Do you have true inclusion in your team or is it assimilation?

June 7, 2022


We use the word inclusion in a very loose way to cover a wide range of topics – if a person feels connected, it’s inclusion. If they feel like their ideas are heard, it’s inclusion. But it’s very possible for inclusion in an organisation to meet one of these aspects and not the other. For example, take a team where people are very strongly bonded; they know each other well as individuals and there is a lot of warmth. However, there is also an implicit acceptance that they will not challenge each other and so even if one person has a differing point of view, they will stay silent just so that the sense of connection is not threatened. Would you call that inclusion?

The framework that is being described below is a nuanced way to look at inclusion. It’s based on the optimal distinctiveness model of Marilynn Brewer (1991), a social psychologist. According to this model, we derive our social identity from a fundamental tension between two social needs. On the one hand, there is our need to belong and then there is the countervailing need to be unique.

People seek to be part of a group to avoid the separateness, the vulnerability, or judgment that may come from being very different. Research shows that human beings feel uncomfortable and at a disadvantage when in situations where they feel different or like an outsider. At the same time, when we are too similar to the people around us, there is no basis for defining who we are and that can make us uncomfortable as well. Being just a number in a large, undefined group of people is as difficult as standing apart from the group.

For us to operate at our best, both these seemingly contrasting needs must be met. Now given that we have two axes (belonging and uniqueness), a 2X2 framework cannot be far behind.

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Let’s take a closer look at these four quadrants:

Exclusion:

If a person on the team is low both on belongingness and on uniqueness, they would belong in this quadrant. If you’re here, you would feel like you’re not an insider like the others in the team (so you don’t belong) and you don’t feel your unique capabilities are valued. To illustrate, take the case of Anamika who was the marketing head in an organisation. Her background had entirely been in branding and marketing in large tech organisations before she joined her current company.

She handled the marketing role well for two years before her manager asked her if she would also like to take on the head of sales role, as part of her career development. She agreed to do so but found the going very difficult. She had no experience with sales and was leading a team of people who had deep expertise in sales. She would often feel like she did not belong in the group, despite being the leader, because she didn’t speak the language of sales that they did. The group was also not very appreciative of her marketing background so they did not seem to value the perspectives that she did bring in. In six months’ time, Anamika went back to her leader and asked if she could go back to her previous role.

As Anamika’s case illustrates, this is a deeply disturbing quadrant to be operating out of. A person in this zone does not feel the warmth that comes from belonging and neither do they experience the sense of being valued for their unique strengths

Assimilation

This is the quadrant of high belongingness and low uniqueness; one that often passes as inclusion. A person in this quadrant would feel a strong sense of connection with the team; they would feel like they have as much access to information as the others; that they are involved in decision making etc. However, they would not feel that their uniqueness is valued. This could happen because of a sense (often at an unconscious level) that they would belong only if they fitted in with the others. Teams that operate in this quadrant would feel a strong sense of connection and bonding but not enough healthy dissent.

Teams that could fall into this quadrant are those where the members have been working together a very long time; where harmony is valued very highly; where there is a strong sense of identity that is shaped by the group; where the group has a sense of purpose that everyone subscribes to. In all these cases, choosing to express ways in which one is unique could seem like you’re threatening the stability of the group and so people could choose to suppress parts of themselves that don’t fit the group.

Differentiation:

This is the quadrant of low belongingness and high uniqueness. Here I’m not an insider but I feel my unique capabilities are valued and seen as contributing to success. For example, all of us at Navgati operate in this quadrant when we are facilitating leadership development interventions for clients. Let’s say one of us has been called in to anchor a leadership conversation around collaboration – we definitely would not feel like we are part of the inner circle of the group; there may not be as much warmth as the group members direct towards each other but there is definitely respect for our uniqueness. The leadership team would welcome us speaking up and pointing out what they may be missing.

Inclusion

This is the quadrant of high belongingness and high uniqueness- I feel like I belong and my unique capabilities are valued.and seen as contributing to success. The Holy Grail. Teams that experience this would be able to challenge each other in a healthy way; point out where the group is missing relevant data; would feel free to be their own authentic selves.

So what does this all mean?

Given the importance of meeting both these needs, you’re likely to see one of two things happening in your teams over a period of time if you’re not operating in the inclusion quadrant.

  • People who experience a very high sense of belonging but not uniqueness will want to assert their individuality (perhaps by rebelling; perhaps by creating sub-groups).
  • People who experience uniqueness but don’t feel a sense of connection will unconsciously choose to damp down their individuality so they can fit in.

What can you do as a leader to move your people into the quadrant of inclusion?

  • Pay close attention to any unconscious bias that may be creeping into your hiring or performance management processes. If you find that people who are being hired or promoted are very similar to the existing team profile, it’s possible that you are setting yourselves up for assimilation.
  • Look at the dynamics within the group – in team meetings and social occasions, do you see any signs of in-groups (small groups that appear more connected to each other than the rest)? Reflect on whether as a leader you are, in anyway, appearing to be closer to people in the in-groups than others.
  • Encourage positive dissent – when you role model curiosity and empathy for someone who is disagreeing, it makes it safer for the others to speak up as well.
  • Create processes that encourage people to express their individuality – for example, asking everyone to write down their thoughts on a question and going around the table to hear what they have to say.
  • Share this framework with them and ask them where they feel the team stands; perhaps even using an anonymous poll to create safety for people to express themselves.

Our Diversity and Inclusion training programs are aimed at generating a deeper awareness to the concept of inclusivity and go beyond the common understanding of diversity as a gender issue alone. We focus on exclusion which is a common phenomenon across gender, generations, skills, geography etc. and through our experiential and reflective sessions we help participants identify the barriers to inclusion and brainstorm on ways to reduce their unconscious biases. Please click here to know more about our program offerings in this space.


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