Diversity Is Not Inclusion

A recent client of ours was having difficulty creating alignment on a team. The organization had made a point of hiring people from a variety of backgrounds — all of them highly skilled and conscientious — and everyone really wanted to get along. 

But while the team voiced a commitment to alignment, they kept running into sticky issues around how they worked together, and it was the new diverse hires that were almost always seen as the source of the issues. 

Among the old guard there seemed to be a shared sentiment that if only these people could get on board with “how we do things around here” then everything would be fine. 

In other words, the expectation was that the people coming into the organization should adapt to it, rather than for the current staff and leaders to make changes that might accommodate the input and working styles of the new members. 

This attitude may seem reasonable; however, it is based on a false assumption about the nature of diverse teams. 

Diversity efforts, by definition, bring together people who see the world in different ways. This variance in worldviews is why these teams tend to be more creative and generate more robust solutions to business problems. 

Difference generates creativity because it introduces tension, as divergent perspectives bump into each other and force us to look at things in new ways. This cognitive friction is the essence of creativity. The late and great Frank Zappa put it this way: “Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.”

On high-performing teams, tension is welcomed and seen as the generative force it is, but too often we see, as we did with this client, that while diverse team members are at first enthusiastically invited in, their contributions are resisted or even resented once they are part of the team.

In many organizations, and among many leaders, personal identity is seen as something superficial that can and should be set aside in order to promote harmony. The underlying message many workplaces send to new hires is that they are welcome as long as they do things the way they’ve always been done. 

Because most systems are designed by and for white males, this message reads as “come on in, but please behave like a white male.” By the way, if you’ve read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, you might recognize this idea as the subtext of that book. 

But inviting people in isn’t enough. We must also be willing to be changed by them. This is what we mean when we say inclusion. 

Everyone wants to be included. When people are similar inclusion comes somewhat easily. But when team members have different ways of looking at the world, due to personal experience or professional specialty, inclusion must be deliberately practiced — especially by leadership. 

Inclusion happens when we welcome in new team members and also invite them to help us change. When management and current team members are willing to change and create a new kind of organization, they are able to create the kind of inclusive environment that truly harnesses the power of a diverse team.  

This is new territory for most organizations and most leaders. While it may involve a radical rethinking of how things are done — the processes, tools, and the culture of the organization — it doesn’t need to be too disruptive. 

We can start by thinking of difficult conversations as opportunities and necessities, not signs that something is wrong. When we listen to each other and recognize that we are navigating new territory together, solutions emerge and new team norms will take shape. 

The work of Radical Alignment is designed to help people have constructive conversations across differences. We find that people often resist diversity because they feel they’re being told they are doing things the wrong way — and no one likes that. We help create interactions that invite people to give up the right-versus-wrong distinction and really listen to each other so they can co-create systems that work for everyone. 

If you want to increase diversity on your team, then it’s time for you to lean in to these difficult conversations, and by the way our free Team Toolkit can help you get started.

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