How to Build an Inclusive Culture at Work

Raise your hand if “diversity” or “inclusion” are buzzwords at your organization.

Almost every HR and business leader we talk to is focused on D&I. But “diversity” (regardless of whether you’re talking about a workforce that’s more diverse in terms of race, gender, age or background) isn’t just a box to be checked. Building a more diverse workforce, retaining all different kinds of employees and integrating those diverse perspectives into the work is a complicated undertaking. And an important one.

There’s a lot at stake. A recent McKinsey report found that companies whose executive teams were in the top quartile for gender diversity were 21 percent more likely to experience above-average profitability than those in the bottom quartile.

“Boards and investors are driving this push for diversity,” says Stephen Tavares, a partner at the consulting firm Heidrick & Struggles. “If you look at the annual reports and investor calls, you see a move away from things like productivity. Investors more interested in the talent in the organization.”

He says that focus on diverse talent is leading company leaders to ask questions like:

  • How do we bring in different perspectives?
  • How do we get the business benefit from having all those diverse perspectives?
  • How do we get the most out of our talent?

Heidrick & Struggles tested a measurement app called SYNAPP. The firm’s goal was to collapse all the innovation and insights they learn from clients and turn them into user-friendly takeaways. As they gathered data, they saw trends in how different genders work (or don’t work) together and the impact on the business.

The Problem

At many organizations there’s a push to hire more diverse candidates. The sticking point comes after employees start work. When men and women don’t interact, work together or trust each other, the expanding diversity of the organization doesn’t actually lead to business results.

According to a report in the Harvard Business Review, analysis of how men and women interact in the workplace found that even though they communicated with senior leaders the same amount, men advanced more than women. After digging into the data, the researchers found suggestions that gender inequality in leadership was due to bias, not differences in how men and women communicate and work.

“We knew more organizations were looking at how to get more diverse people into the organization. But once they’re in, how do you make sure you’re building an inclusive culture? And how do you measure it?” Tavares says.

If you’re trying to build a more gender-inclusive culture, the answer isn’t just “hire more women,” he says. It’s about building inclusive teams and an inclusive culture.

“Those are two separate problems. Many focus on the first problem [hiring], since it’s easier to quantify. But it’s important to look at how people really interact with each other.”

Tavares’ firm uses SYNAPP to measure and understand connections between people. They ask employees questions like:

  • Who do you go to for decisions?
  • Who do you go to for new ideas?
  • Who do you trust?
  • Who do you look to for support?
  • Who gives you energy?

By analyzing the answers, SYNAPP identifies the teams that are really living an inclusive culture, and the teams that aren’t.

For example, the firm worked with an organization with an R&D team that had an equal male-female ratio. That checked the gender-diversity box, but the team wasn’t inclusive. Team members didn’t look to the opposite gender for decisions, ideas or support.

What Is an Inclusive Culture?

So how can organizations become not just more diverse but more inclusive?

Tavares looks at three levels of building an inclusive culture:

  • A diverse organization: The overall talent pool has the appropriate representation of different kinds of talent.
  • Workplace inclusion: Once you have the right representation, it’s time to look at workplace processes and structures. Make sure employees go to a diverse pool of people for ideas and decisions. “This is where we see a lot of organizations start,” he says.
  • Emotional inclusion: This is about building trusting relationships across different employee groups, making sure people get energy from a diverse span of co-workers and creating a diverse network of informal influence and empathy.

Tavares’ firm coaches teams to “bridge the gap between what management can do from a process side to what people can do from a behavior side,” he says.

“This is a vitally important topic,” he says. “At the fundamental level this is about a mindset shift. It’s not just about gender or ethnicity, but about different ways of thinking. When you can bring in more diverse perspectives you drive better results.”