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  • Kirsi Aalto

Bridging the Gap Between Diversity and Inclusion

Accepting and valuing differing views and cognitive styles, adapting to other ways of communicating and generally stepping outside one's comfort zone can help bridge the gap between diversity and inclusion. Needless to say, this can bring its challenges and requires continuous effort.

diversity and inclusion in the workplace

The concepts of diversity, inclusion and equality are becoming more and more widespread in everyday language both within and outside of the business world. In terms of its definition, Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) may be a rather fluid concept, but at its very core it is about empowering, respecting and appreciating individual differences. However, it is important to note that diversity and inclusion are not interchangeable as concepts. Diversity refers to the ways in which individuals differ from each other – these can be both visible and non-visible factors, ranging from gender and race to personality and cognitive diversity. Inclusion refers to the involvement and empowerment of all these different individuals – that is, everyone.


UNCONSCIOUS BIASES AND THE COMPLEXITY OF DIVERSITY & INCLUSION


A common topic in the D&I conversation has been the concept of unconscious biases and whether they can be managed or controlled. Unconscious biases are automatic, quick judgments and assessments we make of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences. Although attention should certainly be brought to the impact they have on our judgements, biases are also an unavoidable part of our daily functioning and can thus never be completely eliminated. We use these biases as it is our innate drive to understand and make sense of ourselves, others and the world around us. However, this can often lead us into thinking we know more than we actually do.


It is our innate drive to understand and make sense of ourselves, others and the world around us, but this can often lead us into thinking we know more than we actually do.

Due to these biases – which are an inevitable part of human nature and embedded into our decision making – D&I can be a challenging subject to deal with as it requires getting out of one’s comfort zone and being open to questioning the status quo. However, I believe there has been growing level of interest in understanding the bigger picture and the broader advantages of valuing the magnitude and complexity of differences in individuals. The differences in personalities, perspectives, life experiences and thinking styles can, if managed efficiently, all add to the creative ideas, productivity and overall success of an organisation.


IS DIVERSITY ENOUGH FOR LASTING CHANGE?


Diversity issues represent some of the most complex dynamics in the modern organisation, but tackling these challenges can significantly improve workplace performance and relationships. Nevertheless, the efforts to promote diversity have sometimes been found ineffective. A 2008 literature review by Anand & Winters found that dealing with diversity ineffectively can subsequently lead to poor communication and teamwork and further to segregation and intolerance within groups, in other words, to exclusion. This is why it is important to challenge ourselves to find not only efficient but, most importantly, authentic ways to manage diversity. Although it can be relatively easy for an organisation to increase its diversity in numbers, it should be noted that there is no evidence of causation when it comes to inclusion; diversity will not automatically increase the organisation’s social inclusion. Additionally, merely hiring diverse talent does not guarantee retention of this talent, it is just the first step of the process. Further action is evidently necessary as nobody wants the efforts of creating diverse organisations to go to waste due to the lack of inclusion and belonging.


INCLUSION AND PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY


There has been a slight shift in focus from organisations merely seeking demographic diversity to understanding the importance of inclusion, which can be seen as a less tangible and more subjective concept. Ideally, in order to the organisation (or a group of any kind) to utilise its diversity to its maximum potential, the individuals will all feel included and thus motivated to bring their full potential to work, further bringing their unique contributions to the organisation’s objectives. Therefore, the transformation, or the bridge, between diversity and inclusion involves accepting and valuing differing views, behaviours and cognitive styles, as well as adapting to other ways of communicating to further build on the benefits of diverse environment. Ultimately, building a bridge between diversity and inclusion requires stepping out of one's comfort zone, being open to learning, challenging assumptions and admitting mistakes. However, it should be noted that this feeling of discomfort can elicit a natural stress response and a fight-or-flight reaction, which can lead to rigid thinking and acting defensively. It is this discomfort that organisations and individuals should learn to manage and become more comfortable with.


Ultimately, building a bridge between diversity and inclusion requires stepping out of one's comfort zone, being open to learning and admitting mistakes. This can elicit a stress response and a fight-or-flight reaction in humans and can lead to rigid thinking and acting defensively.

It is vital for leaders to manage any conflict of personalities or creative tensions that can result from the inherent differences within the team. Timothy R. Clark discusses this in his book Four Stages of Psychological Safety, stating that "the leader’s task is to simultaneously increase intellectual friction and decrease social friction". Therefore, one should keep in mind that just because there might be a level of social friction, it does not mean that the team will not be able to work things out and thrive. Disagreement is in fact sometimes needed to stimulate the imagination, idea creation and overall success.


Leaders will also need to ensure they influence others to value individual differences - big or small - and, most importantly, to make sure they accommodate each individual in a way that the diverse perspectives, cultures and personalities are being heard. For the diverse teams to flourish, they need to be in a climate of psychological safety, a term made popular by Amy Edmondson and defined as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking”. In other words, it is about each individual having the confidence to take risks and express new ideas without fear of social embarrassment or threat to their reputation. This is another important aspect of D&I which leaders need to be aware of and lead by example by bringing transparency and authenticity into their organisation.


JOURNEY OF CONTINUOUS CHANGE


Notably, research shows that when diversity efforts focus more on visual identities such as race, gender, age or disability, without addressing the more implicit differences such as personalities, values, perspectives, or attitudes , it may actually hold back development of inclusive environments by overemphasising differences rather than similarities. It is important to understand that there is no quick fix to inclusion and it should not be a specific or tangible goal to try to achieve, but instead a continuous journey that fluctuates with the changes as we learn and evolve. It is the individual themselves who is ultimately not only responsible but also capable of learning and expanding their capacity to deepen their awareness of their own differences – and similarities – and those of others and see the ultimate benefits of a diverse and inclusive environment. Furthermore, by increasing their awareness, the individual should have the ability to respond and adapt to their environment mindfully, rather than out of habit, and further develop more inclusive behaviour and actions.