Good-faith attempts to champion diversity often backfire for a pretty intuitive reason: The more an organization points out the differences among employees–even in order to celebrate them–the more likely it is that some employees will feel less included, and behave accordingly. The fact is, our brains have been fine-tuned over eons to become amazingly efficient at noticing differences. It’s not just gender or ethnicity, either. Out-groups form even when people are asked to wear red or blue T-shirts.
Couple that sensitivity to difference with the human need for fairness, and you may also get dominant groups feeling neglected. Such is the argument some white men in Silicon Valley are making–that diversity efforts amount to discrimination. Indeed, when we asked over 200 diversity and inclusion (D&I) professionals at a recent event about their biggest worry over the next five years, the top answer was backlash against their efforts.
Diversity makes inclusion harder; it’s easy to welcome different perspectives when the people sharing them are all mostly the same age, gender, went to the same schools, and crack the same jokes. But when people of truly diverse backgrounds are thrust together, it gets a lot harder. The real challenge, when it comes to building work cultures that are both diverse and inclusive, is to leave ample room for difference while still thinking like–and identifying as– one big in-group.
Diversity efforts don’t always account for the long-established psychological tendency toward “out-grouping” and its frequently unproductive consequences.
A 2015 review in Social and Personality Psychology Compass found that efforts to celebrate differences can lead non-dominant members feeling uncomfortably aware of their group identities. What’s more, that can also leave them feeling like positive group attributes are being imposed on them, leading to a sense that they’re actually being miscategorized or “just don’t fit.” In experiments conducted in both simulated and actual work environments, some multicultural efforts led to perceptions of exclusion in dominant-group members. The important exception: if inclusion efforts were framed as benefitting and addressing everybody, resistance was reduced.
In other words, organizations may want to consider flipping the way they think about inclusivity. In our research covering 42 of our client organizations across seven countries, just 43% of D&I programs described by interviewees were universally offered to everyone, and just 19% of companies intentionally included white males in conversations about diversity and inclusion. That’s a mistake. Rather than focusing just or mainly on giving diverse team members extra visibility that risks fracturing the overall team, leadership and staff should strive to unite people. They should highlight similarities and remind team members that there is no “us” versus “them”–only one big “us,” no matter what our differences might be.
This isn’t just semantics, and it’s not about minimizing diversity. It’s emphasizing universally inclusive practices, like parental leave offered regardless of gender or sexual orientation. Same goes with flexible work arrangements, which serve people in many different ways when they’re made available to everyone: They can reduce headaches for parents, caregivers, those with mobility challenges, and mega-commuters alike. These “for-everyone” policies don’t efface differences, they support them.
Mitigating The Risks, Amplifying The Benefits
Inclusive programs, framed in ways that promote an organization’s values and benefit everyone, can be considered “superordinate goals” that unify people across group divisions. These goals are higher-order missions shared by multiple people, with rewards bestowed on everyone involved. (Science fiction frequently employs a big, scary superordinate goal as a narrative device: the aliens come to earth, and humanity suddenly gets along.) Superordinate goals support inclusion efforts because they get people thinking in terms of others’ skills and value–not their appearance, beliefs, or status.
We’re not saying that all employee resource groups should be banned, or that programs that benefit a single group should be done away with. There are times when institutional asymmetry–much like structural inequality in the broader society–has to be addressed head-on. When people are being paid less based on gender, when a certain demographic is being hired in paltry numbers, and when promotions only go to those who fit a certain mold, there’s no substitute for direct action.
Nevertheless, we counsel our clients to understand the detrimental side effects that may follow those same, totally necessary actions. Every leader needs to be able to make important trade-offs, but charging ahead with difference-focused initiatives without understanding the risks involved won’t help an organization move in the right direction.
As we’ve studied organizations that are relatively more mature in their D&I efforts than others, one thing we’ve found is that difference-focused initiatives are more necessary in less mature cultures–the ones featuring large disparities between those in dominant and non-dominant groups. But the more diverse and inclusive a culture becomes, the more those gaps fade; before long, there aren’t seriously underrepresented groups in the organization anymore. And whenever other disparities are uncovered, they can be addressed in more targeted ways.
If you can create one large in-group, you can mitigate the risk of stereotyping and other biases. Everybody feels like they’re on the same team. And crucially, diversity and inclusion can truly reinforce one another.
Khalil Smith and David Rock are, respectively, the head of diversity and inclusion and the director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, where scientists and executives solve organizational problems.