Embracing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Leadership

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    I continue to work on numerous projects that inspire me to think about how we, as leaders, can get better at leading, which is ostensibly what we are paid to do. These projects also make extremely clear to me all the great work HR leaders, along with business leaders, are putting in place to transform their organizations to drive better decision making, achieve breakthrough performance, and establish empowering cultures. This is true on so many levels, and on so many different performance dimensions, but certainly resonating with me now when it comes to diversity and inclusion. This area, for a number of reasons, and rightly so, has become a paramount concern for leaders seeking to position their enterprise for success. This may not surprise. But what may indeed push us out of our comfort zone is the notion I am hearing and witnessing from more and more progressive HR leaders that we must move beyond simplistic notions of diversity qua “expanded difference” and embrace profoundly inclusive behaviors, something that feels infinitely more difficult.

    One reason D&I is central right now has to do with the emerging Talent Era into which we are all moving (keep your eyes peeled for a post on this issue from me later). Simply put, we are seeing increased competition for talent. Partly due to demographic shifts, partly due to the increasing cognitive sophistication of work, companies are finding it especially difficult to attract and retain the talent they need to succeed.

    Demographically, of course, we know that the world itself is becoming intensely diverse, as this data from the Population Research Bureau show. Simply put, in markets around the globe population is diversifying, resulting in a dramatically rich and culturally dynamic context. This remarkable shift plays out on the national level as well, as individual markets become more and more diverse too. So it’s not just that population is growing in non-western societies. The intriguing change is the growing talent mobility resulting in increasingly multi-cultural national societies on every continent. In the United States alone, we are seeing some wonderful diversification occurring that will have, and already is having, a positive impact on the economy and the national culture.

    Obviously, then, there are many reasons to be focused on diversity per se at this point in time. Demography is but one. My conversations are making it clear, though, that what is truly driving the interest in D&I is the cognitive sophistication of work. Simply put, work is more and more dependent upon the cognitive strengths of talent. And given the increasingly new and unfamiliar situations companies face in their operating environments, more business leaders are telling me that engaging the cognitive benefits of diversity in decision making is the more powerful benefit from a focus on D&I.

    In other words, diversity is important not just morally, or demographically, in order to truly reflect the world in which we live. It’s imperative in order to best engage with an increasingly difficult operating context. Why? — Because in a world with increasingly interdependent workflows and growing complexity requiring significantly cognitively difficult contributions, those companies that successfully tap into the varied and different perspectives of a truly diverse workforce are more likely to come up with better answers.

    But here is where it gets difficult. My clients tell me that in order to succeed, organizations must move beyond the Big Six focus on demographic diversity and adopt truly inclusive leadership behaviors and processes that will ensure leaders actually tap into the powerful perspectives a truly diverse workforce can provide. It means progressive companies are making a rather significant transformation.

    I’ve tried to capture this shift in this rather ugly powerpoint slide. I hope to have it dramatically improved through collaboration with a design team shortly, but there’s no reason to not share it right now. The transformation, as described by HR and business leaders in recent conversations, essentially pushes companies from “reactive, discrete D&I tactics” that drive demographic diversity toward more integrated, enterprise-level D&I strategies that push inclusive leadership behaviors and initiatives to the line, where inclusion becomes a part of business activities and processes supported and empowered at every level of the organization and is tied to business results.

    Now, its early days yet, and I doubt any leader I’ve spoken with recently would say they’ve solved the transformation. But we can see the contours of the transformation taking shape. Progressive leaders are putting in place three big steps to dramatically drive real inclusion rather than simply “tick boxes” on HR-driven D&I activities. These leaders are embracing the idea of transforming the diversity mindset, expanding personal accountability for inclusive behaviors, and building the inclusive environment.

    Transforming the diversity mindset means welcoming difference, enabling fair decision making, and bringing people in. In this first step, leaders are redefining diversity to ensure people embrace real difference, and acknowledge it, rather than pretend to not notice that we are all in fact different. The Mind Gym, a UK-based learning consultancy calls this recognizing that “I am different like you” not “different from you”. The goal here is to make people truly positively curious about difference so they become comfortable with it. Ultimately, this will allow leaders to then design processes that will pull people with different perspectives into decision making and actively “bring them in” to newly constituted “in-groups”. And of course actively manage “out groups” down in size. The key here in the mindset shift is to emphasize “fairness”. We all instinctively want fairness — and the leader’s job is to enable the mindset of fairness across our business. In case you doubt this inherent drive for fairness, just ponder what we are learning from Capuchin monkeys, and enjoy this delightful video:

    Of course, with this new mindset in place, it’s incumbent upon leaders to continue the transformation. Leaders must expand personal accountability for inclusion and that means stretching individuals and their ability to proactively include. You see, something interesting happens during D&I initiatives. Once someone experiences diversity training, they adopt a moral license which they feel allows them to be exclusive. It’s odd, but once we feel we “know” something others don’t, we backslide in our own behavior. In this case, we exhibit precisely those behaviors we were taught to avoid. So the challenge for organizations and leaders is to seize momentum and build toward expanded personal accountability among those whose mindset has been shifted toward inclusive behaviors. I am hearing in more and more discussions with leaders that this means enabling individuals to model inclusive behaviors, helping them to pause to include diverse perspectives in redesigned business processes, and allowing people to call out non-inclusive behaviors as a “quality challenge”. Think of it as those practices put in place by TQM manufacturing companies who empowered people on the line to pull a lever and stop a production line when quality was in question. Same thing applies here. To expand personal accountability, leaders are telling me they are empowering individuals to see inclusion as a quality issue in more and more cognitively sophisticated work processes, and to call a halt to decisions if they feel incompletely inclusive.

    What this means is that progressive companies are working to put in place “leaderless inclusive environments” and pushing D&I to the line — that’s the third step of the transformation. It requires that HR become less the focus of D&I and inclusion becomes the responsibility for business behaviors led by people at all levels. It means we all pivot to call out exclusionary behaviors when they occur and do so in a gentle but intentional manner that makes it clear that a mistake was made and we will correct it. Now this does not mean that senior level people are not involved. Companies are describing to me processes they are putting in place for “board level inclusion nudges” to occur — minor and gentle interventions by the Board and executive leadership to model inclusive behaviors such as proactive steps and tactics the Board and senior leaders use to ensure they are inclusive. The broader point here is that D&I ceases to be an HR initiative and in fact becomes a part of the enterprise’s DNA. Diversity and Inclusion becomes the essence of how the enterprise behaves, and it’s why leaders describe the shift to me as a move from “unconscious bias toward unconscious inclusion”.

    It’s a big shift, and as I said, I think the leaders I chat with would humbly say they have a ways to go. But I hope this diagram illustrates the commitment they have made to ensuring that D&I becomes an enterprise strength, an immutable element of who they are, rather than an initiative managed from the corporate center. So as you ponder preparing your company for success in a new talent era, be sure to ask yourself, “How can we drive hard at moving toward unconscious inclusion?”

    I would love to hear your thoughts on this great transformation.


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    John Roberts
    John Roberts
    John Roberts is a distinguished Learning and Organizational Development Professional with a robust career dedicated to transforming businesses through strategic insights and innovative learning products. With over 5,406 followers, John is a recognized authority in HR technology integration and talent management. As an Advisory Board Member at ACTO, he leverages over half a decade of experience to guide companies through HR technology complexities. His tenure as Vice President of Intelligence at Alium and roles at CEB and Mercer have honed his expertise in digital transformation, manufacturing process improvement, and strategic marketing communications. John has consistently delivered top and bottom-line results across various subscription-based companies, serving C-suite executives and their teams. He founded the Philomathia Group to design world-class learning experiences for C-Suite leaders and expanded his influence at ProQuest as Vice President. Academically, John holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Political Science from the University of Chicago and degrees in International Relations and Finance from the University of Florida. He actively contributes to education through board roles and workshops, and his publications, like 'Building a Productive Learning Culture,' showcase his expertise in fostering learning cultures and integrated talent management strategies. Certified in Gallup Strengths Coaching, John excels in executive coaching and leadership development.