In the last two Leadership Memos, we explored what diversity is, what inclusion is, and how diversity relates to inclusion. We learnt that they are not the same thing. We also mentioned that diversity and inclusion are part of what makes an environment psychologically safe. Do you also know that without inclusion, there’s often a diversity backlash?
Recently, I was on a call with a new team. It was our first call, and I didn’t know any of the teammates. The highest ranking person of the group started the call by saying, “wow, this is great! Even though we are all in the same country, we are all from different ethnicities.” He then named all the different ethnicities present. He continued, “we even have more women than men here on the call!”
If you were in that meeting, how did that make you feel?
For me, it’s puzzling why he would say something like that to start a meeting. I was wondering if he was ticking some boxes in his head and mentally patting himself on the back. As a non-white female, I was thinking if I should feel privileged to be invited to the table. Maybe I shouldn’t do or say anything that would get me kicked out. At that moment, I didn’t feel that it was a safe environment to voice my opinion. Do you think I was too sensitive? That I read too much into the opening statements?
As the meeting continued, I was confused about the purpose of the meeting. It wasn’t the topic that we agreed to discuss. It went on for an hour. Next day, someone on the team apologised to me about the confusion of the topic. Turns out, that highest ranking person confused our call with another meeting, and he was talking about the topic of that other meeting. Since some teammates knew about that other meeting, I asked them why they didn’t remind him. They told me they didn’t dare do that on the call, because they knew he wouldn’t like being challenged in front of people. Instead, they let the meeting go on for the entire hour discussing the wrong topic with the wrong participants, wasting everyone’s time, and left me utterly confused. I was dumbfounded. Sadly, it looks like my initial assessment that there was no psychological safety in that team was spot on.
Diversity alone doesn’t drive inclusion. If you want to know what a leader can do to create an inclusive culture, you can read all about it in my April Leadership Memo.
Without inclusion, the non-majority group would not feel safe to act or speak their minds. If the non-majority group is in senior management positions, they might feel obligated to sponsor employees of the same gender or ethnicity as themselves. Yet, they may hesitate to take such actions. They would worry because of the perception of giving special treatment to people like them. They may also be concerned that those people may not “make the grade”. That’s what diversity backlash is.
Hopefully, my personal experience above gives you an idea that focussing on diversity alone is not enough. While the openness to diversity widens our access to the best talent, inclusion allows us to engage talent effectively. Together, they lead to enhanced innovation, creativity, productivity, reputation, engagement and results.