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One of us: Inclusion is the solution in an ever more diverse world

If you’re faking it to fit in at work you’re not alone. A 2013 report commissioned by the Deloitte University Leadership Center for Inclusion discovered that 61 per cent of employees think they have to cover up part of themselves to blend in. This isn’t unique to minority groups: 45 per cent of white, heterosexual men are at it too.

D&I initiatives designed to attract diverse employees won’t make a jot of difference to performance if those people don’t feel like they belong.

From the African American manager who feels obliged to straighten her naturally curly hair, to the homosexual employee who never brings a plus-one, to the working mother who avoids mentioning her children; all sorts of people cover up parts of themselves in all sorts of ways.

When people cover like this, their performance drops. Because they waste mental energy on trying to fit in, they’re more likely to quit and their wellbeing suffers too. Research shows that being socially excluded is the only psychological experience that activates the same part of the brain as physical pain; it hurts us. No wonder that workplace ostracism predicts a drop in turnover over three years (in contrast to outright harassment, which is obviously damaging but doesn’t predict a blow to the bottom line).

Traditional diversity training, which posits to lessen discrimination based on the ‘big six’ differences (race, religion, gender, age, disability and sexuality), barely scratches the surface. We don’t exclude people on the basis of demographics; we do so based on how different they are ‘from me’.

Our ancestors learnt early on that similar creatures are safest – in prehistoric times difference meant threat. Society may have moved on but our primitive brains haven’t; we’re still quick to spot and react to differences, and gravitate towards similar people. And the spectrum of similarity and difference runs way beyond those big six.

From appearances to accents, politics to personal interests, education to energy – we differ in infinite ways. Our preference for similarity means we automatically and inadvertently exclude people who aren’t ‘like us’ on any of these dimensions.

Even straight white men who (ironically) have been left out of the corporate inclusion agenda can feel excluded if they don’t share the same interests as their colleagues. Take the teetotaller who was “loudly ribbed” for not drinking alcohol on a team outing and now declines invitations, at risk to his relationships: “people think I’m standoffish”. Doing business on the golf course more often than in the boardroom may seem like a tired cliché, but in reality is not far off.

As organisations deliver on their diversity commitments, the problem will only intensify. Greater differences between colleagues mean more opportunities for people to feel excluded. So what’s the answer?

“Unconscious bias training” makes seductive-sounding promises about rewiring inbuilt bias, but extensive research suggests that it has limited impact. Quick-fix team building events pay lip service to integration but more often than not leave people feeling less at ease.

To fuel the benefits diversity can bring, business leaders need to foster an inclusive culture where different people can all say “I belong”. People need to welcome and value all types of difference: shifting from “I’m different from you” to “I’m different like you”.

It’s easy to get along when we have something in common, but inclusion involves making the effort to know people who aren’t as similar – without steering the conversation to what makes them different. By embracing differences without calling undue attention to them, we make it safer for people to express their true selves.

More difficult still is valuing the differences that turn us off completely. Whether it’s a limp handshake or a specific turn of phrase, certain characteristics take us to a dark place. These are called ‘trigger differences’ and they evoke strong, negative reactions. Looking beyond these trigger differences and getting to know somebody despite their annoying tics is vital in helping people feel like they belong. Often once we get past our initial response we realise that person isn’t so different from us after all.

Valuing difference is the first step to building an inclusive culture. There are two other areas on which to focus in order to reap the benefits diversity brings: challenging inbuilt assumptions that lead to unfair decisions and eliminating the everyday acts of exclusion that damage people’s sense of belonging.

Discover more about overcoming these insidious obstacles to inclusion in Mind Gym’s ebook, “One of us: How to foster inclusion in a diverse workforce”, available to download now.

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