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A better understanding of what leads people to feel included allows organisations to leverage diversity of critical knowledge and skills. However, initiatives targeting protected groups often fail to deliver this desired outcome. Moreover, they can even introduce unintended and counter-productive consequences. This may be because these initiatives fail to focus on ‘deep’ levels of diversity, which are universally relatable and an important issue for everyone.

Charmain Bucho, Senior Manager Racial Equality Lead – City & Guilds
Thom Dennis, CEO – Serenity in Leadership
Emma Cashmore, Diversity, Equity Inclusion Director, International – Meta
Pooja Bhatnagar, Director Strategic Projects & Chief Of Staff – Finastra
Jeremy Sutton, CEO – 3 Minute Mile
Marjorie James, Group Director of People & Culture – YMCA St Pauls Group
Andrea Haug, Group People Experience Director – Sky
Heather Swain, Global Head of Talent, Leadership & Learning – Erm
Zein Messina, Head of Behavioural Insights – Humn
Paul Neville, Positive Change Provocateur / Ned – Absolutely Perhaps.


Andrea Haug: We take an evidence-based approach and it’s helpful to have a framework to think about how people are different and a baseline about how diverse your organisation is and to understand how that diversity changes at different levels within the business.

Pooja Bhatnagar: There can be several lag indicators, but from a lead point of view, I would go one level up – rather than just think about the lag indicators – I would almost go right to the top of what the cultural mindset is and what does that mean for the behaviours and what does that mean down the line for each and every individual irrespective of where they sit in the hierarchy.

Marjorie James: It’s about seeing what information you have on your HRIS and looking at your equality data to gain a picture of what people are happy to reveal about themselves. Then look behind the data and have conversations about what it lacks.

Emma Cashmore: You have to look at the data and cut it in different ways – whether it’s just about representation or experiences – let that tell the story and keep going back with rigour, looking at what that tells you, the trends and the why.

Paul Neville: Mindset, behaviours, and values, set the intention very clearly in terms of expectation and an environment where everyone can contribute their talent, across the whole diverse workforce and promote sustainable performance improvement.

Pooja Bhatnagar: It’s about being realistic that bias exists, being mindful of what that looks like and supporting leaders to understand and role model a more inclusive and unbiased mindset and culture.

Paul Neville: How many organisations genuinely do 360 feedback on their leadership and management around values in action? If we’re serious about making a shift, we need to have the integrity and the candour to enable that.

Jeremy Sutton: Each of us carries a unique set of inherent biases that, left unchallenged, tend to always operate. Executive coaching and development work begins with the goal of elevating strategic self-awareness. Psychometrics involving personality-related preferences, flawed assumptions/limiting beliefs and motivational attributes can offer great insight into the origins of unconscious biases. I believe that these individual differences are some of the deepest indicators of diversity. They not only predict a leader’s likelihood to behave in ways which create psychologically safe environments (i.e., of ‘inclusion’), they can also predict an individual’s tendency to self-inhibit, depriving others of their unique perspectives, insights and potential contributions in misguided efforts to conform.

We can examine personality and motivations from two different, often inconsistent perspectives: Identity and reputation. To help explain this phenomenon to leaders, I encourage them to consider themselves at three distinct layers. Our identity looks from the inside – out; our reputation looks from the outside – in. Fundamentally, we all have a core, or true self. Wrapped around this core, an adapted self develops over the early stages of our lives. Each adapted self has evolved – in accordance with genetic predispositions and environmental triggers – like an adaptive software programme. These programmes help us navigate our day-to-day lives. Most of us are familiar with what we would call our ‘true/core self ’. However, many leaders are unaware of how their adapted self affects their reputation. Behaviours driven by the adapted self may lead to environments which foster psychological safety, openness, and inclusion; or they can seriously hinder the benefits of diversity by creating environments where individual differences are discouraged, perhaps even punished.

Heather Swain: It is human nature to recruit in your own image. It is all too common to hear, “he or she was great, let’s hire them,” coming out of an interview as opposed to the collective outcome. Having diversity-of-thought and challenging our thinking around our gut reactions is a better approach to recruitment. In terms of metrics, how you measure for diversity of thought or other diversity dimensions is difficult.

Thom Dennis: The moment you try and measure something, then you are categorising it and therefore you are being divisive… it’s a paradox. There are a lot of initiatives in recruitment, but once people are in a business there’s little done to help, for instance, the bias that’s brought to the way people are appraised.

Zein Messina: We have to consider perspectives, motivations and agendas. I’ve witnessed people hired for ‘diversity’ reasons and then are excluded because “they don’t think like the group”. We need to really understand the make-up of teams, educate on what each person brings, signpost or set expectations. The mantra “fail and fail fast’ doesn’t work in practice because everyone is afraid to fail.

Paul Neville: I’ve seen blind recruiting work – and appreciate it is not a solution in itself – however, the benefit of it does signal intent on inclusion. But it has to be blind on more than gender and name, it needs to include qualifications and where people went to school.

Charmain Bucho: We risk pushing things onto leaders and managers, without really understanding what they don’t know. They need to have their awareness raised in order to be able to take action. A lot of this is around that whole culture piece and self-awareness.

Emma Cashmore: Through taking intentional actions you start to understand and remove barriers. For example, focusing on ethnicity inclusion in a sponsorship programme, discussions with participants about barriers to progress become more apparent for people and they become advocates for change.

Paul Neville: Reverse mentoring for senior level, gives exposure to some of the groups that they would not normally come in touch with and historically make assumptions around. We really do need to raise the line of sight.


Jeremy Sutton: The factors in bias do not have to be related to any superficial or observable differences. The development of our societies and organisational cultures have allowed bias to become embedded. Maybe there is something about a fear of accountability behind the emergence of bias? But is this just a mechanism to allow scapegoating? We have probably all experienced disingenuous leaders who are more than happy to celebrate differences in appetite for risk or approach, when they lead to success, while punishing those same differences when they are associated with sub-optimal results. Even within the traditional demographics found at the top levels of an organisation, leaders can feel immense pressure to conform for fears of being misinterpreted or labelled as something that they are not. Many may sit uncomfortably in silence, knowing that the opinions they hold, or the rhetoric they are repeating, is not their own.

Zein Messina: A lot of performance management systems are measuring for neurotypical competency framework and then putting people in a nine-box around their potential. But it’s a case of, potential for what?

Marjorie James: What are we measuring, task achievement and results? We need to measure performance that include behavioural competencies, which reflect values and those should reflect inclusivity.

Pooja Bhatnagar: There’s a very old saying, “what is measured is delivered”. So, to make sure we drive diversity, inclusion and equity, it has to be embedded and it has to be measured. This has to top-down with the measurement criteria clearly defined – not just in terms of their numbers and the revenues – but also how they are achieving them.

Marjorie James: A good competency framework gives you that language, to describe what good and not so good looks like. It’s objective and it’s helpful in providing an understanding of what they should be doing and the way they should be behaving.

Jeremy Sutton: Where we’re still measuring tasks, results, execution and ‘quick wins’, in this paradigm, team leaders are likely to think, “inclusion may be ‘nice-to-have’, but it takes time and it’s just not efficient. How can it help me do what I need to do faster or better”? The question is, what are we prepared to give up or indeed, prepared to sacrifice? We must listen to the language we use. By framing the opportunity this way, we were seriously limiting its success. So, how can you switch this mentality amongst organisational leaders?

Paul Neville: Leaders and managers need to understand that their task is to manage the system condition within which people can perform effectively. You have to vary things to address a point of diversity or someone’s life experiences changing, that’s the role of the leader and manager.

Jeremy Sutton: This touches on systemic and institutional aspects of inclusion. Not only are you facing a personal loss but on top of that, there’s ribbing at work, which adds insult to injury. Who’s responsible for that? People who hold power and authority must be accountable. The question is, who will hold them accountable and how?


Pooja Bhatnagar: Can we change “the system”? It depends on how big the elephant is and how much it can be manoeuvred.

Zein Messina: Looking at culture, maybe we need to re-frame that quote, “your culture is what you hold accountable”, to “your culture is how you react in micro moments”.


Andrea Haug: There are many categories and as many intersections and so it is complex. The reality is, categories are necessary, in terms of understanding difference. What we must avoid is concluding everyone within that category expect and want the same things.

Paul Neville: Agreed, intersectionality plays out more in real-time, with individuals in conversations with line managers and/or HR. With groupings sits the danger of stereotyping. We need to truly honour individual and group difference and celebrating them – not just binary gender – but LGBTQ+ and faith.

Marjorie James: Having groups recognises that there are certain people that are at a disadvantage and we needed to address that. The reason why blind recruitment is important is because people of black, minority ethnic backgrounds are still being discriminated, based on their heritage, which is often revealed through their name.

Pooja Bhatnagar: I’m not a huge fan of grouping at all, but experientially, I’ve seen data reveal insight from between categories, which has driven action.

Charmain Bucho: With intersections and grouping, we have to highlight the differences and individual real experience.

Emma Cashmore: What we’re talking about here is nuanced needs, within the same communities. For example, black women often report that they feel like they are “in survival mode”, having to prove themselves over and over again. Meanwhile, white women are in “thriving mode” and having career conversations. We talk about women’s experience at work in general and assume that things are improving for all women.

Jeremy Sutton: I recall reviewing an onboarding module for women about to go on a leadership programme. The programme focused on teaching women the tactics that men commonly use, to take up space in a room and gain the attention of a group. My feeling is, that is the opposite of what we’re trying to achieve with diversity.

Paul Neville: Look across all of the disruptors in any sector – often they have not materially created something – they’ve created choice and personalisation on demand and made access easier.

Zein Messina: If you are rewarding and measuring in a certain way and the leaders have been indoctrinated in that way. It’s that thinking we need to shift.


Emma Cashmore: Can we design a better world which is more fair and inclusive in an increasingly tech-oriented environment? There’s opportunity to improve how we design through systems and there’s some very smart thinking around responsible AI, where inclusive design is being used.

Jeremy Sutton: Robert Hogan talks about charisma versus humility and did some research into the number of jobs that feature the word “charismatic” in leadership job postings. If we consider frequency of mention as a proxy for the desirability of a specific characteristic, ‘Charisma’ beats ‘Humility’ hands down. However, despite this apparent preference for ‘Charisma’, empirical research suggests that the CEOs of companies which show steady and sustained increases in performance, are better characterised by humility. There is a real shift, which is instructive. If you are demonstrating humility, you’re much more likely to welcome diversity.

Emma Cashmore: There is this issue around status and leadership. There are teams where the leader has a mirror image of their own leadership style and they haven’t thought about the bigger, wider world. We have to champion for the learning and listening moments.

Thom Dennis: There’s a very common difficulty that occurs in many organisations when they speak and act from assumption and it comes across as arrogant. “I’m the norm, therefore you are different, therefore you must know what that means.”

Marjorie James: It’s about a move to compassion-focused leadership. I work for a Christian-focused organisation – but I’m not a practicing Christian – and I’m judged by my ability to embrace and reflect our values. If you have compassion and you’re listening, you’re developing insight that can improve decision-making.

Jeremy Sutton: The fallacy sits with anyone who says that “they are the norm”. The norm of what? The norm of you? The reality is, there is nobody exactly like you.

Marjorie James: One of the reasons I like the strengths-based approach is because it honours uniqueness, but fundamentally, it’s how we leverage that.

Emma Cashmore: Development programmes used to be centered around helping groups of people. Now it’s around creating the right content for the right community and building practice.

Charmain Bucho: Is this about everybody feeling included or is it a group of people that do not feel included? We’re seeing a shift in our ES data – it goes up and down – when we focus our attention on one group, the other group feels less included.

Jeremy Sutton: For the person-centric approach, there is no blanket of certainty associated with generalisation. We speak of being privilege blind and, until you have lived in someone’s else’s shoes, you cannot be sure how you would respond in their circumstances. All of us have to understand that, just because somebody is a member of a protected group, does not mean that they have lived through the hardships that others have in this group.

Paul Neville: Agreed and paternalistic management – of not treating people as adults – is under the spotlight – and we need to help hierarchies and decision[1]makers out of the parent/child dynamic in the future world of work.

Thom Dennis: This is about listening and giving people space. It’s why dialogue is so powerful, giving people the space and safety and, the first ground rule is, you can’t say anything unless you can repeat back what the last person said first.

Heather Swain: These are laudable traits that we aspire to – being a compassionate, humble leader, having empathy and listening. My question is, are they human traits? The reality is, we have an in-built evolutionary programme to identify difference as part of a survival instinct, to spot friend or foe.


Zein Messina: We need to ask ourselves, are we matching the leader to the challenge and level of complexity required? Are we matching teams in terms of their ability to handle complexity and systems thinking within design processes?

Thom Dennis: It’s the sense that we’re in the majority and therefore, somehow we’re right. Everybody else has to conform and we have to make all sorts of efforts to help them be acceptable to us. From a power dynamic point of view, the majority holds the power. If we’re in the majority, how could we be humble open and compassionate and listen?

Paul Neville: I recall the Home Office was reluctant about launching an e-learning programme for staff around understanding the impact of Empire on non-whites. The reality is, this is all related to education and we need to have the establishment, politicians and policymakers understand that we need to fundamentally relook at the narrative.

Zein Messina: A primary obstacle is, people with privilege don’t want to lose that privilege, or think of themselves as being villains. We have a growing gap and increasing numbers of working people in poverty, because not enough of the profits are being shared with them. Yet the main focus is on immigrants and their strain on public spending.

Emma Cashmore: There’s a following on TikTok, where young women are looking for husbands and want a traditional lifestyle because they think that it’s unsustainable to continue to expect families and careers.

Jeremy Sutton: Conversely, there is Jordan Peterson who talks about this false evolutionary argument about how women ‘trade-up’ in relationships. Where is this all going? If something doesn’t stop, there is a very real risk to our ability to act with unity. People lose the ability to differentiate good from bad and right from wrong, because of these illusory normative pressures.

Emma Cashmore: It starts with the education of children, opening up mindsets through awareness and greater education of history and the world we live in. I think the biggest obstacle is this need to feel you’re right, and of course fear. We can only move to a better place when we have the ability to listen.

Zein Messina: The more afraid we are, the more we need that certainty. I think fear absolutely drives that.

Paul Neville: Navigating through life requires emotional intelligence – being comfortable with emotional discomfort – holding our counsel and about self-regulation. Who is taught that at school?

Thom Dennis: Everything comes back to education. It’s so fundamental and yet if you educate kids and they go home and it doesn’t fit the parents’ paradigm, then you’re fighting an uphill battle.


Marjorie James: Tolerance is an awful word because it means that you’re ignoring it and, as a result, nothing changes. Black Lives Matters came about because black people have been tolerating the injustices against them for so long.

Paul Neville: I’m a gay man, but I had difficulty in the early days around pronouns. My position has moved on through enlightenment and self-reflection and if we don’t challenge people in that, nothing changes.

Emma Cashmore: We have to be exposed to the lives of others and in the workplace mentoring/reverse mentoring is great and sponsorship has to be the way forward.


Charmain Bucho: Disclosure data tends to be quite low – particularly for colleagues with a disability – you have to promote the benefits of disclosing, otherwise you’re not going to gain anything from it.

Emma Cashmore: There are barriers to inclusion, which we’re all aware of. Some of it is stigma, but it is about trust, psychological safety and the basic thought, “am I going to be treated fairly”?

Zein Messina: I think that people can deal with the tradeoffs when it comes to tangible things, like being disorganised, but find it much more difficult to deal with the emotional dysregulation.

Jeremy Sutton: We want everyone to feel welcome at work and we want everyone to have the opportunity to contribute their best. If this is the aim of these initiatives, then it has to be a person-centric approach.

Marjorie James: If that role requires a huge amount of social interaction in a certain way, then maybe that’s not the best role for them. It’s possible to adjust the role so that you find tasks that work to their strengths.

Thom Dennis: It’s the “normal people” who fear difference and this elemental need that we have to belong and, if someone doesn’t fit, they will be shunned.

Zein Messina: It’s a vicious circle, because we are trained by our brains to pick up difference and so that fear is innate.

Charmain Bucho: The benefits of coaching cannot be underestimated to give agency and ownership and to enable them to ask for reasonable adjustment. When somebody joins an organisation, there’s so much that is new and there is so much change. What might be right for certain individuals might not be right for others, so this requires adaptability. There’s a neat phrase which sums this up: “Equality is giving everybody the same pair of shoes and equity is giving people shoes that actually fit”.

Paul Neville: I would advocate a strength-based approach, to actually look at people on the basis of the individual difference that they bring to the table and helping leaders and managers know how to navigate that and use it effectively.


Emma Cashmore: It’s when you’ve achieved access to opportunity for everyone and where different people are around a table making decisions. Will it happen through dialogue and creating empathy to gain behaviour change? I would like to think so. I feel it may require quotas to move to that position.

Zein Messina: Sometimes you have to install quotas to move the dial, although you run the risk of giving oxygen to the ‘merit’ argument. But it’s this level of ignorance that needs to change.


Andrea Haug: Agreed, DEI cannot only be inward looking, it’s also outward looking in terms of brand, customer, products and services. In terms of metrics that’s where the sweet spot resides.

Marjorie James: My team provides the support and resources for DEI but it’s everyone’s responsibility and that’s made very clear in our policy.

Jeremy Sutton: Success for me would be to see our leaders role model the capacity (and willingness) replace our innate fear of difference (i.e., the unknown) – with genuine curiosity and appreciative inquiry. Don’t pull back from what you do not understand. Move towards these opportunities to learn, with interest and humility. We need a shift in paradigm. By shrugging of our identification, and need to conform with particular sub-groups – humanity, nationality, ethnicity, gender and sexual/gender identity, etc., we can identify as fellow members of humanity. As a human being, you belong here, full stop. You are different from everyone else and can offer something that no one else can. We all understand this and want to learn what only you are able to teach. That’s what success would look like for me.


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