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A world of difference: What keeps companies from becoming more inclusive

Inclusion can unlock excellence and innovation, but instincts and good intentions will never get you there. In this interview, Frances Frei and Francesca Gino explore the underlying factors that keep organizations from becoming more inclusive

Published: Apr 14, 2022 10:49:17 AM IST
Updated: Apr 14, 2022 11:09:22 AM IST

A world of difference: What keeps companies from becoming more inclusiveImage: Shutterstock

Frances Frei, the UPS Foundation Professor of Service Management, is an expert in the intersection of leadership and inclusion. Francesca Gino, the Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration, studies how people can lead more productive, fulfilling lives. Last year, the pair co-taught a short, intensive course for MBA students called Anatomy of a Badass, which was a primer on being unapologetically authentic at work. Here, they talk with the HBS Alumni Bulletin about understanding differences in the workplace and the urgency of building inclusive cultures.

Bulletin: There’s been a huge awakening in the last couple years around diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace. Is this moment leading to real change, in your view?
Frances Frei:
I totally agree there’s been an awakening, and I think what’s different about this one is that now we understand what to do. For organizations that want to change, it’s completely accessible. You see both the capability and the motivation, whereas before maybe you had the motivation but not the capability. And now the business case for DEI is overwhelmingly clear. If you want to skyrocket performance in any organization, teach them how to be more inclusive.

One of the reasons there hasn’t been as much progress on DEI as you would expect is that the sequencing of the words—diversity, equity, inclusion—is in the wrong order. We have seen many organizations bring in diverse talent, not be inclusive of that talent, and not get any better. We have never seen an organization become more inclusive that didn’t also attract people with lots and lots of difference. Inclusion always begets difference, but diversity may or may not beget inclusion.

Francesca Gino: We can divide leaders out there into three buckets. The first bucket is executives who say, I want to bring more diversity into the organization and think about equity and inclusion, but this is not at the top of my priority list. The second bucket is executives who say, I definitely want to have more diversity, equity, and inclusion, but I don’t know how to tackle this complex set of issues. These are workplaces where the leaders are fearful because they don’t have a sense of how to unpack the problem and what steps to take to solve it effectively. In the third category, there is a clear desire; the leaders are courageous enough to take action; they recognize there is messiness in doing it right; and they are okay with errors they and others will be making along the way. The number of places that don’t belong to any one of these three categories and that are not interested at all is, nowadays, very low.

Frei: That final category has to be zero, which is an astonishing fact. Five years ago, it was sizable. Is it better to address inclusion tomorrow or today? Today, by miles, because not only are the problems going to stack up, but also your employee base is watching you, and they’re watching you choose not to do it. Inclusion is an urgent goal, and it is so achievable. I don’t mean that it’s easy. It’s complicated. It’s messy. But if you fold your cards after one attempt, you’re never going to get there.

Bulletin: So how do we get started building inclusion?
Gino:
What I found helps is allowing people to bring back something they were born with, which is curiosity—this genuine interest in discovery—and connecting with others, to understand and learn from them. Something that I learned by taking my husband to improv-comedy classes as a Christmas present (a gift that he hated at the beginning but then came to love) is the idea that curiosity and judgment can’t coexist; you’re either in one mode or the other. When we see things that are different—people who are different, views that are different from our own—we are quick to judge them. But when we substitute that judgment with curiosity, and wonder why someone might think differently about an issue, that is when we learn. So we can start building inclusion by making people realize that their worldview is not necessarily the right one and that they can all learn from one another.

Frei: I grew up in a house where judgment was a delicacy, so I instinctively go straight to judgment. It’s the trait I like least in myself. But Francesca has taught me how to invite curiosity in, which then pushes judgment out. I have adopted her practice of starting sentences with “I wonder” and “I’m curious,” because you can’t finish those sentences in judgment. Try it! It’s a miracle.

Bulletin: Frances, you have also recommended something called an “indignities list.” Tell us what that means and how it can help us understand difference.
Frei:
I recommend that you bring together a group of people who are having challenges or feeling frustrated, center on them, and then ask them: What have you experienced or observed that is getting in the way of you being able to bring your full self to work? What are the micro indignities that you are experiencing or observing? Then go through these indignities and try to convert some of them to dignities. Start with the ones that are going to make everyone better off. Sometimes the answer might be office chairs: Moms were quitting during the pandemic in part because their backs were killing them when they worked at home, and they weren’t allowed to bring their office chairs home. The policy communicated a lack of empathy and general cluelessness about the employee experience—signals that were particularly important to working moms. The answer is often something small, sometimes even costless to fix, but unknowable without talking about it.

Gino: What I love about this is that we think that we understand each other, but we don’t. You’re reminding me of a beautiful paper by Nicholas Epley and his colleagues in Chicago. They looked at “perspective taking,” or the practice of trying to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. He shows across 25 studies with more than 2,800 people that imagining the world through someone else’s eyes leads us to inaccurate judgments. What helps us to be more accurate is what he calls “perspective getting,” which means that you try to start a dialogue with the person to understand them instead of trying to guess their feelings.

Frei: Or, in our language, “center” on them.

Bulletin: Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes might be a natural instinct for someone trying to understand a person who is different than they are. Why is instinct not the right tool?
Gino:
Instinct often pushes us in the wrong direction toward something that is fundamentally familiar and comfortable. Difference is not that. You need curiosity and courage to understand something differently and to learn from it. In addition, sometimes what feeds that instinct is experience. Experience and expertise are not bad things, but sometimes they narrow the way we think about problems because we think we have the right answer.

One of the stories that I included in my book Rebel Talent was about the airline pilot Captain “Sully” Sullenberger, who lost power in both jet engines over the Hudson River shortly after taking off from New York City. He had served in the military, flown all sorts of planes, and accumulated over 30,000 hours of flying experience. And yet, in the 208 seconds that he had to make a decision, rather than going with his own instinct to the most obvious answer (landing at the closest airport), he kept broadening his perspective. He asked a lot of questions. He checked in with the air traffic controller and the first officer; everybody’s perspective was brought in. He considered many alternatives when most of us would have focused on the obvious one. He had this beautiful habit of mind that every time he walked into the cockpit, he would ask himself what he could learn. That is experience with humility. If you have both, then your instincts can be helpful. But if you have experience without humility, then your instincts emerge as arrogance. That can blind you from seeing a problem from many perspectives.

Bulletin: Have you found a way to teach people to better understand difference?
Gino:
As Frances and I were thinking about this, I came back to an experience of being in an escape room, which is something that I’ll never convince Frances to do with me. We created a similar experience with an expert puzzle master. The students are organized in groups of four or five. They get clues they need to make sense of, and nobody is an expert by design. It’s great to see what you can achieve as a team, collaboratively, when that is the case. You’re not making assumptions about each other’s expertise or knowledge. You’re not putting people into categories, and by default you end up being much more inclusive. So the students have fun, and then afterward we talk about which strategies unlocked more puzzles.

Frei: We could tell you how to be inclusive—or we can put you in this position where you’re going to be inclined to be inclusive because your expertise is not sufficient, and then you see the payoff. Some teams will struggle because they were exclusive and dismissive of each other. Inclusion gets you there faster—and better. I think we have to understand inclusion deeply, then curate these moments of pedagogy to get people to behave more inclusively, and then it’s just a virtuous cycle. We’ve never seen an organization that didn’t attract more and more diversity when people there behaved inclusively.

Gino: I agree, and there is research that backs you up.

This article originally appeared in the HBS Alumni Bulletin.

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[This article was provided with permission from Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.]

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