Diversity is a fact. Inclusion is an act.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) occupies the minds of many leaders. They know that if they get the public opinion against them, this will damage their reputation. Avoiding negative press is a strong motivator for companies to fight systemic racism, have a diverse workforce that represents society’s diversity, and include those who were never heard before. If your glass is half-full, you recognize that great progress has been made: unconscious bias trainings cannot be avoided anymore, the marginalized groups that were hiding in closets now have a firm presence in many organizations (yours included?) and Chief Diversity Officers keep launching new initiatives to try to direct attention to DEI. The opposite point of view is equally valid. If the glass is half empty, you’ll find plenty of evidence that – although more diverse – our offices are not known for being inclusive environments.

We lack the quick fixes for the DEI issues that we search for. No manager will say she or he is not inclusive: we often don’t see our own biases, nor do we see how we contribute to creating non-inclusive workspaces ourselves. We all have good intentions but find it hard to identify what we can do ourselves to be more inclusive. This is one of the reasons we spend disproportionally more time to point out what’s wrong, than doing what is right. Similar to a football match, we know very well what the players and especially the coach do wrong. But we don’t see how we can contribute to a solution. In a football stadium, we justify this by saying “I’m not the coach, so I cannot change it”. Remarkably similar to what we say in the corporate world, where we easily identify what others need to change but don’t see our own flaws: “I’m quite inclusive: certainly more than average in my company. If only others would…”

Rather than being the prosecutor who points out the flaws in the inclusion capabilities of others, let’s identify why exclusion is more natural to us than inclusion:

We easily form groups and identify with the group

  1. We easily for groups and identify with the group
  2. To belong, we trade in our objectivity and rationality
  3. To belong more, we deny others entrance to our group


  1. We easily form groups and identify with the group

Henri Tajfel, a British social psychologist, must have had a great time while doing his research about group behavior. In the lab, he composed so-called ‘minimal groups’, which were formed by trivial criteria or even at random. The participants in the studies did not know each other, the groups were formed on completely meaningless criteria (flipping a coin), and participants could not have any preference upfront for the group that they ended up in. Despite this, participants liked the members of their own group much more than the members of other groups, and they described the members of their group as having more pleasant personalities compared to the outsiders. The underlying mechanism: we boost our self-esteem when we identify with a group and when we are a member of that group.

The relevance for DEI: humans love to form groups and want to belong to groups.

  1. To belong, we trade in our objectivity and rationality

Psychologist Solomon Asch became famous with his 1951 experiment in which he showed people a line and subsequently made them point out a line of similar length, giving them three options for this. It was obvious what was the right answer, and anybody who individually participated in the experiment picked the correct line. But when Asch put participants in groups in which the other group members were actors who pointed out the wrong answer, things changed. People started to look around, nervously laughed, and displayed insecure behaviors: they often copied the obviously wrong answer from the actors rather than staying with their own – correct – assessment of which lines had equal length.

The relevance for DEI: We go great length to belong to groups: we’re even willing to trade the truth for it.

  1. To belong more, we deny others entrance to our group

Not only do we pick wrong answers in laboratory scientific experiments because we want to belong, but we have also learned in life that we secure our position in the group when we clarify who does not belong. Think of picking teams for sports in high school: a team spirit builds as soon as we exclude others from entering. Our biases are strong, and what bonds one group rejects people from other groups to join in. Experiments have taught us that we find it hard to exclude somebody actively from an existing group. But we find it much easier to deny a potential newcomer access to a group. We exclude and ostracize, as this elevates our own social standing in a group.

The relevance for DEI: Excluding people who do not belong is natural to humans. We’re not proud of this and will publicly deny it, but that’s what we do.

Knowing this human tendency paints a grim reality: it is more natural to us to exclude, than it is to include people who are not like us. At the same time, we do not try to be more inclusive: corporate initiatives mostly are focused at avoiding exclusion, rather than promoting inclusion.

So, what can we do in our team to bring inclusion one step closer? A first step you can take is to have more diverse voices present when your team has an important decision to make, and then really listen to their perspective. Instead of asking the engineering manager to be present in the meeting, ask one of the great minds from her team to join the meeting. In the next management team off-site, ask a bright 25-year-old female rather than a 50-year old man to present their perspective. Invite the voices of the sceptics into your brainstorm. Find the person who silently disagrees with you and learn from her. And challenge, rather than ignore, the silent introverts to say what they think.

Invite diverse voices to contribute. The benefits of diversity work in your favor when 1) it’s cognitive rather than visual diversity that you foster, and 2) you create a safe climate in which all feel ok to speak up, even when that feels uncomfortable at first.

Take one small action in your team today. That will have more impact than many big corporate words about Diversity & Inclusion tomorrow. Which one small step did come to mind first? And will you really do it or is it just a vague intention for now. Let me know: I’m happy to listen to your story and challenge you to take a concrete step. Right now.

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