Productivity and wellbeing
September 25, 2017
A thinking environment creates inclusion
September 27, 2017

A culture of inclusion

[hhab-author] [hhab-social]

One Does your manager make you feel part of the team? Do they also recognise and value your unique contribution? In other words, do you work in a company with an inclusive culture?


As part of the research for our forthcoming book Brain-savvy Wo+men we spoke to leaders of companies, as well as HR directors, heads of diversity and inclusion and senior women who have made their way in companies that are trying to improve the gender balance. We also carried out a survey asking men and women about their experience in the workplace. What we wanted to understand was what makes the biggest difference in moving to a more gender diverse workplace. We used our Success Profile methodology which helps to identify the difference that makes a difference. The full results and the model which we created will be shared in our book Brain-savvy Wo+men which is due to be published in September but we wanted to share with you a little of what we found on Inclusion given it is such a hot topic in business right now.

Many companies are focused on helping leaders to be more inclusive in their behaviours but we believe the difference that makes a difference is to create a culture which is not just inclusive but where everyone feels they belong. Our research suggests that creating a workplace that is good for everyone is more powerful than a focus on making one group, or even multiple targeted groups, feel included. And there is evidence that a focus on including specific groups can create a backlash.

Companies tend to link inclusion to diversity but this may be a mistake, research by Valarie Purdie-Vaughns, from Yale found in 2008 that focusing on difference makes minorities uncomfortable, increasing rather than decreasing feelings of inclusion and inciting anger. Whilst people in the majority can feel resentful, confused and anxious, particularly if they are blamed, explicitly or implicitly, for a lack of inclusive behaviour and when expectations about the “correct” behaviour are unclear, according to research by Victoria Plaut from Berkeley.

When we look at inclusion through the lens of evolutionary neuroscience the findings are that inclusion is important to everyone. We’re shaped by our social interactions which are processed in a particular area of the prefrontal cortex, the medial prefrontal cortex. We need our group connections in order to survive, and these connections motivate us to work together and develop rewarding social interactions. Studies by Naomi Eisenburger at UCLA found being excluded activates our pain system, suggesting that it is a threat to our very survival. When we’re excluded from a meeting, when we don’t get the promotion… the pain we feel is experienced in the same areas of the brain as physical pain. (The research scanned people playing an electronic ball game with two others; when they were excluded from the game – the ball was no longer thrown to them – their brain networks for physical pain were activated.)  The pain of rejection or humiliation is just as real as a stubbed toe. Whilst social pain may “feel” different (just as the pain of a stubbed toe feels different to stomach cramps), the networks processing it in the brain are the same. And taking a conventional painkiller like Panadol or aspirin, actually relieves the pain of social rejection. Lieberman who did the research with Eisenburger maintains that the existence of this tangible social pain is evidence that evolution has treated social connection as a necessity, not a luxury.

And in an organisation, we can expect being excluded to impact performance, intelligence, social control, self-awareness and wellbeing according to Roy Baumeister et al in studies between 2002 and 2005, as well as leading people to give less help to each other, to be lethargic and to have less self-esteem.

A study by Catalyst the membership group working to help companies be more inclusive surveyed 1,512 employees from some 250 organisations in six different countries (Australia, China, Germany, India, Mexico, and the United States). They found that employees in these countries who rated themselves as included in their organisation were also more likely to identify opportunities for new products and processes, try out new ideas and approaches to problems, be more likely to offer help to workmates, and cover for absent colleagues.

A culture of inclusion which ensures everyone feels like they belong has benefits for everyone.

What defines inclusion?

Catalyst, also wanted to understand what people meant when they said they feel included. Their research found inclusion is a balance between having a sense of belonging and feeling unique.

Belonging means people feel similar to colleagues and recognised for their distinct qualities and uniqueness. Together, these perceptions were strong predictors of a sense of inclusion. Belonging is the fundamental drive to form and maintain lasting, positive, relationships with other people, what is often termed in the science literature as social inclusion. These feelings can be extended to the organisation and to the work itself.

Getting the balance right

Getting this balance right is key. When people feel too much as though their identity has been lost in the group, they try to set themselves apart, to feel unique. When they feel too different from group members, they feel as if they don’t belong and may try to minimise their distinctiveness in order to assimilate.

In the Catalyst study, “uniqueness” accounted for 18%-24% of an employee’s feeling of inclusion, while “belongingness” accounted for 27%-35%. These findings may seem counterintuitive, but they’ve been found in other studies: we seem to have these two apparently contradictory needs for togetherness and individuality in group settings, and they are virtually universal. In five out of the six countries employees felt included when they perceived, simultaneously, they were both alike and distinct from their colleagues.

It’s as though a true sense of inclusion requires being part of the team, and bringing the best of yourself to the collaboration, depends on being able to also have your own identity: being accepted for who you are.

The only difference in the research by catalyst was in India, where uniqueness and inclusion seemed to be viewed as interchangeable rather than distinct concepts. This may be because the definitions are not articulated in the national culture or the language. The study authors suggest people in India see uniqueness and inclusion as two sides of the same coin and both are indicators of inclusion.

These findings indicate that organisations and their leaders, must value   both the diversity of talents, experiences and identities that employees bring, and at the same time create a sense of belonging. Focusing too much on diversity, having people purposefully challenge the group’s ideas for example, could lead employees to feel alienated or stereotyped. Focusing primarily on belonging can leave employees reluctant to share views and ideas that might set them apart, increasing the likelihood of group-think.

According to research by Jolanda Jetten and Matthew Hornsey at the University of Queensland in Australia groups that see uniqueness as an essential norm accommodate both belonging and difference in the very definition of group membership. The group norms value uniqueness and its demonstration is a ticket to the in-group. These type of group norms also enable organisations to integrate individuals whilst benefiting from a diversity of talents, experience and ideas.

Truly Inclusive cultures have an interesting mix of helping people to belong and be part of the group to be identified as in the in-group, and encouraging people to feel they are individual and valuing their own unique qualities and that these are recognised and utilised: being embraced for who they are and what they bring which is individual, even unique, yet identifying as part of the group. Like when you’re the only one dissenting on an idea but people listen anyway. Or your style is different and people love working with you. Or you bring new experience that boosts team performance because they have never before thought of approaching a problem in that way.


This article is from our forthcoming book Brain-savvy Wo+man. Look out for more in the next couple of months. The next article will focus on how to create inclusion and belonging. We will also be running webinars and events. Please contact me if you are interested in attending.


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