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INCLUSION & BELONGING – UNIQUENESS FALLACY – Print – Issue 214 – AUGUST 2022 | Article of the Week


We naturally gravitate towards sameness and, in less than a second, our brains categorise individuals, influencing our response to them. In addition, our brains are influenced by the messages from wider society about how we should respond to certain groups. We will have been exposed to negative tropes around certain groups which remain firmly in our subconscious and this physiological pull towards sameness exists in all groups, making it challenging for all of us to truly embrace diversity. It also makes it difficult for some individuals from minority groups to possess a real sense of belonging. What this can mean for some non-dominant groups in organisations is that they very quickly pick up the messages around what aspects of their identity – and importantly, what behaviours they need to exhibit – in order to be welcomed. In my research, black leaders speak about having to play down their intelligence and change the tone of their voice to become a version of themselves that they believe is acceptable to the majority culture. Hence, the development of diverse similarity as outgroups adapt their behaviours to those of the majority culture.

To address this notion of diverse similarity, there are a number of things that HR can do. First, they need to become aware that it exists, notice whether they are seeing differences in behaviour styles and if their new diverse recruits behave the same as the majority culture. This awareness can come from inside the organisation, but the very nature of the problem means that those inside cannot see it. Furthermore, the minority groups or individuals who are affected by it, may have accepted that this is a normal part of the culture or have learnt that it may be unwise to speak up. Recently, I took some lessons at my local indoor ski centre, where I met Indian and Black African senior leaders in a state of mild panic about their forthcoming ski trips. They were going above and beyond to fit into an expectation of what was expected of leaders in their organisations. The “ski trip” may be represented by the conversations around certain sports or leisure which can also exclude certain groups. The underrepresented leaders do not complain about this – they simply request that the interest is reciprocated. Many would like at least a recognition that their lives might be different and ideally a genuine curiosity about who they are, recognise that they might lead a life outside work that is different. This needs to be approached in a way that accepts that their pastimes, interests and perspectives are of equal worth. HR can play a role in ensuring there are more inclusive social activities and encourage behaviours that promote greater curiosity amongst colleagues.

Second, HR can encourage their organisations to recognise that being the acceptable face of diversity or difference in an organisation is often hard work for minority employees. Leaders from some underrepresented groups talk about the energy it takes to fight against the negative stereotypes and tropes that the majority culture relate to about them. The trope of the angry black woman is one that is often spoken about, with reports of being accused of being aggressive, angry or labelled as ‘difficult’ if they dare to exhibit even the slightest amount of assertive behaviour. They know that their colleagues do not intentionally set out to limit their range of behavioural options, but they wish their colleagues had a greater awareness about how they are influenced by the multitude of negative stereotypes and tropes. Again, HR can play a leading role in ensuring there is organisational education on how the tropes emerged, why they are prevalent and why they take place.

HR can foster a culture of belonging through recognising and challenging “jolt” moments – those incidents at work where certain comments or behaviours reminded them that they were not accepted by the majority culture. Such incidents can cause deep and often irreparable harm. For example, a senior leader told me how he was the subject of regular comments, because the car he drove was associated with drug dealers and another how she become tired of being called “the Malteser” in the pack. However, reminders were often more subtle than this, being left out of social events or being ignored in meetings. Research shows that, over time, such incidents can cause long term harm to the physical and mental health of minority groups. Individuals may not confront colleagues on such negative behaviours if they sense that the organisational culture is not open to challenge on such issues. Raising issues draws attention to difference and it is much easier to stay silent, fit in and behave like the majority and so diverse similarity is maintained through a process of silencing. Through recognising the “jolt”, HR can provide the individual with the required support and the organisation with the necessary education. By encouraging diverse similarity, organisations are failing to allow those they have recruited for diversity to truly express themselves. Worst still, there is undoubtedly a huge pool of untapped talent that is not being recruited, on account of not fitting the notion of how an individual recruited for diversity should be. Here too, HR plays a critical role in preventing, recognising and changing practices that encourage diverse similarity.

REFERENCES Gino, F., & Coffman, K. (2021). Unconscious Bias Training That Works Increasing awareness isn’t enough. Teach people to manage their biases, change their behavior and track their progress. Harvard Business Review, 99(5), 114-+.

Molenberghs, P. (2013). The neuroscience of in-group bias. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 37(8), 1530-1536.

Dr Barbara Banda is the author of The model black, how black British leaders succeed in Organisations and why it matters Published by Routledge


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