Inclusion is the glue: 5 ways to create a holistic diverse and inclusive company

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Christiana Vonofakou
Head of Strategic HR Projects, TE Connectivity
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Corporate recruiters and headhunters spend an exorbitant amount of time and effort to recruit diverse talent. Even when organisations are serious about diversity– as with an ever growing number of companies – it is not enough to merely push for more diversity.

By merely creating diverse teams without appropriate organisational and managerial interventions, companies run the risk of never materialising on the actual benefits of diversity.

The glue that holds diversity together is inclusion; the way to unlock the true potential of diversity is inclusion.

This case for inclusion is based on one of the most influential ideas in social psychology in the 20th Century: The Contact Hypothesis by Gordon Allport.

What is diversity without inclusion?

The benefits of diversity have been well documented. Diversity means variety. While most organisations are focused on increasing gender diversity in their workforce, diversity can take many shapes and forms: gender diversity, ethnicity, educational background, professional experience, personality attributes (introverts versus extroverts), age and generational variety.

What are the benefits of such diversity? Diversity allows for different perspectives and viewpoints. These perspectives fuel creativity and lead to innovation. With a diverse workforce, global organisations can also mirror their increasingly diverse customer base and are better equipped to anticipate and serve customer needs globally. In short, diversity promises a competitive advantage.

So why is it not enough to only focus on diversity? Diverse teams may experience higher levels of conflict. Differences in perspectives may fragment a team and amplify stereotypes. A team’s capacity for idea generation depends on the degree to which members are willing to share information. And when low levels of team identification and initial trust exist due to differences, team members often do not feel safe discussing and sharing ideas.

By merely putting diverse teams together we are likely to suppress the desired results of diversity.

Innovation can occur only when individuals are free from pressure and feel safe to share. By merely putting diverse teams together we are likely to suppress the desired results of diversity. Even worse, our hard-fought diversity recruiting efforts may altogether backfire and create open conflict in teams.

In January this year, it was announced that Mrs Hohmann-Dennhardt was leaving the board of Volkswagen – an otherwise male board – after just one year in the role. There clearly is something more to it then just getting diverse people together in one room. Diversity alone is not the answer.

Many companies today – multinational corporates and startups alike – are already advocating and practicing diversity and inclusion at the same time. And they are right to do so.

The Contact Hypothesis

Why is inclusion the answer to unlocking diversity’s benefits? The answer to that question can be traced back to the Contact Hypothesis. It was put forward by Gordon Allport in the 1950s in the US – at a time of racial segregation. It suggests that contact between members of diverse groups reduces prejudice and leads to better intergroup relations, but only under appropriate conditions.

So diversity is beneficial, yes, but only under appropriate conditions!

What are those allusive conditions that Allport refers to that make contact (diversity) stick? If you examine them closely, they can be summed up in one word: inclusion. Let’s go through the five key conditions, which also offer a practical guide for developing a holistic diversity and inclusion campaign.

1. Organisational encouragement and equal status

Allport stressed that organisational encouragement and equal status is key for contact (for diversity) to be beneficial. Within organisations, communication is thereby the basis.

Clearly communicating the value of diversity and its impact on business performance is important. It is not merely ‘the right thing to do’, it is a cultural prerequisite for businesses today that want to stay competitive in the future.

Specific interventions for equal status and organisational support structures can take many forms: Developing fair recruiting processes with diverse interview slates, ensuring equal pay and opportunities, or recognition programmes for inclusive leaders or teams are some examples.

2. Leadership support

Leadership backing for diversity is essential. A leader exerts powerful social influence on the organisational culture or specific team dynamics. Communication from the top plays a key role here, as does inclusive leadership: walking the walk, talking the talk and being an inclusive role model.

The experience of diversity at work will soften into familiarity, which in turn will foster mutual trust and greater team identification.

Companies are well advised to invest time and effort into outlining and setting behavioral expectations in regards to what it takes to lead and manage truly diverse teams. This may include providing training on self-awareness and management of cognitive biases or on how to encourage debate and exchanging of ideas without judgment or fear of punishment when challenging the status quo.

3. Common goals

Communication and inclusive leadership both tie to Allport’s third condition: Emphasising common goals. As discussed, diversity may at first fragment teams and lead to more conflict. Therefore, it is essential that common goals are stressed – we are all in the same boat!

Inclusive leaders know to emphasise shared objectives and to paint a common vision to allow for harmonious and effective collaboration across diverse teams.

4. Diversity perseverance

Social psychologists have extensively studied diverse team members and examined the ways they can best get their message or perspective across, particularly when challenging the status quo.

Consistency and perseverance act to bring about a change in the views of the majority and are a necessary behavioral style for creativity and ultimately innovation to occur. Therefore, organisations should support and celebrate differences, but also allow for the formation of employee resource groups or mentoring relationships where diverse employees can seek support and network together.

It takes confidence to challenge the status quo. Providing support structures to ensure diverse team members feel at home and listened to are key. Internal women’s networks, young professional networks or LGBT networks are all examples of such employee resource groups.

5. Previous exposure

Over time, the experience of diversity at work will soften into familiarity, which in turn will foster mutual trust and greater team identification – no matter how diverse the team is.

The degree to which employees have prior experience in working within diverse teams will predict how easily and well they will collaborate with one another from the outset.

The case for inclusion based on Allport’s Contact Hyphothesis clearly suggests that companies are well advised to invest simultaneously in both diversity and in inclusion. An inclusive culture marked by strong organisational support structures and clear communication around common goals, visible leadership support and access to employee resource groups is a prerequisite for leveraging the true benefits of diversity in the workforce.

Want to learn more about this topic?

Visit our diversity hub featuring expert articles, interviews and opinion pieces on creating a workplace that brings together individuals from all walks of life.

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