First impressions
April 16, 2018
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May 21, 2018

How to get Inclusion right

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For our book Brain-savvy Wo+man we conducted research with companies about their diversity and inclusion initiatives. Virtually every senior HR person and business leader we spoke to said their priority was to create an inclusive culture. But we wanted to understand how successful ‘lighthouse’ organisations were moving the dial on creating these cultures..


For the research we used our Success Profile methodology which helps to identify the difference that makes a difference, the things which really work. Here we share a little of what we found and some of the neuroscience research which is relevant and backs up the successful activities.

Many companies are focused on helping leaders to be more inclusive in their behaviours but understanding what those behaviours are and getting the right balance is we found the key. Helping leaders to understand the science, reduces resistance to change and provides the ‘why’ to the advice HR professional are giving.

The Success Factors

  1. The basics

Aligning with the business strategy

Everyone will tell you they do this but a few questions reveal that the links are often in the minds of the senior leaders rather than the people in the heart of the organisation.

The best companies could describe in some detail how initiatives helped deliver the business strategy and why they were essential to its successful implementation. So, for example, an Australian consulting firm told us a diverse workforce meant they mirrored their clients, and they could track how the different perspectives brought by women led to better solutions (for the business, and for advising on client issues). Being more inclusive encouraged innovation and agility and reflected how they were advising clients. In short, their diversity and inclusion strategy helped them achieve their business strategy which was all about innovation and agility.

Mirroring the business strategy is also a useful tactic to ensure the programme is embedded. For example, if the business strategy has three years to run so too will the diversity and inclusion strategy and matching review dates keeps the inclusion strategy in the minds of leaders and aligned with the business changes.

Get the definition right

When we asked our research participants to define what they meant by inclusion many struggled to answer. It’s hard to know if you are doing the right thing if you can’ t define what it is you are trying to achieve.

Research by Catalyst across 250 organisations in six different countries (Australia, China, Germany,India, Mexico, and the United States)found inclusion is a balance between having a sense of belonging and feeling unique.

Inclusion means people feel similar to colleagues andrecognised for their distinct qualities. Feeling included, is the fundamental drive to form and maintain lasting, positive, relationships with other people. These feelings can be extended to the organisation and to the work itself.

Getting the balance right

Whenpeoplefeeltoomuch as though their identity has been lost in the group, they try to set themselves apart, to feel unique. They emphasise their differences from the rest of the group and this can set up tensions, competition and even result in exclusion. When people feel too different from other group members, they feel as if they don’t belong and try to minimise their distinctiveness in order to assimilate: to be part of what is termed the in-group. They emphasise similarity rather than difference.

In the Catalyst study, “uniqueness” accounted for 18%-24% ofan employee’sfeelings of inclusion, while “belongingness” accounted for 27%-35%. These findings may seem counterintuitive, but they’ve been found in other studies too: humans have these two apparently contradictory needs for belonging and individuality in group settings, and they are virtually universal.

These findingsindicatethatorganisations and their leaders,must value  both thediversityoftalents,experiencesandidentitiesthat employees bring, and at the same timecreate 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 leaveemployeesreluctanttoshareviewsandideas thatmightsetthemapart,increasingthelikelihood of group-think.

  1. Focus on everyone

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 trying to change the culture for identified groups can create a backlash.

Research by Valarie Purdie-Vaughns, from Yale found 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 implicitly blamed for a lack of inclusive behaviour and when expectations about the “correct” behaviour are unclear, according to research by Victoria Plaut from Berkeley.

In our research, there was still a majority of companies which were focusing on minority groups and this may be one of the reasons we are seeing little progress on inclusion surveys and targets. The recent McKinsey/ research on ‘Women in the workplace 2017’ has found that organisations are making limited progress. They say initiatives have stalled because we have got used to the status quo. Most me believe a leadership team of 10% women is a ‘success’ and many women even see this as acceptable.

  1. Focusing on key influencers

According to our research participants, middle managers make or break a gender initiative. As one senior woman said: “If your manager isn’t aware of and interested in the challenges and the nuances of gender stereotypes, it’s better to move on to another department or company.”

A survey of leading European companies by McKinsey in 2012 suggested that while most CEOs supported moves toward gender parity, only 13% of middle managers agreed with the idea. McKinsey estimate around 70% of middle managers are men; getting them on board is the difference between real progress and platitudes.

The position of these managers in the middle of the hierarchy means that they translate the strategic direction out to their immediate team; the aim of gender parity espoused by a CEO is made real by middle managers changing their daily interactions around gender.

How to engage middle managers

We found that the most progressive organisations engage middle managers in understanding why gender diversity is good for them, not just good for women. Several companies gave managers targets which are part of their performance and reward evaluations, and they skilled up managers (not just senior leaders) to be inclusive, seeing their role as creating the right culture for their whole team.

There was a general belief that quotas did not work. One Australian banker said their focus on targets had backfired, with managers “gaming the numbers and promoting women before they were ready.” They had also experienced men in the organisation reacting to what they perceived as the unfair promotion of women. The bank has now largely dropped the “numbers game” and is instead focusing on culture change and inclusion via middle managers.

As gender advocates, middle managers need training in the subtleties micro-messages. Many of them struggle to even be aware of the signals they give to women that tell them they are valued, or that they don’t belong. They also set the tone for the team and how inclusive it feels; they’re the people who allow (or stop) sexist comments and undermining behaviour like mansplaining and maninterrupting, as well as assigning the high-profile clients and projects.

  1. Work practises

Many companies see the changes that are needed in this area not as a gender initiative but simply as the future of work. The best programmes were looking at the design of jobs, for example by restructuring the work to accommodate people’s needs (rather than the traditional approach of people having to fit in with the job structure).

Make flexible working the norm

The best organisations are trying to make flexible work practices normal: a number told us their policy is that everyone can work flexibly. The default shouldbe flexibility, with an obligation to explain why a job needs to be done at set hours or a set location.

Organisations are also encouraging all employees, men and women, to build their work patterns around their needs, rather than set hours. But despite the flexible work policies, and technology which helps people to work outside of the office, the majority of women believe they still pay a penalty for working in a flexible arrangement. And academic research bears this out.

Research participants told us that you can have the best policies in the world but if your manager doesn’t really agree with them nothing changes, and you will never be able to meet their expectations. And yet there is strong evidence that allowing people control over their work patterns creates greater job satisfaction and loyalty.

Many of our research participants told us that schemes like parental return coaching and other support had made a noticeable difference in helping women navigate a stressful time with multiple demands when their confidence was often at its lowest. Others said there was still a way to go in their organisation and they were rather baffled as to why it was so hard to persuade managers they could work part time or flexibly when technology made it easy.

5.     Understanding behavioural change

The other area which was proving successful in Inclusion was using an understanding of neuroscience and behavioural economics.

The insightful use of neuroscience was directed towards understanding what creates a sense of inclusion and belonging and how stereotypes could be managed. We believe there is a lot more that could be done in this area, especially in designing practice and policy to change or nudge behaviour.

Some companies we talked to were beginning to use the ideas from Iris Bohnet’s book What Works: Gender Equality By Design,which recommends designing work practices to achieve the desired behaviour. Head Heart + Brain has been using the same approach in redesigning performance management and training strategies, and the UK government has used these strategies to improve outcomes in a wide range of areas from health to tax collection.

The power of nudge

By nudge we mean designing practices and policies to influence attitudes and beliefs so that people will be inclined to do the right thing rather than being compelled to comply with a policy.

Given that we’ve been trying to tackle gender inequality directly for around 40 years without notable success it may be time to try a subtler approach based on understanding the brain. Numerous studies have shown that a wide range of factors can be influential, including changes in an individual’s social environment and expectations.

Both unconscious and conscious beliefs about women are influenced by direct contact with people who don’t conform to a stereotype. The woman engineer who’s the best in the team, the collaborative banker, the leader who is both demanding and compassionate. People are also “nudged” by the behaviour of senior leaders: by behaviour which belittles women being reprimanded, and inclusive behaviour being praised. So, for example, the manager who stops aggressive language in a meeting with a wink and a smile to the men is signalling it’s actually OK. But if he’s subsequently passed over for promotion it sends a completely different message to the team.

Subtle encouragement

These practices which signal what is the “right” behaviour encourage individuals to notice and comply with the behaviours which are rewarded in a group. Following the rules of a desirable group is a very strong tendency in human behaviour: it keeps us in the “in-group” and makes us feel part of something beyond ourselves.

Encouraging this kind of socially acceptable behaviour has been very effective in persuading people to use fewer hotel towels, not drop litter and pay their taxes on time. The desired behaviour needs to be unambiguous and consistent. Iris Bohnet suggests that the same kind of persuasiveness could be used to encourage action on gender inequality, making it a component in having a good reputation within the organisation, a measure that’s considered for promotion, or abehaviour that’s publicly rebuked when it’s out of order. It’s an interesting and untapped area for action, and we need to see more work being done here.


Jan Hills is the author of several book including Brain-savvy Wo+manwhich was published on 30thOctober 2017. You can read more on creating an inclusive culture in the book. Her company Head Heart + Brianuses an understanding of neuroscience in leadership development and inclusion.



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