The concept of Diversity & Inclusion as we see it in action is somewhat flawed. The first word, diversity, describe what exists: a set of different groups. The second word, inclusion, begins to describe the goal: to create space where these different groups are (ideally) equally appreciated. Many organizations first focus on increasing diversity by striving to recruit a more varied set of individuals. As organizations progress on their journey, they set their sights on inclusion. Organizations often struggle during the shift from achieving diversity to fostering inclusion.
One of the most common approaches to foster inclusion is to create employee resource groups (ERGs). I’d like to posit that ERGs continue to promote diversity – differences and divisions in the organization – rather than the goal of inclusion. The Latin root of the word diversity means to turn aside, literally to be separate. Rather than Diverse & Included, we often end up with Diverse & Independent or worse, Diverse & Assimilated. What if there was another way?
The Future of Diversity & Inclusion Strategies
In my work studying Millennial behavior, I was very curious about young people’s perspectives on the idea of diversity. While we all exhibit natural biases as a part of our neurology, Millennials tend to assume the presence of diversity and struggle believing that equal opportunity is not an automatic reality. There are many reasons for this kind of thinking. One is that the longer it has been since ethnocentrism was overt rather than today’s focus on maintaining political correctness, the more the younger generations have no memory of these times. Another less obvious, more significant reason is that growing up in a digital era, Millennials and Gen Z are used to a world where titles, gender, ethnicity, or age are invisible. What matters online is contribution – and if that contribution is perceived as valuable, followership is gained. What is valued is the perspective that is brought, and furthermore, different perspectives are valued higher. In other words, diversity is not just present; it is included.
What could organizations do differently based on what the Internet does naturally? One of the most beloved concepts by readers of my book, The Millennial Myth, is the concept of coversity. Instead of diversity, where groups divide by macro characteristics such as Women’s networks and find a safe harbor to discuss issues, coversity promotes topic-driven organization. For example, imagine a Gender network, where all those interested in gender styles at work can collaborate and connect. Underneath this broader topic, subgroups can still form for supportive, psychologically safe conversations. Consider that the biggest issue with progress on the gender gap is that men are typically uninvolved in the conversation. It’s not too surprising when women have a greater incentive to participate in the Women’s network (essentially hanging the “Boys Keep Out!” sign from our childhood days)!
I believe building a coversity strategy takes diversity and creates inclusion.
What Happens If We Expect Assimilation: The Wrong End of the Stick
Despite the multitude of recent events, one thing I have come to appreciate about the US is the space we allow for racial tension to exist. Over time, gradually more and more conversation has evolved about this essential topic. While we still have a very long way to go, in my travels I have come to find the US unique because at least the conversation is in existence.
However, in many other developed countries, the topic can be taboo. For example, in my recent journey to France, I spoke with an individual with a post-colonial French background who had lived in France since the age of 12. At one of their workplaces, they were asked to change their name to a more traditional Anglo-French name. The justification was that a change in name would be more palatable for French customers. Clearly, the definition of who is considered French played a strong role in business strategy and the workplace. Furthermore, another individual expressed the question “What is there to talk about [when it comes to diversity]?” I’m curious what this particular organization was missing out on because of their expectation that diverse individuals should assimilate, rather than be included. What customer base were they unable to reach? What losses in talent did they suffer?
This attitude is reminiscent of the culture in the US prior to significant diversity and inclusion movements. Eloquently described by Art Kleiner in his book, The Age of Heretics, the life of diverse individuals was not just challenging, but a loss for the organization:
“Frequently the person of color, or the woman, would be the only such person on their team. They were often expected to fail, but they could master the work easily enough. The hard part was learning to assimilate the constant belittling of their identity: “Stop moving your hands that way. Stop making those kinds of jokes. Dress like the CEO dresses. Act like the finance manager acts.” When everyone comes from a similar culture, these restraints are learned from childhood, but for women and members of ethnic minorities, corporate culture was thoroughly alien.”
While these are anecdotes, it is telling what is lost by simply not having the conversation.
The Possibilities with Coversity: The Role of Inclusion in Innovation
I am a firm believer that the embracing and inclusion of diversity over the last fifty years in the US played a critical role in our leading global role as a center of innovation. Many attribute the pace of innovation simply to digitalization and Moore's law. In contrast, I find it to be no coincidence that significant events increasing diversity and inclusion have also occurred including:
- The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s;
- The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act which abolished the preferential, discriminatory limitations of acceptable number of immigrants by country (especially Asian countries);
- and the Equal Rights Movement in 1972 enabling gender equality including Title IX, which allowed equal access to higher education for women.
We still don’t know just how much these diverse groups have helped build the America we know today. Movies are slowly beginning to acknowledge the contributions of these previously invisible people, such as Hidden Figures and The Man Who Knew Infinityas an example. Our history books and educations systems are much slower to change.
In the past, these cultures had to assimilate to western ways of work and thinking. Over the last twenty years, we’ve become better (with ways to go) on allowing people to bring their perspective. This is how innovation can occur – people of different styles and perspectives intentionally having space to discuss and create something new together. What could be possible for organizations if they implement new approaches for inclusion? What increases in profitability could be gained? What increases in engagement and positive workplace culture could occur?
This is just one way looking at Millennial behavior provides fuel for creating the future workplace. What else could we learn by applying digital behavioral insights to our organization’s existing culture, systems, and processes?
Answer: A lot. We are at a pivotal time where we’ve got to start evolving our workplaces to reflect the digital world. Millennial behavior holds clues for what those changes might or might not be. I invite you to connect with me to learn more.
An abbreviated version of this article appeared in Human Capital Institute.
Crystal is a two-time TEDx thought leader, international keynote speaker, and author of The Millennial Myth: Transforming Misunderstanding into Workplace Breakthroughs. Her practice, Invati Consulting, helps Fortune 500 companies navigate the intersection of two of today’s most vital trends, millennial behavior, and future of work, through strategy, training, and organizational design interventions. She is known for her work shifting mindsets of executive leaders and helping shape powerful organizational strategy that thrives in the face of industry disruption.