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Revolutionising Inclusion in the Workplace

Diversity, undoubtedly, is an all-encompassing concept. It goes way beyond gender and includes ethnicity, language, socio-economic status, religious and political beliefs, sexual orientation and even physical disabilities. In this multidimensional and complex society, focusing on maximising the value of a diverse workforce has become a business imperative for progressive companies. However, while we are extensively focused on hiring for diversity, one part of the equation we do not talk about often is fostering an inclusive culture in the workplace. It is not just about having a diverse workforce. It is about building a secure and positive environment that embraces and celebrates the uniqueness of each individual, makes them feel valued, respected, accepted and encouraged, enabling him or her to contribute his or her best by way of ideas and efforts.

A diverse workplace is not necessarily an inclusive one. Likewise, an inclusive workplace is not necessarily diverse. In other words, leaders need both a diverse workforce and an inclusive workplace culture to realize the business benefits of D&I, such as reduced turnover and higher performance.

Diversity is only half of the D&I picture. Inclusion is the prerequisite for the functioning of a diverse workforce and without it, companies may fail to leverage their diverse talent pool and incorporate various perspectives, which may result in failure to maximise their success.

Creating an Inclusive Culture

Today, organisations are striving to become more diverse and inclusive. But too often, they struggle to determine how, exactly, to put diversity and inclusion (D&I) into practice.

Creating a culture where respect, equity, and positive recognition of differences are cultivated will take more than a mere initiative to overhaul the existing biases that plague society. Think of diversity as being similar to selecting people for a chorus who have different musical backgrounds, vocal ranges and abilities. The inclusion piece of D&I means making sure that those different voices are heard and valued and that they contribute to the performance. When employees who are different from their colleagues are allowed to flourish, the company benefits from their ideas, skills and engagement.

Some of the core values to form inclusive cultures, where all employees are heard, can succeed and are actively engaged with leadership are:

1. Fair treatment

2. Equal access to opportunity

3. Teamwork and collaboration

4. Respect for differences in working styles

5. A focus on innovation and creativity

6. Organisational flexibility, responsiveness, and agility

7. Conflict resolution processes that are collaborative

8. Evidence of leadership’s commitment to diversity (e.g., appointing a Chief Diversity / Equality Officer)

9. Representation of people

10. Representation of diversity at all levels of the organisation

11. Representation of diversity among internal and external stakeholders

12. Diversity education and training

Inclusion Beyond Gender

Many progressive organisations today have gender-balance targets, but unfortunately, the exclusive gender focus has skewed inclusion efforts. The Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) initiatives in many companies in India tend to have a myopic focus on gender – it is all about recruiting more women and nurturing an environment where women are respected and rewarded for their performance. Not surprisingly, other facets of D&I, such as age, ethnicity, sexual orientation and people with disabilities either get lumped together or receive no mention at all. The D&I practices should be aimed at building and nurturing a workforce that is diverse not only in gender, but in a way that reflects the diverse society that we live in.

According to McKinsey, while gender-diverse companies are 15 percent more likely to outperform their peers, ethnically-diverse companies are 35 percent more likely to outperform peers on profitability. However, building an ethnically and culturally inclusive culture takes company-wide effort and does not happen overnight. Instead, it is a journey of many steps to overcome bias and inculcate the right mindset in everyone that a diverse workforce can make work-life more enriching and meaningful for everyone. It is not easy as it calls for introspection and behavioural changes by leaders who need to set an example.

Setting good examples begins with strong leadership that is inclusive and encourages different opinions. Inclusive leadership sets an example for team members and can be shown by:

  • Encouraging team members to speak up ensuring that everyone’s voice is heard and opinions are considered.

  • Giving constructive feedback that can be utilized to stimulate improvement.

  • Celebrating employee differences and inviting them to share those in the workplace.

  • Empowering all team members to contribute and make decisions.

  • Form an inclusion council with genuine influence and power.

  • Sharing credit for team success and recognizing all those that contributed.

  • Maintaining your own authenticity while continuing to be receptive to others.

  • Train managers—and hold them accountable—to show that inclusivity is a core competency.

The Rise of Cognitive Diversity

Cognitive Diversity refers to educational and functional diversity, as well as diversity in the mental frameworks that people use to solve problems. It is the differences in thinking, viewpoints, perspective and information processing styles – so in how people feel, think, and act. According to this new concept, the true goal of inclusion is to create workplaces that leverage the diversity of thinking. It’s a more inclusive, collaborative, and open space where people feel empowered to create and implement ideas.

Take for example autism hiring initiatives. There is an incredible talent pool of adults on the autistic spectrum that has been overlooked for all the wrong reasons. These individuals may have a range of skills to bring to the workplace but maybe weeded out during the interview process for issues like not making good eye contact. Having a neurodiverse workforce has been shown to improve innovation and problem solving, as people see and understand the information in a range of different ways. Increased awareness of neurodiversity can improve understanding of workplaces. When businesses become more open about recognising different strands of neurodiverse behaviour, they will realise that neurodiversity could be a competitive advantage.

People feel comfortable surrounding themselves with others who have business styles similar to their own, there are still holdouts that tend to hire employees who think alike.

Unfortunately, when you get more of the same, you end up with more of the same. High performing teams are both cognitively and demographically diverse, hence they are able to solve complex problems faster than teams composed of individuals who approach problem-solving in the same way. One recent study states this type of diversity produces better business outcomes: It enhances innovation by 20%, reduces risks by 30%, and eases the implementation of decisions. Lack of innovation can lead to a slow, painful death in any organisation, but cognitive diversity can help in opening up your organisation to new perspectives and also driving the business bottom line with outside-the-box ideas.

Recruit for Cognitive Diversity

Be intentional in seeking team members with diverse thinking styles and approaches. Often, organisations seek to hire new talent based on factors, such as gender, race or religion. But we often overlook other aspects like age, disability, language, personality, and sexual orientation. This hiring style limits an organisation’s ability to gain the cognitive diversity needed to solve business challenges in a rapidly changing environment. Therefore, take a second to consider what diversity means to you and plan accordingly to create a customized-diversity-vision for your company.

Changing Culture

Most firms focus on hiring the highest skilled and most competent professionals — the proverbial “cream of the crop.” However, assembling the best and brightest does not automatically create a “smart” team. Consciously create cognitively diverse teams. Recruit people intentionally to ensure a rich mix of thinking styles and different points of view. Most often, it involves the slow process of changing company culture. To be committed to achieving a cognitively diverse workforce means a commitment to a constantly evolving culture – one that values difference, respectful conflict and out-of-the-box thinking.

Create Space to Innovate

A team of diverse individuals with different ideas and perspectives has the potential to generate more creativity and innovation. Therefore, leaders have to set the tone for an innovative work environment — virtual or physical. At a time when many employees spend at least some time working remotely, most of the historic social contracts between employees and employers are changing. Given this, now is a great time to be deliberate about building innovative muscle. Work is being redefined, focus on results is being strengthened, and entirely new ways of collaborating and connecting are emerging.

Break the Mould for Partnership

The ability to respond nimbly to change is a critical characteristic for innovation and long-term success. Strategic partnerships are one way to leverage the level of cognitive diversity needed to adapt and evolve in a transformative environment. Ecosystems are more fluid now than ever, and that will continue to hold true. Look for opportunities to collaborate with non-traditional people, groups and companies to explore new ways of addressing the complex challenges your industry faces. Taking a “no lines” approach to solving complex issues strengthens cognitive diversity and better positions companies to both create and survive disruptive innovation in their areas of expertise.


Diversity is all well and good: it can be measured and observed. But inclusion is what helps us see things from a different perspective, this is the part where everyone plays a role. To put it simply, diversity is the ‘what’; inclusion is the ‘how.’ Lately, cognitive diversity has also emerged as an essential ingredient in creating a culture of innovation. To be successful, building an ethnically and culturally inclusive culture which is also cognitively diverse should be a company-wide effort and a top business priority for every progressive organisation. When diversity and inclusion is a top-to-bottom business strategy and not just an HR program, it can resolve serious business and culture problems — including recruitment, retention, the talent pipeline, implicit bias in informal and formal promotion processes, and better market penetration. Those are the outcomes leadership should look for and measure.

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