Those diverse employees you invited to the party? Make sure they’re asked to dance
  • leadership
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Those diverse employees you invited to the party? Make sure they’re asked to dance

Enlightened leaders these days are concerned with the diversity of their workforce. And that’s as it should be — reams of business and academic research show that organizations are stronger when their employee mix is diverse.

But let’s not underestimate the diversity challenge. As you diversify the profile of your employees, you’ll eventually run up against the deep-seated phenomenon known to social psychologists as cultural exclusion. If cultural inclusion is defined as the extent to which diverse values, norms and ways of living are accepted and respected, cultural exclusion is the extent to which they aren’t.

Numerous studies have examined cultural exclusion in organizations, but one, led by professors at University of Southern California’s business school, points to a particularly intractable aspect of the diversity and inclusion challenge.

In the study,  345 employees at a U.S. manufacturing company were asked to rate, on a one-to-five scale, how much influence they had over decisions and how much access they had to sensitive information regarding organizational goals, new technologies and future business plans.

The researchers found that the more dissimilar employees were from their work group in terms of race and gender, the less they felt included in two key areas: Decision-making influence and information access. In other words, the more diversity you have, the more likely that your workforce will create feelings of exclusion. That’s a sobering thought.

Reasons for exclusion

Why is cultural exclusion so widespread, if not universal? Unfortunately, some people are intentionally biased, and others are unconsciously biased. But beyond these considerations, human beings simply tend to like people they perceive as similar to themselves. That’s a conclusion verified by a large body of behavioral research.

All of this means that organizational cultures have a way of excluding people, particularly people in non-majority groups who find it difficult to fit in.

To help them do so, leaders need to be concerned not only with intentionally creating diversity, but also with intentionally fostering inclusion. Verna Myers, a well-known consultant on diversity and inclusion, draws this distinction between the two concepts: “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.”

A workplace scenario

To understand how the exclusion/inclusion process might play out, let’s look at an employee we’ll call Carla and a boss we’ll call Frank. He’s the head of a large corporate department; she’s the first woman of color he has promoted to middle management. He firmly believes that diversity improves team performance and he’s confident that Carla’s experience, confidence, intelligence and poise will make her a great addition.

But within a few months he starts hearing that Carla isn’t happy. Carla feels her colleagues don’t acknowledge her contributions in group discussions. She doesn’t believe she’s in the loop on company developments. And she wasn’t invited to a recent meeting attended by other middle managers. Carla feels she doesn’t belong.

Frank is dismayed.  He says to himself, “Seems to me Carla and I both did everything right. Why is she feeling so excluded?”

Here’s the problem, to use Verna Myers’s formulation: Frank invited Carla to the party, then expected her – on her own – to get invited to dance. In a perfect world, that would happen regardless of Carla’s race, ethnicity or gender. But as we know, the world isn’t perfect.

Essentially, Frank threw Carla into the pool to sink or swim. Studies have concluded that this approach often fails in such cases because it underestimates two things:

  1. The power of cultural exclusion; and
  2. The correlation between cultural fit and advancement. If the company culture rejects you, you will almost certainly struggle to succeed.

Key insights

To get an idea of how Frank could have successfully handled Carla’s entry into management ranks, let’s go back to the USC study. It provides two key insights to help leaders onboard non-majority employees successfully.

First, it forces us to recognize that leaders must proactively intervene. To build a successful, diverse team we need to ensure that non-majority employees get asked to dance.

Second, it shows us how. Remember the two key areas where non-majority employees felt most excluded – decision-making influence and access to information. These are important because they’re so closely tied to status, which influences decisions on promotion and advancement.

Steps to take

For Frank, making Carla feel included – and thereby increasing the likelihood that she’ll succeed – requires awareness and consistency on his part. Here are some steps he could have taken:

1. Advocated for Carla.

Frank could have made team members aware that he was committed to Carla’s success, and emphasized her experience, intelligence and contributions to the organization.

2. Modeled the way.

During meetings, Frank might have made it a point to have Carla share her thoughts – and then validated them by showing how they’re aligned with the team’s core values. When leaders do this, others emulate the behavior.

3. Sought her input in one-on-one conversations.

He might have asked her opinion on overall strategy and project execution and shared appropriate confidential information with her so she felt more like an insider.

4. Been more vigilant.

Frank could have looked for signs that Carla was falling victim to cultural exclusion. That way he could have taken action to reverse it.

Can a leader guarantee that a non-majority employee will break through inclusion barriers and succeed? Not always. The employee still has to decode the culture, earn the respect of their teammates, and ultimately embrace the culture. But that outcome is much more likely when the boss understands the dynamics of exclusion and takes active measures to promote inclusion.

This blog entry is adapted from the Rapid Learning module “Diversity & Inclusion: Why Good Intentions Aren’t Enough.” If you’re a Rapid Learning customer, you can watch the video here. If you’re not, but would like to see this video (or any of our other programs), request a demo and we’ll get you access.

The blog post and Rapid Learning video module are based in part on the following scholarly articles:

Pelled, L.H., et al. (1999). Demographic Dissimilarity and Workplace Inclusion. Journal of Management Studies, 36:7, December 1999, 1013-1031.

Montoya, R.M., et al. (2008) Is actual similarity necessary for attraction? A meta-analysis of actual and perceived similarity. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 25(6), 889–922.

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