Dancing with Diversity: From Inclusion Illusion to Authentic Belonging



We’ve heard this so many times: diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance. BUT – what if you don’t dance?

I am not talking about your performance at work. Alas, doing your job well - or even exceptionally well - does not guarantee inclusion. I am talking about the allegorical dance, the social aspects of organizational functioning that add up to the ultimate outcome of inclusion – the sense of belonging. It adds up to the tangible outcomes of retention, promotion, raises. "Dancing" could be a foodie talk, or a name dropping party, or the insider joke party, or golf. Whatever it is, it's the test of inclusion.

Too often, inclusion is contingent on leaving out an essential part of your identity. You know that if they knew the "real you," the inclusion illusion will be gone. You are included as long as you the hide fact that you grew up poor. Hide your disabilities. Get Botox to fit in with the “youthful culture.” Monitor your every word to make sure your accent does not slip through. Laugh at jokes you find offensive and say nothing. In short, you sacrifice your authenticity in crucially important ways.

If diversity is being invited to the party and inclusion is being asked to dance, then belonging is being able to reveal that you can’t dance – and to still be included.

Perhaps you have sensory issues and the music, the lights, the vibration are the sledgehammer to your brain. Perhaps you never learned to dance because you had to start working when you were 9. Perhaps it’s against your religion. Perhaps you don't have any party clothes because you are supporting your extended family. Perhaps your invisible disability requires you to conserve energy. Whatever the reason – if you told your coworkers that dancing is not your thing, what would they say? “Oh, OK, bye, then” or “Oh, is there something you would like to do instead?” Would they play trivia or spend some time outside, or just talk with you? Now, that would be the true test of belonging. Is radical belonging like that possible? Is it too much to ask for?

I would argue that radical, authentic belonging is the point of diversity – and assimilation pressure robs us of it. When we hire diverse people and then require that they assimilate for the sake of the "inclusion illusion," not only does this cost individuals their energy and their wellbeing - it robs organizations of the business value of diversity. When we sideline the immigrant from a poor country who does not understand the foodie talk, we lose out on their ability to find savings everywhere. When we ignore the quiet-loving autistic, we lose out on crucial early pattern detection in our data trends. When we exclude the non-golfing person dealing with chronic fatigue, we lose valuable tips for working smarter, not harder. When we force people to put aside their culture and their way of thinking, we lose innovative perspectives we desperately need.

We also perpetuate the systems of inequality. When we hide who we are in response to biases, biases thrive. Hiding disabilities perpetuates ableism. Responding to ageism and racism by radically altering our appearance feeds into ageism and racism. Training women to be more like men perpetuates “male as the gold standard,” the overbearing embodiment of "greed is good" remains the symbol of the workplace, and women might as well bring back power suits with shoulder pads and the hairsprayed styles, because the 80s workplace attitudes are still alive.

One of my recent posts generated an interesting discussion regarding the inclusion or those who are not naturally loud and overconfident - people who grew up poor, many women, many neurominorities. In the comments, some people were discussing getting therapy to "mask" (their neurodiversity) better. Others were suggesting that until the "elusive day” of inclusion comes, those on the short end of this stick should work on fitting in. They can learn to speak up. A well-meaning and thought-provoking comment. A perfect reflection of the assumption that people should - and can - work to override their cultures or even their brain wiring (which is the topic for another post) to fit in with the dominant culture. Assimilate. Until the system changes.  

The problem is, assimilating perpetuates the system. As long as people assimilate into it, the system has no reason to change, and inclusion remains elusive. Here is my response, with minor edits:

“While teaching others to speak up (and otherwise fit in) might be well-intended, it has unintended consequences. This is where the individual and short-term value of fitting in may work against the collective and long-term value of changing the system. Although we (speaking as an underrepresented person) can individually benefit from "fitting in and changing ourselves," we would also perpetuate the system that discriminates against us. Where do we draw the line? Which is acceptable and which is not? "Poor, learn to act rich?" "Females, learn to act male?" "Black, learn to act white?" "Introverts, learn to act extraverted - and take medication that does awful things to you if that's what it takes?" "Autistics, mask at all cost - even if kills you?" "Collectivists, toss away your cultures and act Western?" All of these are high effort tactics that take away from attentional capacity, productivity and authenticity of those underrepresented - and perpetuate the power of the privileged. What is the point of diversity if we have to assimilate?"

In sum, there are 3 issues with supporting the inclusion illusion:

1) For individuals trying to fit in, this is a high-cost tactic taking away the mental energy that could be used to do the actual work.

2) It perpetuates the system of biases and prevents the day of real inclusion from coming - ever.

3) It hurts organizational outcomes because of the loss of unique contributions.

Diversity is work, and everyone can't be expected to fully adapt to everyone else. So, it's easy and tempting to say, "let's just all conform to one standard" - always at the expense of the less dominant. But is the authenticity the price we are willing to pay? Can we create workplaces that allow us to work toward common goals while being true to our authentic selves? Workplaces where it's safe to say that you don't dance - and invite others to a garden picnic instead?

Moving to authentic belonging is not easy. We tend to prefer those who are similar to us. We naturally assume that if we enjoy something, everyone will enjoy it. But with increased awareness of our differences, we can have dance nights, and game nights, and movie nights, and book clubs, and afternoon teas, and picnic breakfasts. We can support different channels of communication and different styles of work. This has nothing to do with compromising performance standards or violating the foundational values of the organization, and everything with bringing out the best in everyone and affirming the value of people. It has everything to do with making diversity work, making inclusion real, and creating environments where people can do their best work - because they belong. Belonging is what makes diversity and inclusion work.

Originally posted on Linkedin.

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