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A Matter of Difference:  Inclusion:
What Can I and My Organization Do About It?

Bernardo M. Ferdman
Alliant International University

Martin N. Davidson
University of Virginia

Two years ago, at Rice University, one of us (Bernardo) facilitated a session at a small conference attended primarily by organizational and social psychologists on prejudice and discrimination in organizations. The title of the session was Dialogue for Envisioning the Inclusive Workplace, and the goal was to involve conference participants in describing the components of inclusion. After spending 2 days talking about discrimination, it was important to consider what might replace it. Participants were asked first to interview each other in pairs regarding their visions of inclusion and their hopes for organizations regarding the creation and fostering of inclusion, and then to extract key themes in small groups. Many excellent ideas were generated but what was most notable about the session was the great energy and emotion that emerged. This was an intense session; some people cried as they talked about the pain and frustration they experienced in their own careers as academics and their hopes for a better and more inclusive future. People need to feel and be included in their professional environments. What needs to happen to make this a reality?  

Evidence is growing that inclusion matters to organizational effectiveness (see, e.g., Brickson, 2000; Cox, 2001; Creed & Scully, 2000; Davidson, 1999; Gasorek, 2000; Gilbert & Ivancevich, 2000; Meyerson, 2001; Mor-Barak, 2000; Robinson & Dechant, 1997; Wah, 1999). Inclusion opens the pathway for a variety of different individuals to marshal their personal resources to do what they do best. Based on their recent study, for example, Ely and Thomas (2001) argue for the importance of feeling valued and of being able to express ones social identity at work as antecedents to building effective group functioning in organizational contexts. This is consistent with other studies, including those on quality, job enrichment, work motivation, and organizational development, that confirm similar relationships between utilizing ones full range of talents and perspectives and the capability to commit to and to accomplish organizational objectives. We believe simply that the glue between these two is inclusion.

Inclusion can be described in a variety of ways. Mor-Barak and Cherin (1998), for example, see it as the degree to which individuals feel part of critical organizational processes, indicated by their access to information and resources, work group involvement, and ability to influence decision making. Pelled, Ledford, and Mohrman (1999) assessed inclusion on the basis of peoples job security, their access to sensitive information, and their influence on decision making. Gasorek (2000), in describing inclusion at Dun & Bradstreet, considers the degree to which (a) employees are valued and their ideas are taken into account and used, (b) people partner successfully within and across departments, (c) current employees feel that they belong and prospective employees are attracted to the organization, (d) people feel connected to each other and to the organization and its goals, and (e) the organization continuously fosters flexibility and choice, and attends to diversity. Similarly, at the Rice conference, participants mentioned a range of aspects of the experience of inclusion, such as feeling validated, accepted, heard, and appreciated; using ones talents and making a difference (including being part of something that is working and doing a meaningful task); having some work autonomy; receiving feedback; having ones input solicited and used; involvement in collaboration; openness for dialogue; and wanting to learn from others.

We believe that inclusion happens at two levelsthe individual and the organizational. At the individual level, the need to be a part of the social whole has long been recognized as core to human psychological well-being. Affiliation and psychological attachment research has established this in a variety of ways. But while there are commonalities or general themes in terms of what people experience as inclusionfeeling valued, respected, recognized, trusted, and that one is making a differencenot everyone experiences these in the same way. As an introvert, one person may only need one or two social connections in order to satisfy her or his inclusion need. Others may have to interact with a wider range of the community in order to feel a full part of it. There arent rigid rules regarding what it takes to make someone feel included. You and I may experience inclusion in different ways and based on different antecedents. Indeed, part of the lesson of diversity is that if you treat me how you would like to be treated, if you follow the golden rule, you might not necessarily make me feel included. Instead, you might be imposing your values and your style on me. Rather, to make me feel included, it is important for you to figure out my needs and to try to address those. And I must do the same. As the Canadian Human Rights Commission (2001) points out in A Place for All: A Guide to Creating an Inclusive Workplace, True equality means respect for peoples different needs (p. 3).

We know that some people are more skilled at navigating the variables and the variability involved in inclusion. Some individuals behave in ways that othersacross a range of dimensions of diversityconsistently experience as inclusive, and they effectively promote a sense of inclusion in their workgroups and in their organizations. Such competencies can be developed and enhanced, especially in the context of an organizational culture that makes them a condition of success. Many if not most of the competencies essential for fostering inclusion are related to what many psychologists might call process skills. Several resources point to some of the components involved in such skills when applied to inclusion (e.g., Chrobot-Mason & Ferdman, 2001). For example, Wheeler (1999), in a simple and clear summary, points out that cultural competence includes self-awareness and sensitivity to differences; the ability to see issues from anothers perspective, to deal with ambiguity and complexity, to develop people, and to manage conflict; [and] good cross-cultural skills (p. 33). Being able to continuously learn about oneself and ones impact on others, not only as an individual, but also as a member of a range of social groups, together with the implications of these group memberships for oneself and others is an important skill related to inclusion (Ferdman, in press). Interpersonally and in groups, being able to foster and engage in true dialogue (Isaacs, 1999), and to understand and productively work through conflicts (Stone, Patton, & Heen, 1999) are also critical skills. Meyerson (2001) describes the range of choices available to those who want to remain productive members of their organizations without giving up key pieces of themselves. Doing this for oneself and permitting others to do so are vital pieces of fostering inclusion.

Essentially, the principal point is that developing inclusion is everyones responsibility. We each need to do it, and we each have a responsibility to look inwards at our own role in and contribution to the situations in which we find ourselves. Mahatma Gandhi, the great Indian leader, has been quoted as saying that each of us must be the change that we want to see in the world. If we expect inclusion, we must learn to provide it, and in that way, model the necessary behaviors for those around us. Seemingly small, individual behavior can make a very large difference (as can omitting behavior). Something as straightforward as saying hello to our coworkers each day, acknowledging and checking in with people at meetings, or listening carefully to others until we understand them can go a long way toward fostering a sense of inclusion.

A key aspect that we believe connects all these skills is the inclination and the ability to treat each situation as new and different, and not to expect others to be just like us, but rather, to expect and value difference. Although we should certainly learn from prior interactions, we also need the ability to engage in the moment, and in Gurevitchs (1989) terms, to make strange and allow ourselves to not understand the other. In doing so, we can permit others to define themselves and their needs on their own terms. And if I allow others to do this, I can then better address their needs rather than mine.

Yet, it is a nave and possibly even dangerous oversimplification to think that addressing individual inclusion at the individual level is the complete answer to nurturing an inclusive organization or workplace. Doing this also requires systemic, proactive work at the organizational level (Dass & Parker, 1999). But if it is impossible or impractical to try to come up with a global and fixed set of rules regarding inclusion that will apply to everyone in all situations, then what is the organizational solution to building an inclusive environment? Here again, Wheeler (1999) provides a succinct and valuable summary. According to him, Organizations that truly value inclusion are characterized by effective management of people who are different, ability to admit weakness and mistakes, heterogeneity at all levels, empowerment of people, recognition and utilization of peoples skills and abilities, an environment that fosters learning and exchanging of ideas, and flexibility (pp. 3334). Similarly, Thomas and Ely (1996), list the preconditions that, in their view, enable organizations to learn from and fully utilize their diversity: (a) leadership must understand that workforce diversity includes diverse perspectives, opinions, insights, and approaches to work; (b) leadership must know that diversity brings with it opportunities and challenges that create a need for unlearning, relearning, and gaining new learnings; (c) everyone must be held to high standards of performance; (d) the work culture must encourage and foster personal development through training and education programs; (e) open communication, constructive conflict on work-related issues, and tolerance for dialogue must be encouraged; (f) employees must feel valued in order to contribute their highest level of performance to the organization; (g) a clear mission statement that provides a focal point for accomplishing business goals and guides decision making must exist; and (h) there must be nonbureaucratic ways for employees to constructively challenge current ways of doing business and reshape past policies and practices to be more inclusive and empowering. It is the processes and systems that are in place that encourage and require expression of individual-level skills, as well as provide the foundation for a suitable organizational culture that gives meaning to the words that so many organizations put on paper but do not always bring to life. The specifics of these processes and systems will vary from organization to organization. Yet the growing literature on diversity initiatives (e.g., Arredondo, 1996; Cox, 2001; Cross, 2000; Ferdman & Brody, 1996; Wheeler, 1995) provides some strategies for organizations interested in starting the process, a process that in reality must be ongoing and continuous.

While certainly organizations can and should do a great deal to foster work climates that are likely to feel inclusive, the actual experience of inclusion must be created in process, in each moment and in each interaction. In many ways, inclusion is a momentary, even evanescent creation, which depends on the particular people and the particular situation involved. At the same time, the behavior and attitude of the moment may not mean much without a history and a future, without a structure and system around them that give them the appropriate meaning and weight. If I invite someone at work to give me input on a project, whether or not she experiences that as inclusive behavior will depend on many factors, including the tone I used in giving the invitation, my colleagues beliefs regarding my sincerity and how likely I am to use the input, my previous behavior in similar situations, the general nature of relations among people in the organization, and a host of other contextual variables. For this reason, the individual and organizational levels of inclusion are both critical. They are also interactive. To create an inclusive organization, it is not enough to work at the individual level, if the organizational systems do not support inclusion. And the reverse is also true: Organizational systems by themselves are insufficient, without behavior, thought, and feeling to match.

As we suggested above, a key component to all of this is ongoing dialogue, not just as a skill for individuals, but also as a discipline for organizations. At this years SIOP Conference in Toronto, on Friday, April 12, 2002, we will be holding a special session, Dialogue on Diversity and Inclusion in Organizations: SIOP and Beyond, designed to engage participants in a conversation about what full inclusion might look and feel like at SIOP and elsewhere, as well as how we might ensure that each of us, with our differences, is highly valued and fully included. We hope to see many of you there.


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