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Why Diversity Without Inclusion Is Worthless

To make diversity work, focus on the four dimensions of inclusion.

We all know that diversity is important. Unfortunately, when it comes to team performance, diversity doesn’t always help.

Cultivating diversity is just the beginning. Organizations can revamp their recruiting and hiring practices as much as they want. Their diversity “numbers” will inevitably improve. But to translate diversity into performance necessitates inclusion—the cultivation of a work environment that allows everyone to participate and thrive.

Outlined below are four ways to conceptualize inclusion. Every organization should be evaluating these dimensions and making corrections where appropriate. Not only is this the right thing to do in terms of fairness, but the ideal thing to do in terms of long-term organizational success.

Social Inclusion

At its core, inclusion is about feeling socially accepted. When individuals report feeling left out from participating in activities, initiatives, and projects they tend to report lower levels of social inclusion. Further, those reporting lower levels of inclusion commonly state that they feel like they are outsiders or that they are having a hard time breaking into the “in-group.”

It's human nature for people to feel more comfortable with those who seem similar to them. Organizations must proactively counteract these tendencies by orchestrating opportunities for everyone to be socially involved, whether they be formal or informal in nature.

Relatedness Needs Fulfillment

Human beings have certain psychological needs, including needs for self-determination, competence, and relatedness. From an evolutionary psychology perspective, we have been conditioned to seek the satisfaction of these needs because doing so helps us survive and thrive.

Specific to relatedness, human beings instinctively understand that they will have a higher likelihood of success when they work cooperatively with others. In the workplace, meeting the need for relatedness manifests as feeling as if our colleagues genuinely care about us and will support us when needed.

This comes down to helping employees make meaningful connections. To the degree that organizations can create opportunities for colleagues to build authentic relationships, they can reverse the negative impact of unfulfilled relatedness.

Affective Commitment

A recent development in diversity and inclusion initiatives has been extending inclusion to include belonging. Inclusion is more about specific behaviors that can improve the situation, such as dismantling the in-group-versus-out-group mentality. Belonging, on the other hand, is more emotion-laden. It’s about the extent to which people feel that they are part of a community.

Along those lines, affective commitment is representative of belonging because it represents an emotional attachment to the organization. Affective commitment goes beyond a logical, cost-benefit analysis (called continuance commitment), and entails finding a sense of meaning in being a part of the organization.

There are several known predictors of affective commitment, but they don’t come easy. Organizations that focus on creating supportive and fair cultures are likely to see more emotionally attached employees. Organizations can also increase employees’ affective commitment by investing in employees’ growth and development. Said simply, organizations that invest in their people can cultivate a sense of belonging via affective commitment.

Organizational Identification

Another belonging-related concept is organizational identification, which entails the extent to which employees self-identify with their organization’s values, mission, brand, and more. When employees see themselves as stewards of the organization’s purpose they are more likely to exhibit proactive performance and citizenship behaviors. When employees don’t identify, however, these prosocial behaviors are less likely.

Organizations seeking to elevate employees’ organizational identification should not only focus on pinpointing and articulating their values and goals, but also attracting and recruiting employees who align with these values and goals. In effect, organizational identification is about finding the right person on deep-level characteristics, not just “checking the box” in terms of demographics and skills.

Cognitive Bias Training

To date, the most prevalent attempt to facilitate inclusion is through cognitive bias training. These interventions include an assortment of tactics, including asynchronous courses, one-on-one/group coaching, experiential exercises, and even virtual reality. Interestingly, there is no evidence to date that these interventions have a lasting effect.

Cognitive bias is an innate, deeply rooted phenomenon. To overcome this challenge, organizations need mechanisms that regularly and repeatedly reinforce inclusion over long periods of time (and at the right time).

One-and-done approaches are subject to cognitive overload—it’s too much information to embrace and put into practice. Along those lines, organizations should consider supplementing their cognitive bias training with micro-nudges—smaller, specific, aptly timed interventions across a long period of time.

Surface-Level Versus Deep-Level Diversity

There is an overgeneralized assumption that diversity facilitates diversity of thought. The problem is that we are confusing surface-level diversity (i.e., demographics) with deep-level diversity (i.e., personality, values, strengths). Diversity of thought is a cognitive construct—not a physical manifestation.

Surface-level diversity is an important first step. But the goal should actually be to simultaneously facilitate surface-level and deep-level diversity. Instead of simply prompting workers to focus on the importance of surface-level diversity, it is also important to remind workers that people are more than a demographic category.

Focus on highlighting workers’ unique tendencies, skills, strengths, values, culture preferences, and more. In this way, we elevate the conversation to be about what we should be doing, not just about what we shouldn’t be doing.

Getting It Right

Diversity must be addressed in organizational settings, but focusing on hiring quotas is missing the point. If we fail to consider inclusion and belongingness, the sustainability and long-term impact of diversity initiatives will be limited.

Organizations should start by pinpointing the degree to which their employees feel included. Organizations should then cultivate long-term interventions that highlight our tendencies, strengths, and values via deep-level diversity. Doing so will ensure that employees are reminded of what’s really important—who we are on the inside, not just what we look like on the outside.

Take this 12-question workplace inclusion assessment to see your scores, and get ideas for how to measure these dimensions within your organization.


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Mael, F., & Ashforth, B. E. (1992). Alumni and their alma mater: A partial test of the reformulated model of organizational identification. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 13(2), 103-123.

Meyer, J. P., & Allen, N. J. (1997). Commitment in the workplace: Theory, research, and application. Sage publications.

Stamper, C. L., & Masterson, S. S. (2002). Insider or outsider? How employee perceptions of insider status affect their work behavior. Journal of Organizational Behavior: The International Journal of Industrial, Occupational and Organizational Psychology and Behavior, 23(8), 875-894.

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