Even without the data, we’re willing to guess that few people, if any, in your organization have an overt agenda to reject difference. Nobody goes around advocating to exclusively “embrace sameness.” We’re willing to guess that many people would even agree they do value difference - different opinions, diverse perspectives and new experiences.
But while we don’t intend to devalue and reject difference, we often do anyway. Our perceptions, decisions and actions skew to comfort and safety in sameness, often despite our conscious values.
Embracing difference is a matter of learning to actively value difference. It’s character growth for your organization. It’s an integrity check-in on how you can align your organizational behavior to what you think that you value.
Why Embracing Difference is Crucial to Build Inclusion
Embracing diversity means employing a wide range of individuals with different demographic characteristics (gender, race, ethnicity, neural wiring, sexual orientation, religion, education, etc), and it can be quantified in representation data.
While diversity is often focused on group level identity, inclusion is an individual experience that begins to activate the potential, strengths and rewards of diversity when it becomes the norm. As written in NAVEX, “Inclusivity focuses on the person — their personal feelings, professional development, and overall sense of validation. It teaches coworkers to view one another as people, rather than just an assortment of labels.”
Deep-level diversity reflects psychological differences such as personality, perceptions, values and abilities. Difference goes beyond the obvious and is the qualitative factor that deep-level diversity introduces into the mix. Inclusion does not mean valuing your gender or skin color at the table. It means inviting the differences of thought, perspective and ability you are bringing to the table as a result of all of who you are. But far fewer people feel included than we might imagine.
Inclusion requires both belonging and uniqueness: not belonging at the cost of uniqueness. When an organization is embracing difference, an individual’s uniqueness feels invited and valued. In an inclusive culture that embraces difference, individuals are free to lean into their difference and leverage the gifts within that.
An organization that embraces difference will, for example, recognize that different backgrounds create cultural wealth that builds leadership potential. It will challenge and diversify the norms that limit the perception of leadership. It will understand that different minds bring unique and compelling business and cultural advantages. It will hire not for the culture fit, but instead recruit for the culture add, because when you embrace difference, a lack of difference becomes a performance liability.
Inclusive cultures don’t ask everyone to contract into a cultural mold because that shrinks organizational possibility. Rather, the culture expands to fit all of the individual potential within it - an inclusive culture is a growth culture.
Embracing this deeper levels of diversity and difference contributes to more creativity, productivity and innovation. It catalyzes better decision making in teams and measurable business outcomes. It expands the ways in which knowledge sharing happens in your organization. When employees feel their differences are valued and even leveraged, their engagement is higher and they stay longer.
Important Steps to Embracing Difference
Here’s five ways your organization can evolve towards embracing difference.
1. Celebrate the value-add in difference. Respect is a prerequisite of embracing difference. But embracing is more than a tolerance, or even simply a respect, of difference. Within your organization, you can cultivate an increased appreciation for what differences brings to every individual, teams and the organization as a whole. Generally speaking, difference needs to be reframed as a mutually beneficial opportunity, not as a threat. When we open up to the differences we witness in others, we open to our wholeness and we encounter our similarities.
2. Cultivate a culture of curiosity. The foundation of curiosity is dropping assumptions. DEI is a nuanced practice. The very group labels that help to build and measure diversity can become an obstacle when it comes to inclusion. If I didn’t already think I knew about you, what might I be open to learn about you? Get beyond assumptions-mentality by creating opportunities for connection in your organization. Mutual mentoring and mentoring circles are ways that exposure to difference contributes to dropping stereotypes and embracing difference.
3. Review your processes and practices for difference-filtering biases. Right now, difference is being filtered out through patterns in hiring approaches, in talent management decisions such as promotion and pay and opportunities, in mentorship and sponsorship and more. Differences tend to present differently, so they are often judged and rejected, such as in an interview context. From blind resumes to how meetings are run to formal mentorship, there are so many ways to actively mitigate and reduce the many biases that filter out diversity and difference. In order to embrace difference, find out where you’re blocking it.
4. Encourage and reward embracing difference as a demonstrable leadership competency. Amidst our Inclusion Competencies assessment, Pulsely considers skills like learning from others, cultural intelligence, willingness to adapt and addressing bias. What are leaders doing to build and demonstrate these capacities? Leaders can be proactive in embracing difference, such as seeking out alternative opinions, creating exposure opportunities to different perspectives, and finding mentees and protegés that don’t look like them. They can also avoid and discourage personality labels (eg difficult) that tend to make difference wrong. They can go outside their normal circle of sounding boards to expose their own ideas to new eyes, and spend time with all levels of employees. They can counter judgements with reflection or by questioning how judgements may be blinding to strengths. With so many actions that are identifiable, how can embracing difference be a part of your performance reviews?
5. Create commonality in vision and purpose. Motivation, cause and purpose are some of the drivers that bring us together. When an organization is focused on truly leveraging all resources to unite together in a common vision, then you cannot afford to devalue difference because you need to call forth the thought diversity, creativity and innovation that being able to leverage multiple perspectives delivers for your business. Making every employee a stakeholder in the vision, creating clear exceptions and valuing contributions in diverse expressions is what creates new possibilities.
In that context, embracing difference requires actively valuing what difference brings to your organization, down to curiosity about each individual. When an organization expands in cultural character to truly embrace difference, you begin to redefine your possibilities.