Getting diversity and inclusion right is an organisational imperative

Getting diversity and inclusion right is an organisational imperative


Canberra’s National Arboretum grew from the ashes of a pine plantation destroyed in the fires of 2003. Its vision was for forests of trees of international significance, outstanding beauty, community amenity and scientific value. Australian eucalypts, white cedars and Wollemi pines were planted alongside exotics such as Persian silks, Japanese dogwoods and Chinese magnolias. But 10 per cent failed to survive because the soil, climate and environmental conditions could not sustain them.

Contemporary organisations face similar problems. The business case for diversity is understood, the vision articulated, and recruitment strategies implemented. Frequently, however, the value of diversity is not realised because too little attention is paid to cultivating the culture and conditions that enable people from different demographic backgrounds to thrive and achieve their potential.

For 25 years I have worked as a diversity and inclusion practitioner, witnessing glacial change. I am delighted to see increased awareness in and commitment to celebrating diversity and cultivating inclusion. From gender-balanced panels to flexible workplaces and marriage equality, the winds of change are blowing.

For good reason! The evidence is compelling: organisations that leverage diversity are more innovative, creative and achieve better results. They are more able to find solutions to complex problems, implement decisions quicker (even if it takes slightly longer to make them) and better meet the needs of stakeholders and customers. One study found that when teams have one member of the demographic market they serve they are 158 per cent more likely to understand that target market.[1]

Most people see the intrinsic value of working in an inclusive workplace. They report feeling safe to speak up, participate and contribute. They enjoy coming to work knowing they are valued and respected, with equal opportunity to achieve their career aspirations.

But women are still significantly under-represented in leadership roles, particularly in the private sector. Among ASX 200 companies, women hold 30 per cent of key management roles, 25 per cent of directorships and just 14 per cent of chair positions.

And other forms of cultural diversity at the most senior levels is strikingly rare. Why?

Entrenched organisational norms can act as barriers to inclusion

Cultivating inclusive workplaces requires overwriting ingrained beliefs about ourselves, about each other and about our experiences. These unconscious biases are informed, perpetuated and reinforced through norms, be they social, cultural, organisational or gendered. And these norms are embedded in systems, practices and structures that reward certain behaviours, people and outcomes.

By impacting how we relate to people ‘like us’ and people ‘not like us’, these norms act as a barrier to anyone who does not conform to ‘how we do things around here’. Often it is women and people from cultural minorities who are excluded.

Most of us have a significant blind spot when it comes to diversity. We interpret behaviour and people through an egocentric lens. We understand little about the experiences of people who are different to us, so we often make assumptions and rely on stereotypes about their capabilities.

And we feel awkward around people who present differently, who come from a different background, who have rituals we do not understand or who do not speak our language. We are concerned we might give offence, or say the wrong thing, or cause ‘them’ to feel uncomfortable, or make ‘them’ feel different (they already know they are!). So we say nothing, assume everything and expect ‘them’ to fit in, to speak up and to work it out.

And when ‘they’ do not, or cannot, we convince ourselves it is because they were just not up to it, are not good enough or just do not ‘fit’. So despite our best intentions, we reinforce an insider/outsider dynamic, which rewards people for conformity, perpetuates the status quo and leaves ‘outsiders’ feeling devalued.

Many organisations benefit from an inclusivity review, which evaluates whether all employees can contribute, participate and progress to their full potential, and whether everyone feels equally valued, supported and respected. Like an ultraviolet light, the review illuminates organisational blind spots, unconscious biases and barriers to the full and equal participation of all individuals and groups. It then targets strategies that will ameliorate the bias.

In one recent review, an executive told me: “Our Indigenous staff carry the racism they experienced when growing up. … If there are unconscious biases on this side, there’s a lack of self-worth on that side. … We process that as people not performing, but we make the price of failure too high.”

Typically workplace norms, processes and structures support 80 per cent of the people 80 per cent of the time. But they must be adapted to leverage 100 per cent of our creative potential and to accommodate diverse people.

Unless organisations build a culture to sustain people with different needs, interests and aspirations, those people will fail or leave.

Simple strategies for cultivating inclusion can make a material difference

An inclusive workplace relies on meeting two interdependent criteria:

Support and respect. Do all employees feel equally valued, supported and respected? That is, do all employees feel:

  • valued for who they are, not just for what they do?
  • connected to the group?
  • safe and confident to speak up and contribute?
  • inspired to do their best work?

Equity of opportunity. Do all employees have equal opportunity to participate, contribute and progress? That is, are all employees:

  • paid equitably for their contribution?
  • allocated work and opportunities equally?
  • provided with equal access to development and career opportunities?
  • evaluated against consistent and equitable performance criteria?

Cultivating inclusion requires balancing expediency with contribution and consultation. It requires balancing the need for team cohesion with respect for diversity of perspective. It requires appreciating, acknowledging and valuing difference.

There are three steps that are vital to cultivating inclusion:

  1. Understand our own biases. Awareness precedes action, so the first step is building awareness about how bias manifests – in our minds, actions, behaviours and workplace cultures – and its impact on different individuals and groups. Once people see, understand and accept, they can act. Cultural inclusion reviews are a powerful first step in illuminating unconscious bias and identifying strategies to ameliorate it.
  2. Make leaders accountable. Unless we include, we unintentionally exclude. Organisational leaders are the co-creators and keepers of culture. What they do, say, recognise, reward and prioritise must consistently demonstrate accountability for diversity and inclusion.
  3. Systematise the solution. Organisational systems, processes and structures must align with organisational commitments in order to accommodate people with divergent needs, aspirations and interests. These systems must be agile, accessible and transparent. They must support everyone to achieve their potential.

Being inclusive requires us to remember that who we are is more important than what we do. Familiarity feels good, but in an echo chamber, things cannot change. Routines are efficient for static problems, but not for the complex problems faced by organisations, communities and our nation.

Just as organisational strategies need to respond to rapid change, workplace cultures must be agile to leverage the talent of a diverse workforce.

Inclusion is not just a nice thing to do. It is a critical imperative for organisations to survive and thrive. Just look at the trees.

Get in touch to discuss how we can help your organisation improve its diversity and inclusion.

Written by Deb May during her time as a Nous Principal.

[1] Center for Talent Innovation, “Innovation, Diversity and Market Growth“, 2013