Diversity and inclusion: what’s the difference?

By Peter Williams

It is perfectly possible to have a diverse enterprise. But that does not mean your business will be inclusive. Too often diversity and inclusion are lumped together, but that is a mistake. They may be close cousins, but they are not identical. So what is the difference?

Here’s a broad definition: diversity is about the mix you have in your workplace, while inclusion is about making that mix work.

The case for diversity

Within enterprises, especially among the public sector and companies that work across borders, it is now universally accepted that diversity is good for business. Indeed, we’ve moved beyond lip service and spin. Research shows that a diverse workforce in all its differences – ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation – can add a competitive edge in terms of selling and delivering products and services. So the mix is definitely something you want.

The welcome progress that business has made over the last few years in intentionally embracing diversity should be recognised and championed. But more needs to be done. That’s where inclusion comes in.

The case for inclusion

Inclusion is about respecting people in the organisation as individuals. To achieve the benefits of a diverse workforce a culture needs to exist where everyone feels they can participate and achieve their potential. Human beings possess a fundamental need for inclusion and belonging. That means talented workers will leave organisations that don’t offer that culture. In contrast, offer inclusion and your organisation should benefit from reduced staff turnover, greater altruism and team engagement.

D&I: Why you need both

An article in Harvard Business Review (HBR) by consultants Laura Sherbin and Ripa Rashid suggested that diversity does not stick without inclusion. They suggest that a gap persists between recognizing the leadership behaviours that promote diversity and putting those behaviours into practice which would create an inclusion culture. Academic research particularly in the US shows that achieving diversity is not an automatic guarantee of driving inclusion.

Leadership development should include both diversity awareness and become inclusive. Inclusivity development needs to be nuanced and sophisticated. As Nick Shackleton-Jones noted years ago, inclusivity is neither about a reprimand of the dominant type – i.e. telling off the white middle-aged male majority (noting I’m one) – nor is it a charity appeal; the message ‘these groups need our help’ which can just reinforce stereotypes that certain groups need the help of others.

Inclusion: the measurement problem

Part of the problem is the difference between counting and measuring. Diversity can be tracked, but what about measuring inclusion? Inclusion is more about how we feel and let’s face it organisations understandably find it hard to ‘do’ feelings well. Part of the answer – and this is where L&D can help – is constructing an ongoing narrative on inclusiveness. (Do I feel included? When do I feel included? When did I feel excluded? How do I then react and behave?) This could help leaders reach a balanced conclusion about how they’re doing which data alone cannot achieve.

Stories in the media about certain sectors – engineering and technology spring to mind – revolve around the ongoing theme that behaving like a man ensures progression at best and mere survival in the business at worst.

This is not acceptable in terms of ethics or business performance. Across all sectors, L&D needs to take a lead in terms of ensuring that the workforce does not have to compromise who they are (their authentic selves) and how they behave.

Six characteristics of inclusion

At the end of the day, businesses need to create a culture which produces inclusive leaders. The US Center for Talent Innovation suggests six characteristics that encompass inclusivity. These can be summed up as:

  1. Ensuring that every team member speaks up and is heard
  2. Making it acceptable to propose novel ideas or solutions
  3. Empowering all team members to take decisions
  4. Taking advice and implementing feedback
  5. Giving actionable feedback
  6. Sharing credit for team success

A lack of inclusion makes no business sense: when employees are truly included within a work environment they’re more likely to share information and want to participate fully in decision-making. And that leads to all important increased engagement.

Time to dance

D&I are not nice-to-haves. In the current business climate, where there is so much uncertainty, businesses need to be able to recruit, retain and develop talent from every source possible. Failure to do so will hurt long-term prospects.

US cultural innovator and diversity consultant Verna Myers sums up the D&I issue with a sharp analogy: ‘Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.’ It is time all the talents were asked to dance.

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