For a thousand years, humans believed Aristotle’s view that the sun and planets revolved around the earth. It wasn’t until the 16th century that Copernicus offered a radical new theory so unpopular it resulted in the death or discredit of those who believed it. Looking back, Aristotle was obviously wrong. But Copernicus got caught in a very human trap: it’s nearly impossible to dissuade people of ideas they're convinced are true. And sadly, that’s what’s happening today with workplace inclusion.
The vast majority of leaders believe that inclusion is a social imperative, something they do out of the goodness of their hearts. This idea took center stage in 2017 when 150 CEOs signed the CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion pledge. With the best of intentions, they asserted: “CEOs across the country understand this isn’t a competitive issue, but a societal issue.” In short, it wasn’t about business, it was about people.
This approach sounds good, but it's wrong. We know (as the CEO Action group did) that diverse teams and inclusive workplaces drive better performance. McKinsey reports that ethnically diverse companies outperform peers by 36% and gender diverse companies by 48%. Inclusion is a powerful business lever, not just a social imperative.
If we keep thinking about inclusion as a social sidecar issue, it’s doomed to fail. Especially in challenging economic times. One February 2023 study found a disproportionately higher churn rate in DEI roles at layoff companies than non-DEI roles, with some companies losing entire departments. And after a two-year surge, corporate investment in DEI stalled in 2022 as recession fears began to rise. When money gets tight, inclusion gets cut because it’s not seen as core to the business.
Here’s the Copernican idea: inclusion doesn’t revolve around work, it is the way we work. It drives collaboration, innovation and productivity. It helps companies attract and keep the best talent. It’s table stakes for a winning workplace culture. So, if you want inclusion to actually work, here’s what you have to change:
- Stop making inclusion an event.
To build the muscles of authentic inclusion, teams and organizations need to make the time and space to have challenging conversations, to open themselves to different ways of seeing the world. To put themselves in others’ shoes. But too often companies turn this into a one-size-fits-all or one-and-done event. Singular events will always fall short. They’re never enough and they never meet everyone where they are. Some colleagues (especially people of color) have been on the inclusion journey for a long time, while others are just beginning.
Companies hold hidden pockets of discrimination: job descriptions that don’t make space for working parents, hiring assumptions that rely on certain kinds of credentials and outdated notions of cultural fit. Surfacing these inequalities takes time, space and the trust-based relationships necessary to re-examine workplace norms. You can’t build those relationships overnight - and certainly not in one event. Unless we build a culture that consistently encourages people to challenge assumptions and entertain diverse ideas, we can’t move the needle on inclusion. Hubspot does this well. They have written down and codified their culture. They treat it as a proprietary product, not as an extra. And they mindfully shape and adapt it with full transparency, a learning orientation, and a long-term view.
- Consistently, systematically and obsessively invest in psychological safety.
Psychological safety is essential for helping all teams work better together, but especially diverse teams. Psych safety is not a given - it’s fragile and susceptible to elements beyond your control: global events, generational differences and diverse sensitivities. Building and preserving it means continually protecting colleagues who speak up, call out problems and offer alternative or unorthodox ideas or proposals. The data tells us that this comfort is asymmetrical, especially in diverse organizations: men feel safer than women, non-parent workers more than working parents and white employees more than people of color.
Psychological safety must be modeled by a leader but can only be built by the whole team. In that sense, it’s a naturally inclusive effort. Leaders create the conditions for it to flourish, but cannot mandate it to happen. Start by framing meetings as a learning opportunity rather than a decision making session. Build in time to hear innovative contributions and reflect on fresh perspectives. Ask lots of questions with genuine curiosity. Good, open-ended questions invite your colleagues to take risks and offer interesting, out-of-the-box, ideas. Express genuine gratitude, especially when the news you hear is not what you hoped for. By acknowledging that you can’t possibly know all the answers yourself, you model the intellectual humility that fosters psychological safety and reminds your team that you are all in this together.
- Prioritize inclusion that counts.
If you already have some diverse teams - how do you know if everyone is genuinely included? It's not enough to make space at the table and foster the psychological safety to speak up. If a colleague’s voice is heard but largely ignored, inclusion becomes performative and artificial. All your colleagues want to be fairly valued for the work they do, not their gender, family choices or the color of their skin. This value is demonstrated by their shared impact, the extent to which their contributions drive organizational decisions. This means actively and measurably integrating diverse perspectives into business outcomes and company policies, and equitably developing and promoting women and people of color.
It starts with listening. Not run-of-the-mill paying attention, but focused listening with an intention to include. Women - especially women of color - endure microaggressions, interruptions and a general sense of being silenced or overlooked. And Black leaders often get passed over when plum assignments go to white colleagues with less experience. These are identifiable moments, not just feelings, that require leaders to carefully watch and intervene when necessary. It’s about decentering traditional power roles to become a focused observer of the workings of your own organization: to take the extra time to ensure that good ideas get implemented, good ideas from all sources.
Accepting that the earth revolves around the sun exploded our understanding of the universe. Reframing inclusion can do the same for the modern workplace. Getting inclusion right is good business. Period. High performing companies are 10 times more likely to embed DEI strategy into their business strategy. It took us more than a century to believe Copernicus. Let’s not make the same mistake with inclusion.
First published on Forbes.com.