Home Home | About Us | Sitemap | Contact  
  • Info For
  • Professionals
  • Students
  • Educators
  • Media
  • Search
    Powered By Google

A Matter of Difference: Some Learning About Inclusion: Continuing the Dialogue

Bernardo M. Ferdman
Alliant International University

Martin N. Davidson
University of Virginia

Part I (Bernardo)

This is our eighth column in the series that we started 3 years ago. It seems that the time has gone by very quickly, yet looking back over the articles, we have covered a lot of ground. At the same time, it feels as if in some ways we have only touched the surface of the complex and challenging issues of diversity and inclusion in organizations. For this last column, we want to build on the previous one, in which we began a dialogue that we shared with our readers and also to provide a way to connect the pieces of all the articles. To do this, we decided to keep our two voices united but distinct, in a sense, so that we could continue to be differentiated as individuals while we discuss key aspects of what we have learned from collaborating on our column and try to point the way to the future. Rather than a back-and-forth conversation, however, we decided to write longer, connected pieces similar to our earlier articles but maintaining our individual voices. Essentially, we would like to embody in the flavor and structure of this column a key aspect of what we have learned about inclusion, which is that for it to be present, for example in our collaboration, it requires working together on a common task while maintaining our identity and ability to express ourselves as distinct individuals (even to the point of sometimes defining that common task differently). The challenge in our work together, and we believe the challenge of diversity and inclusion in organizations, has been finding an effective way to create and maintain structures and processes that allow for and fosterall at the same timedifferentiation, connectedness, relationship, and interdependence, essentially allowing us to create a unified whole that is also based on fleshed out, recognizable partsa whole with its own integrity and that can stand on its own yet that at the same time maintains and even enhances the integrity of its component parts.

I believe that this ability to take in individuals without having those individuals lose themselves is a fundamental requirement of effectiveness in any social system or group. (Of course, as Smith and Berg, 1987, so cogently point out in describing the paradoxes of belonging to groups, the other side of this is that the group can only be formed and take on an identity as such to the extent that its component individuals give themselves to the group.) This need to preserve the integrity of the parts or individuality of the members is particularly true to the extent that the value to the group or organization of its members is their unique contribution (i.e., they are not simply another cog in the machine). Although this has certainly been a major focus of the discourse on diversity, I think there is something new to add when considering this dynamic in the context of a multicultural, diverse society. To get there, I need to take a slight detour.

I have just completed reading a forceful and very thought-provoking book by Gervase R. Bushe (2001) entitled Clear Leadership: How Outstanding Leaders Make Themselves Understood, Cut Throughthe Mush, and Help Everyone Get Real at Work. In articulating his vision of leadership and its associated skills, Bushe presents a compelling case for the importance of self-awareness, descriptiveness, curiosity, and appreciation as fundamental building blocks of interpersonal competence and organizational learning. To the extent that people in organizations can master these skills, according to Bushe, we will be able to reduce or eliminate what he calls interpersonal mush. He describes interpersonal mush as occurring when peoples understanding of each other is based on fantasies and stories they have made up about each other (p. 5). The goal of successful leadership, in his view, is to replace this with interpersonal clarity so that people can work together more effectively, particularly in empowered organizations, such that there is an environment where [people] are willing to tell the truth about their experience and learn from it (p. 5). A key aspect of effectively clearing away the mush involves managing the paradox of individuality versus belonging, expressed as the tension between separation anxiety, the fear of being alone, and intimacy anxiety, the fear of being engulfed. As we deal with the feelings and behavior provoked by these anxieties, we often vary along a continuum of fusionthinking and feeling solely in reaction to othersat one extreme and disconnectionextreme individuality without any connection to others (p. 57)at the other extreme. When I am fused, the boundaries between me and others are blurred at best and nonexistent at worst. When I am disconnected, my boundaries are so rigid that I behave as if the experience of others is irrelevant to me, to the extent that I am not even aware of what others are experiencing. For Bushe, the necessary middle ground of these irreconcilable pulls is differentiation, which is finding a place where belonging and individuality are not mutually exclusive, where I am both separate from you and connected to you at the same time (p. 62), such that I can know what I am experiencing and want to know what others are experiencing, without confusing the two. It is about having choiceful, healthy boundaries, being willing to learn, and being clear about the difference between what is inside [me] and what is outside of [me] and between [my] past and [my] present (p. 69). Bushe highlights the importance to clear leadership of engaging in organizational learning conversations. For him, learning is the outcome of an inquiry that produces knowledge and leads to change (p. 40). What makes it organizational is that it happens in the context of the relationships that make up the organization (p. 41), thus making it a social phenomenon, one that results in changes in patterns of relating and interacting.

So how does all this relate to diversity and inclusion? Reading Bushes book, I became quite excited as I began to see some of the connections. Particularly, it occurred to me that a key challenge of building inclusion in a diverse organization involves reducing or eliminating what I would now call intergroup mush. Paralleling the notion of interpersonal mush laid out by Bushe, intergroup mush occurs when people understand and behave with each other primarily on the basis of the fantasies, stories, prejudices, stereotypes, and other internalized representations that they have of their own and each others social identities. We know, from extensive research on intergroup relations, that people often interact with others in terms of one or more of the perceived group memberships of the other. There are also times when people actively seek to ignore or minimize others group memberships. At the same time, I can lose sight of one or more of my own identities, for example because I am primarily focused on a different identity or the situation, or other people in it. Thus, intergroup mush can be present not only when I treat someone on the basis of an overgeneralization derived from one of his or her group identities but also when I ignore or am blind to the full range of social identities that both I and the other person hold. 

For example, in engaging and working with Martin, I can highlight in my mind and heart his identity as a professor and a man, two identities that we share. This would lead me to assume a certain degree of similarity and commonality on which to build our collaboration. Or I could highlight his identity as an African American, which contrasts with mine as a Latino and a Jew. The reality is that we are both more complex than that, each including a much lengthier list of social identities. To the extent that I interact with Martin primarily on the basis of either a highlighted similarity or a highlighted difference, I contribute to the intergroup mush. Both he and I are members of a range of social categories, which together combine in unique ways to make each of us who we are (Ferdman, 1995). When I lose sight of this complexity, either in me or him, as well as when we collude to do this together, we are contributing to intergroup mush.

As I see it, the challenge of developing intergroup clarity is to find ways to recognize both our similarities and differences, not only at the interpersonal but also at the intergroup level. We really are different from each other, and not only because of our different group memberships, but also because those groups have different histories, experiences, and realities. From this perspective, increasing inclusion would require developing the skills to allow ourselves and others to see more of the complete and complex picture of our intergroup realities, as these are expressed in our everyday collaborations. It is about allowing for both similarities and differences at both the individual and the group levels at the same time that we are joined together in a common endeavor. To further parallel Bushe, it is about avoiding fusion, in which I act as if we are the same, as well as avoiding disconnection, in which I believe and act as if we are completely different. By maintaining a sense of both individuality (my own and that of my counterparts) together with intergroup distinctiveness, I can be more attuned to the impact of similarities and differences in our work and call upon them as needed. To the extent that this sensitivity and this skill become part of the everyday way of working in an organization, I would argue that we can describe it as a more inclusive organization. In such an organization, differentiation is not only allowed but celebrated such that we can be aware of and express as they become relevant the pieces of ourselves that connect to different group memberships or identities, all this without losing our connection to our coworkers or to our common tasks or similarities.

Part II (Martin)

The mental dilemma that Bernardos vision of intergroup clarity raises is the need for people (and organizations) to cultivate a cognitive capacity to entertain what for so many seems like contradiction. I agree with Bernardo that increasing inclusion means allowing for group and individual similarities and differences to be acknowledged while simultaneously working toward a common purpose. The challenge is that for so many, emphasizing the individual and emphasizing the group are two mutually exclusive ways of thinking. The part of me that is the individual is complex, personal, familiar, and idiosyncratic. The part of me that is a group member is simple, rough around the edges, associated with stereotypes and even prejudice and bigotry.

The combination of acknowledging both individual and group identity as a means of enhancing inclusion requires the capacity to engage paradox. Heather Wishik and I (Wishik & Davidson, 2004) write about this capacity to embrace paradox as a critical competency for effective management across cultural difference. Our research finds that exemplary managers demonstrate the ability to hold seemingly contradicting concepts simultaneously. The leaders we studied started with two or more apparently inconsistent or clashing phenomena, and eventually found new relationships, different contexts, or unforeseen meanings and consequences which enabled these phenomena to be understood as possibility-laden paradoxes where the clashing elements were simultaneously true. Working through to such a cognitive process provided leaders with new options for strategic action.

In the consulting I do, I see the need for engaging paradox all the time. I recently worked with a set of managers who were seeking to create understanding and develop competence in dealing with difference. An African American manager, in discussing the challenge of talking about race differences in the organization, described the phenomenon of how job candidates are labeled. He noted that Whites who are being recruited are simply candidates, but people of color being recruited are usually discussed as qualified minority candidates, as though their minority identity would necessarily bring into question their qualification. A White man, a close friend and colleague of the speaker, objected to the statement noting that he discusses qualification with all candidates, not just people of color. The discussion became more heated, as each person questioned the accuracy of the others perception.

The episode was noteworthy because it illustrated the rejection of the kinds of paradoxes that are an essential part of an inclusive work community. First, the two managers had seemingly opposing views that were, in fact, both true. The White manager was a human resource professional and had, in fact, used the word qualified in all sorts of recruiting contexts. It was clear that many of his White colleagues had done so as well. The African American manager was joined by all of the other African American managers in the room in his perception that qualified was a ubiquitous modifier when discussing minority candidates in particular. Even though the disputants felt that only one of them could be right, both were. I dont know in retrospect, if either disputant understood that both were correct: As the discussion concluded, I suspect the African American participant believed he was vindicated and the White participant believed he was wrong.

But the expectation of such a simple win-lose outcome does a disservice to the challenge of paradox in inclusive organizations. Fostering inclusion means fostering multiple realities. And being able to thrive in an inclusive organization means being able to tolerate and embrace the ambiguity that accompanies the paradoxes that multiple realities pose. It is ironic that we have so often used and contrasted the words tolerate and embrace when talking about diversity and differences. This notion of dealing with paradox adds texture to what it means to truly embrace difference.

Perhaps an even more powerful implication of this skill of embracing paradox is that its importance is not limited only to negotiating cultural or racial or gender difference. It is a competency that provides greater degrees of freedom for any organization member to engage differing perspectives and perceptions.

Part III (Bernardo)

I wholeheartedly agree that living and working with paradox is at the crux of the competencies needed to effectively embrace differences and create inclusion. In 1992, I wrote about this in relation to ethnic diversity in particular. In that chapter (Ferdman, 1992), I pointed out the seeming contradictions between recommendations based on research on the social psychology of intergroup relations and conclusions following from cross-cultural and intercultural studies. The former emphasized the pernicious effectsincluding prejudice and stereotypingof highlighting social categories and pointed to the importance of putting more emphasis on the individual and less on the group. The latter emphasized the real differences between groups and the need to be conscious of group memberships so as to be better able to account for culturally based variations in individual behavior. The challenge for those wanting to work effectively across differences is being able to take both of these seemingly contradictory paths at once: Treating others as individuals rather than simply as representatives of a category, while at the same time understanding that because those others belong to a group other than my own they may not share my values, attitudes, and beliefs, nor do they interpret behavior as I do.

In the years since writing that chapter, and particularly as we have collaborated on these columns, I have become more acutely aware of the multiple layers of complexity that are overlaid on that already intricate picture. As Martin points out and as we have mentioned in prior columns, to create and increase inclusion, individuals must have appropriate competencies and demonstrate corresponding behaviors. Inclusion cannot exist without individuals who seek it and behave accordingly. At the same time, those individuals choose, display, and interpret their behavior and that of others in the context of organizational, intergroup, and socio-historical dynamics that are also very much part of the puzzle of inclusion. For example, in the situation Martin describes, even though the White and the African-American managers were both correct in their views, to better understand each other and their perspectives and to find effective points of contact, they (and we) might also consider aspects such as the privilege and power of their respective groups (in the organization and in the society at large, both now and in the past), the stereotypes and images each carries of the other (images that are socially, not just individually, formed and shared), and the norms and history concerning diversity and intergroup relations within their workgroup and organization. At the same time, the two managers each belong to multiple other groups that are also part of the picture.

Creating intergroup clarity involves a complex mix of individual competencies, organizational initiatives, and social change. None is sufficient without the others; at the same time, each one drives and can be a precursor for the others. This means that we can begin at any of those levels yet should not expect any one of them alone to complete the task. It also means that effectively increasing inclusion requires leadership, coordination, and above all, interdependence. The challenge for those of us who would like to increase inclusion for ourselves and others is having sufficient courage to muddle through, while continually increasing not only the clarity of our conviction but also our collective learning about what works and what does not, as well as our ability to partner with those who are both similar and different to us.

Part IV (Martin)

The conclusion of our column prompts me to reflect more deeply on the critical challenges to building inclusive organizations. We have touched on so many important aspects in the past 3 years: the basic rationale for inclusion, the challenges of power dynamics, the capacity to engage conflict, and the role of courage in manifesting a vision of inclusion. Im left awed and excited by the prospect of creating inclusive environments.

Im also reminded of the cautionary note I gleaned from my first psychology professor. She opened class by stating: There are people who read the New Yorker, people who dont read the New Yorker, and people who dont read the New Yorker anymore. The last two groups look the same, but they are not! I think about this whenever I work with people to create inclusion because there is a tendency to think that we can get there by just treating people with respect, care, and compassion and that somehow this simple resolve will do the trick. If anything has come from the territory Bernardo and I have explored, I hope it is that building inclusion is hard work, grounded in a commitment to be aware of the difficulties and to take them on with a sense of hope and a toolkit of skills and perspectives that help to bridge the inevitable gaps in a community. That is the vision of inclusion that I want to realize, and I look forward to building alliances with any readers who may wish to join me in the adventure. Take care.

Part V (Bernardo)

I join with Martin in feeling awe and excitement at the challenge and possibilities inherent in the project of enhancing inclusion in organizations. It is a project that requires concerted and consistent vision and action on the part of individuals, groups, organizations, and society as a whole; yet, it is one that I believe is quite worthwhile, with beneficial outcomes for all. The journey to inclusion most likely will never end, but it can start right now. I too welcome partners for the trip.


     Bushe, G. R. (2001). Clear leadership: How outstanding leaders make themselves understood, cut throughthe mush, and help everyone get real at work. Palo Alto, CA: Davies-Black Publishing.
     Ferdman, B. M. (1992). The dynamics of ethnic diversity in organizations: Toward integrative models. In K. Kelley (Ed.), Issues, theory and research in industrial/organizational psychology (pp. 339384). Amsterdam: North Holland.
     Ferdman, B. M. (1995). Cultural identity and diversity in organizations: Bridging the gap between group differences and individual uniqueness. In M. M. Chemers, S. Oskamp, & M. A. Costanzo (Eds.), Diversity in organizations: New perspectives for a changing workplace (pp. 3761). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
     Smith, K. K. & Berg, D. N. (1987). Paradoxes of group life: Understanding conflict, paralysis, and movement in group dynamics. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
     Wishik, H. R., & Davidson, M. N. (2004). Three core approaches to global leadership and its complexities. Darden Graduate School of Business. Unpublished manuscript, Charlottesville, VA.


April 2004 Table of Contents | TIP Home | SIOP Home