Jun 6, 2024

A simple truth about diversity that holds the secret to sustainable inclusion.

Gain insight into a simple truth that is the key to creating sustainable inclusion

We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.

This excerpt is from Maya Angelou’s poem, “Human Family.”  The poem begins, I note the obvious differences in the human family.  It goes on to highlight these differences throughout, before contrasting them with the famous and uplifting ending, repeated three times.

Companies today are scrutinizing their diversity and inclusion (D&I) efforts and progress more than ever before.  In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and an outpouring this summer of company statements and social media posts, a new era of diversity and inclusion has arrived.  Businesses are taking a closer look at their partners’ practices, job seekers are viewing openings with a discerning eye, and “consumers are doing their research and looking for companies that walk the talk.”[i]  There has never been a greater urgency for businesses to achieve and highlight demonstrable progress.

Despite the increased pressure, most companies are leaning on familiar resources: D&I consultants and employee resource groups (ERGs).  But, are they working?  We’ll introduce a critical missing element that is proven to drive inclusion, but also enhances the effectiveness of these more traditional approaches.

Old Standbys: D&I Consultants and Training Programs

After waves of demand in years past, diversity and inclusion consultants are again the go-to external support for businesses that lack internal D&I resources.  These consultants primarily evaluate a company’s state of diversity, educate leadership on diversity best practices, and hold trainings for employees on unconscious bias and related workplace impediments.  Companies check up on their employees with recurring surveys that capture feedback and suggestions.

Although it has good intentions, this approach may not go far enough.  According to Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev in their article, “Why Diversity Programs Fail,” from Harvard Business Review:

It shouldn’t be surprising that most diversity programs aren’t increasing diversity.  Despite a few new bells and whistles, courtesy of big data, companies are basically doubling down on the same approaches they’ve used since the 1960s – which often make things worse, not better…Firms have long relied on diversity training to reduce bias on the job… Yet laboratory studies show that this type of force-feeding can activate bias rather than stamp it out…Nonetheless, nearly half of midsize companies use it, as do nearly all the Fortune 500.[ii]

Geri Stengel in Forbes echoes this analysis.  She notes that the urgency and gravity of D&I today demands far more than the strategies of years past: “Going back to old normative patterns [i]sn’t going to work.  Diversity program decisions have been based on gut instinct, not proven results.”[iii]

Leaning on Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)

Older than D&I consultants and with a different approach are ERGs – internal employee groups that bring colleagues together over shared characteristics.  This tumultuous year also marks the 50th anniversary of the first corporate ERG – an African-American group founded at Xerox.  It was a response, at the time, to the racial unrest happening across the country.  From there, ERGs evolved to other companies and expanded to shared identities such as Hispanics, veterans, LGBTQIA+, and people with disabilities.

Today, ERGs serve “as a haven of belonging, offering a space for underrepresented employees to find one another, stave off a sense of isolation, and experience a reprieve from the daily aggressions they’ve endured at work.”[iv]  For many employees, there is immense comfort in connecting through an ERG to colleagues who share a key identity difference and therefore a similar experience.

The Lunch Table Analogy

While there are many critical benefits to the members of ERGs, focusing on what makes some employees different is only one side of the inclusion coin.

Consider the typical lunchroom at a school: look across the tables and you’ll see similar students sitting together at each table.  In the corporate world, ERGs act in the same way.  If you’re within a particular table (ERG), then you’re included in that group – but, is that complete inclusion?  Are you not excluded from everyone else, and they also from you?  Wouldn’t complete inclusion involve connecting all the tables?

If complete inclusion involves connecting smaller pieces to a greater whole, then companies must connect the tables.  But, how?

The D&I system has long focused on underscoring employees’ differences in a way that can reduce personal identities to a single characteristic: I’m black and you’re white; I’m a veteran and you’re not a veteran; I identify as LGBTQIA+ and you identify as straight.  This is my group, and that is your group.

It has been nearly an exclusive focus on differences – whittling down people’s identities to the things that separate them from each another.

We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.

How do we connect the tables?  Using similarities – the other side of the same inclusion coin.

An employee in the African-American ERG may not relate to an employee in the LGBTQIA+ ERG – but only when their identities are reduced to these singular characteristics.  Now, expand their identities to include passions, interests, and wider experiences, and they may find they have much in common: a passion for volunteer work, a love for cooking, a shared experience in raising young children.  Because they can relate to each other, they can quickly establish a meaningful connection.

However, companies so far have been reluctant to focus on these similarities.  Erick Mitchell, Head of D&I at Livongo, summed up his frustrations in a recent LinkedIn post:

Maybe it’s just me, but does it feel like each day people are actively and intentionally searching for something further divide us?

Yes, our unique differences as individuals can be powerful in the sense of innovation and business opportunities when leveraged properly. But the core and foundation of who we are as humans lies in the most basic things we all have in common....and believe it or not, there are a lot of them.

Does anybody even remember what those things are anymore? Is there a reset button we can push somewhere?[v]

The Power of Similarities, Personal Connection, and Trust

It doesn’t stop there.  Allow employees to discover their commonalities and they will build the trust, networks, and relationships that are critical to business efficiencies and retention.

The power of these connections is rooted in science.  In 2016, Dr. Hunter Gehlbach of the Harvard School of Ed published research called “Birds of a Similar Feather” through the American Psychological Association.  His work involved a study that revealed personal commonalities to both teachers and their 9th grade students.  Dr. Gehlbach found that when teachers and students learned what they had in common with the other party, they perceived themselves as being more similar.[vi]  He wrote further of the research in this space backing up his conclusion:

Dozens of social psychological studies find that when people believe they share commonalities with others, their relationships improve.  If you favor a certain sports team, musical genre or set of beliefs, it’s likely that you will have more positive relationships with others that share these same preferences.[vii]

The ability for commonalities to engender positive relationships is an example of how familiarity and trust bring out the best in people.  Similarly, after years of research, Google’s famous Project Aristotle study concluded in 2016 that the greatest-performing teams are those that establish psychological safety among team members.[viii]

Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson previously coined the term “psychological safety” and has been studying it for over 20 years.  In 1999, her research paper defined it as, “a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.’’[ix]  In June, she wrote of its direct tie to inclusion:

Inclusion…is more likely to be experienced as real when a workplace is higher in psychological safety because diverse perspectives are more likely to be heard.  Clearly, diverse perspectives cannot be heard if they are not expressed, which is where psychological safety comes in.  More simply, it is difficult to feel a sense of belonging when one feels psychologically unsafe.[x]

The ability for trust to overcome personal differences was also showcased in the acclaimed Heineken experiment, “Worlds Apart.”  This experiment paired employees who (unbeknownst to their partners) had strongly opposed opinions about sensitive topics.[xi]  For instance, a transgender employee was paired with a colleague who had previously shown intolerance toward the transgender community.  Each pair established a personal connection before a video revealed their stark differences.  Following these revelations, every pair in the aired commercial still chose to share a beer, their connection proving stronger than their known differences.

Where employees can first establish familiarity and trust, a foundation of empathy appears that lends new perspective to subsequently learned differences.  This important step sets the context for differences to be celebrated.

Timing is Everything

The protests in the renewed Black Lives Matter movement involved many groups beyond the African-American community.  Today’s leaders now have a chance to mirror in their businesses the type of widespread support that’s happening in the outside world.  Geri Stengel observed in Forbes, “The current environment is showing that diversity and inclusion are important to everyone.  People want society to be fair and just.”[xii]  By allowing employees to build trust across groups, they will be more ready to stand up for each other – to see each other’s problems as their own.

The sad reality is that most leaders are frozen – either not knowing what to do, or afraid to make the wrong move: “The puzzling thing is that whilst companies have delivered their PR messages and statements, following the death of George Floyd, it appears that many are at a loss as to what to do next,”[xiii] according to D&I expert Carmen Morris in Forbes.

While racial unrest has underscored an urgent need for inclusion and community, so too has a COVID-19 environment that continues to distance employees from one another.  With this combined impact, the timing has never been more critical.  Jeff Weiner, Executive Chairman and former CEO of LinkedIn, defines this period as an inflection point that has long-term implications:

The next several years will be marked by the communitization of the enterprise. Largely fueled by the Covid-19 pandemic and material acceleration in remote work, WFH employees will seek…software that enables them to feel seen, heard, and truly connected to their colleagues and supported by their community, i.e., the virtual office as community.[xiv]

The ability for companies to meet this pressing employee need also has dire consequences.  Equity & Inclusion professional Lily Zheng writes in HBR, “Fostering a universal sense of belonging and connection [during COVID-19] is a challenging goal, but those that get it right will see enormous payoffs.  Companies that aren’t able to solve these people-centric challenges – and thus DE&I challenges – won’t survive.”[xv]

Only time will tell, but this transformative period may showcase the companies that did it right, by virtue of those left standing.