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Creating the inclusive organization Published: Sunday, September 5, 2010 8:00 am By: Ramón L. Rivera, President & CEO

Evidence is growing that inclusion matters to organizational effectiveness. Inclusion opens the pathway for a variety of different individuals to marshal their personal resources to do what they do best.  Based on their profound research, for example, Ely and Thomas (2001) argue for the importance of feeling valued and of being able to express one’s social identity at work as antecedents to building effective group functioning in organizational contexts.  This is consistent with other studies, including those on quality, job enrichment, work motivation, and organizational development, that confirm similar relationships between utilizing one’s full range of talents and perspectives and the capability to commit to and to accomplish organizational objectives.   I believe simply that the glue between these two is inclusion.

Inclusion can be defined as “the degree to which individuals feel part of critical organizational processes,” indicated by their access to information and resources, work group involvement, and ability to influence decision-making. It can be considered as the degree to which (a) employees are valued and their ideas are taken into account and used, (b) people partner successfully within and across units, (c) current employees feel that they belong and prospective employees are attracted to the organization, (d) people feel connected to each other and to the organization and its goals, and (e) the organization continuously fosters flexibility and choice, and attends to diversity.

Aspects of the experience of inclusion, such as feeling validated, accepted, heard, and appreciated; using one’s talents and making a difference (including being part of something that is working and doing a meaningful task); having some work autonomy; receiving feedback; having one’s input solicited and used; involvement in collaboration; openness for dialogue; and wanting to learn from others.

I believe that inclusion happens at two levels: the individual and the organizational.  At the individual level, the need to be a part of the social whole has long been recognized as core to human psychological wellbeing. Affiliation and psychological attachment research has established this in a variety of ways.  But while there are commonalities or general themes in terms of what people experience as inclusion—feeling valued, respected, recognized, trusted, and that one is making a difference—not everyone experiences these in the same way.    As an introvert, one person may only need one or two social connections in order to satisfy her or his inclusion need.  Others may have to interact with a wider range of the community in order to feel a full part of it. 

There aren’t rigid rules regarding what it takes to make someone feel included. You and I may experience inclusion in different ways and based on different antecedents.  Indeed, part of the lesson of diversity is that if you treat me how you would like to be treated, if you follow the golden rule, you might not necessarily make me feel included. Instead, you might be imposing your values and your style on me.  Rather, to make me feel included, it is important for you to figure out my needs and to try to address those.  And I must do the same. True equality means respect for people’s different needs.

Yet, it is a naive and possibly even dangerous oversimplification to think that addressing individual inclusion at the individual level is the complete answer to nurturing an inclusive organization or workplace.  Doing this also requires systemic, proactive work at the organizational level. But if it is impossible or impractical to try to come up with a global and fixed set of rules regarding inclusion that will apply to everyone in all situations, then what is the organizational solution to building an inclusive environment? Here again, Wheeler (1999) provides a succinct and valuable summary. According to him, “Organizations that truly value inclusion are characterized by effective management of people who are different, ability to admit weakness and mistakes, heterogeneity at all levels, empowerment of people, recognition and utilization of people’s skills and abilities, an environment that fosters learning and exchanging of ideas, and flexibility”.

Leadership behaviors and approaches to creating the inclusive organization include  (a) understanding that workforce inclusion includes valuing diverse perspectives, opinions, insights, and approaches to work; (b) realizing that inclusion brings with it opportunities and challenges that create a need for unlearning, relearning, and gaining new learnings; (c) practicing that every one is held to high standards of performance; (d) developing a work culture that encourages and fosters personal development through training and education programs; (e) encouraging open communication, constructive conflict on work-related issues, and tolerance for dialogue; (f) providing non-bureaucratic ways for employees to constructively challenge current ways of doing business and reshape past policies and practices to be more inclusive and empowering.

It is the leadership approach as well as the processes and systems that are in place that encourage and require expression of individual level skills, as well as provide the foundation for a suitable organizational culture that gives meaning to the words that so many organizations put on paper but do not always bring to life. The specifics of these processes and systems will vary from organization to organization.


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