Most leaders would say they value diversity in their organizations. Some do so for strategic reasons, perhaps to mirror their diversifying customer base; others value diversity because it is the right thing to do. Yet for many companies, gaps can appear between rhetoric and action. And even those that succeed in establishing diverse organizations can fall short when it comes to inclusion. After all, having employees with a wide array of backgrounds does not ensure that everyone feels equally welcome and valued.
That’s why focusing on both diversity and inclusion is crucial, explains Ellen Taaffe, an assistant professor of leadership and director of women’s leadership programs at the Kellogg School.
“Inclusion is about welcoming, developing, and advancing a diverse mix of individuals,” says Taaffe. “It’s about making all people feel valued, including changing practices that might unfairly benefit any one group, and making sure that everyone feels they have the same opportunity to advance and make an impact. Creating that environment is where the real challenge lies.”
Taaffe describes four key elements for leaders to keep in mind when building a more inclusive workplace.
Learn Your Blind Spots
Implicit bias is universal. We all have unconscious biases or autopilot behavior that guides our mindset and actions. Uncovering those blind spots can give us the power to choose how we interact and operate in a more deliberate, conscious, and inclusive manner.
Leaders often reveal their bias by giving more attention to people with whom they share race, gender, or any other aspect of their identity, such as “engineer,” “Florida Gator,” or even “marathon enthusiast.”
For instance, research by Kellogg’s Lauren Rivera suggests that decision-makers often assess others’ merit in ways that validate their own skills and backgrounds. If, say, they attended an elite school, they may be more likely to value this quality in others. They also prefer employees who “pass the airport test,” meaning they’re someone with whom they would enjoy being stranded at the airport—which often means someone a lot like them.
Taaffe says one can recognize this—and counteract the adverse effects—without spoiling the natural social dynamics of an office.
“Self-awareness is critical, because you don’t want to unwittingly advantage someone just because they went to your school, or share the same gender or race as you,” she says. We may think of these traits as making someone a good fit for a role or promotion, “but it really just means ‘they’re more like me.’”
The more leaders become aware of their own implicit bias, the more they can disrupt their default settings when making decisions. They can also lead by example.
“When leaders model self-awareness of bias, it sends a powerful message,” Taaffe says. “Sometimes that means being a little vulnerable, which isn’t easy. But ultimately you want to demonstrate that we all have biases and that actively managing them is a priority in order to lead well and bring out the best in each team member.”
When it comes to understanding bias, there is no shortage of available tools, from books, training sessions, and online videos to the implicit bias test. When understanding bias is prioritized through team training, colleagues can begin to build a common language and shared commitment to interacting in new ways.
Keep Inclusion on the Agenda
In addition to being open about biases and how to overcome them, leaders should frame inclusion as an opportunity for both employees and the company’s bottom line. Some employees may be more receptive to personal or moral arguments than others, which is why Taaffe recommends making the business case for inclusion.
“The message is clear: this will help all of us because it will open us up to new ideas and help us think differently. You might not need this with every group, but it’s good to have proof points just in case, to offset the concerns people might have. As disruption occurs across industries, new ideas are needed from more diverse perspectives to be more innovative and competitive in our rapidly changing world.”
Taaffe points to Indra Nooyi, former CEO of PepsiCo, as an example of a leader who encouraged people to embrace inclusion by presenting it as a growth opportunity. In Nooyi’s case, the emphasis was on appreciating different cultures, but the same principle applies to race, gender, or any other difference that enables a company to better reflect and understand their market.
“If you can get people excited about hearing diverse points of view, that’s a step in the right direction. Because that’s what inclusion is about: getting different ideas in the mix.”
Study the Data
Of course, it’s critical to understand your current situation to inform your desired future state. It is also important to know exactly what kind of change you are driving, and why.
If a leader begins arbitrarily implementing policies that are meant to be more inclusive of women—gender-neutral resumes, mentoring programs, flexible hours—without first studying how the current policies affect actual women in the company, there is a lesser chance of long-term success.
“It’s strategy before tactics,” Taaffe says. “Yes, you want to question the logic of ‘this is the way it’s always been done’ and take steps to do things differently. But again, you want to connect this to your company values and see where you’re coming up short. If you value inclusion, define the behaviors that support that. Are you delivering on what you say you value?”
A good way to find out is to study the data. Just as a company with a reputation as a leader in product innovation would want to determine how they can most successfully launch new products, a company that aspires to be more inclusive should look at its numbers around recruitment, retention, engagement, and promotion.
If women are being hired at entry level at the same rate as men, but few of them reach senior positions, that might suggest that women are given fewer opportunities for advancement than men. If the pipeline narrows above manager, dig into what discrepancies and systemic issues may exist.
Take, for example, the CEO of Salesforce, Marc Benioff. When Benioff heard that Salesforce had a pay gap between men and women, he didn’t get defensive. He simply asked HR for the data, and was surprised to realize there was a gap that he eventually closed.
But Taaffe is quick to reiterate that numbers never tell the whole story. Leaders should also tap into engagement surveys, focus groups, and exit interviews for feedback on people’s experiences, as well as the impact of specific policies.
“If women are leaving, you’ll want to know: where are they going, and why? Did they think they wouldn’t get promoted? Did they get training and mentoring? How do the numbers look over time, and what are the factors driving these results? That’s how you figure out your response.”
For example, if you discover that women were leaving because they were unsure about their career trajectories, you may want to dig into talent-development processes, including sponsorship and communications. So, boosting recruitment numbers would not solve this problem.
Set Clear Standards and Expectations
To truly walk the talk around inclusion, one thing every leader can do is develop clear standards and expectations—especially around performance.
“The more you can hold people to the same criteria tailored to specific objectives, the more inclusive you’re likely to be,” Taaffe says. “Objective criteria helps everyone, since they’ll know what’s expected of them and where they are along the continuum.”
A key part of making this work is clarifying objectives, so that the question, say, of whether someone is working flex hours—either to care for a child or for some other reason—becomes a moot point: either they got the job done, or they didn’t.
The power of objective standards is that they help leaders discuss performance and career trajectory in a way that doesn’t involve non-work-related factors.
Women, for example, can be subjected to what is known as “protective bias”—the error of a well-meaning boss who projects ideas about work–life balance onto female employees. For instance, a boss might decide that a woman back from maternity leave is not right for an assignment or role due to its heavy workload, without consulting the woman on the decision. This kind of bias often prevents women from being offered critical ‘stretch’ assignments.
“It may seem well-intentioned, but it leaves the employee out of the discussion,” she says. “The more you can make performance reviews and developmental discussions about opportunities, skills, and experience—rather than some vague perception—the fairer the system and culture will be.”
Building that system might require asking difficult questions about the organization’s status quo, including the ways it advantages some and disadvantages others. “This is where a leader needs the courage to say ‘inclusion matters.’”