in our workplace.  

In Brown’s research, we see that individual behaviors can make a difference in enabling an environment that fosters true belonging. Where have you made the effort to connect with someone else in a way that ensures that you mutually feel seen, heard, and valued?  Where have you stood up for someone to include them and make them more authentically visible? Where have you stood up for your authentic self, instead of who you thought you should be? 

However, individuals alone cannot be responsible for mitigating exclusion in the underlying structures and systems of our organizations. One of the critical innovations we need in D&I is to develop effective ways to establish inclusive environments that cultivate true belonging without compelling people to settle for ‘fitting’ or requiring individuals to bear the full responsibility for this work. When each of our employees is able to retain and express the unique value he or she brings to our organizations, we open the door to engagement, potential and innovation.

Inclusion and its individual, organizational and societal benefits demand that we innovate to elevate our organizations through systemic changes to cultivate belonging. 

View our complete listing of Diversity & Inclusion blogs.

  • About the Author: Rebekah Steele

    Rebekah Steele

    Rebekah Steele is a senior fellow providing diversity & inclusion (D&I) expertise for The Conference Board. She serves as program director for both the Diversity & Inclusion Executives and…

    Full Bio | More from Rebekah Steele


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