The inclusion illusion trap

by | Jul 22, 2019

Does your company have the inclusion illusion trap?

If companies are working so hard to include everyone, then why do so many workers feel excluded? This is the inclusion illusion trap.

If we ask any leader whether they want everyone in their organisations to feel accepted, respected and recognised, most would say yes. There are sadly still some who don’t care, but most do. Yet as part of my every day professional life, I come across individuals who feel excluded or less included in their place of work, for whatever reason. They are part of the “inclusion illusion” trap.

Inclusion illusion starts because organisations and leaders profess to be inclusive. However, they are not aware of their own blind spots, unconscious biases and less inclusive behaviours. These decisions impact the workplace and its processes on a daily basis. We think that because people are in the same room, or at the same table, that they are equal and should feel equal. But often times they do not.

Inclusion illusion

Is inclusion a choice?

Some businesses suggest that inclusion is a choice. That is only a part of it. Inclusion is a feeling. Organisations can offer all sorts of commitments to diversity and inclusion, but that's not the point. An individual has to “feel” included, valued and respected. I participated in a debriefing meeting with a senior leader and one of his female reports. The gentleman said all the right things and his language selection was on point. But he didn’t make eye contact and checked his phone every 60 seconds. He was right there in the room, but not present. He gave the impression he couldn’t wait to leave. The woman was disappointed and felt let down. She definitely did not feel valued, respected or included. This meeting was supposed to be about her, but wasn’t at all. It was about this man and what he should have been doing somewhere else.

Inclusive workplaces are not about everyone fitting in either. It is more complex, nuanced and challenging. And this is precisely why we resist. It’s hard work. It also takes time and conscious effort. What we tend to do instead is hire a "Mini-Me," or as near to that as possible. Then we expect those people to adapt to fit in. In some organisations, things look good on the surface, but underneath they are not quite not what they seem. Most organisations have a dominant culture - insider privilege and a subculture - sometimes more than one. If you are not part of the in-group, chances are you will feel excluded to some extent.

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Trust is essential

Simon Sinek says “A team is not a group of people who work together. A team is a group of people who trust each other.” On the basis people need to trust each other to build teams, affinity bias plays a key role in the hiring process. Unless you are interviewing in a nail salon, this generally encompasses the values associated with alpha males. I have heard interviewers say about a candidate “he/she is not really an x company type,” without specifying exactly what that means.

Very often candidates adjust their style to gain entry to and then acceptance in a company. This is called “covering” or “assimilation.” To succeed in an organisation this means that the employee has to compromise further. Career opportunities tend to be linked to benchmarks, and standards are set by the dominant group. Sometimes they are even unspoken. This regularly means a willingness to work excessive hours, travel, take on conflict, and “get things done.” As a result it automatically excludes anyone who has responsibilities outside the workplace. It creates a pressure because they can’t conform, so they may be found lacking.

Women are frequently caught in the inclusion illusion trap

We see this every day in the way that women are expected to adapt in the workplace. Told to tweak their verbal delivery, language, clothes, voices and overall style, women are so “leaned in” they are almost on the floor. I am frequently asked at events and training workshops “how can managers develop confidence in their female reports”. My response to them is to suggest creating a working culture where not just women, but everyone, feels comfortable speaking up without fear of judgement. Looking at the body language, it was evident that this was considered to be an unhelpful response. I had shifted the responsibility from the women to the managers.

For many who are not in the dominant group, this means disconnecting or distancing themselves from their own identity group. This leads to unconscious collusive behaviour, which underpins the main culture. Hence, we see the “Queen Bee” or the “Alpha Bitch” who absorb these cultural values, yet they do little to effect change for their female colleagues.

To beat “inclusion illusion“ organisations have to make a firm leadership commitment and pursue systemic change. They have to change the way they do things and invest time and energy. Many focus on a “little bit of training around awareness” and then wonder why the needle doesn’t move.

Unconscious biases can create an uninclusive workplace, usually unintentionally. Fix this with our Unconscious Bias Training Workshops.

Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she joins the dots between organisations, individuals, opportunity and success.
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