Article

Making the Most of Diversity through Inclusive Workplace Practices

For diversity to yield benefits, inclusive practices need to be intentionally established at every level of an organisation.

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Date Posted

20 Apr 2022

Issue

Digital Issue 8, 20 Apr 2022

Introduction

Diversity can bring many benefits to an organisation, including innovation, better decisions, and improved learning. In recent years, many organisations, including the Singapore Public Service, have sought to increase the diversity in their talent pool, by intentionally recruiting more people from a variety of backgrounds and exposing officers to a diverse range of experiences. That said, the mere presence of diversity does not mean that its benefits will actually be harnessed. Simply increasing the amount of diversity in the workplace does not readily translate into more positive outcomes unless this is accompanied by deliberate moves to ensure employees, regardless of their differences, feel included.1, 2

The evidence suggests that paying attention to inclusion can help organisations reap the benefits of diversity. The lack of inclusion, on the other hand, can lead to negative outcomes for both the individual and the organisation, including disengagement, social marginalisation, and poor performance.3, 4

How then can organisations be more intentional in putting in place inclusive practices at every level of the workplace, to better harness the diversity in the talent pool?


The mere presence of diversity does not mean that its benefits will actually be harnessed.

Building Inclusion

Inclusion is a personal experience that is created anew in each interpersonal situation. The key idea is to personalise individuals and understand and value their uniqueness, while accepting them as members of the group.5

Every member of an organisation has a part to play in creating a sense of inclusion. To do so, we begin by reflecting on ourselves, consider the relations between ourselves and others, and then think about how we lead others. Organisations should also consider issues of inclusion at the systemic level.

Starting with Self

1. Be aware of our biases

To build an inclusive workplace, we must first be aware of our own biases, assumptions and mental models of other subgroups. For instance, we generally prefer to be with people who are similar to us and tend to have more positive perceptions of them. In contrast, we may hold negative stereotypes of those who are different from us.

We need to be conscious of when we may be excluding others, whether intentionally or unintentionally through our words, behaviours or even tone of voice or body language.6 Such microaggressions (“brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to minority groups”7) can be hard to detect and may sometimes also be subconscious to those who commit them. Left unaddressed, the accumulation of daily experiences of microaggressions can make the target recipient feel overlooked, under-respected and devalued.

 

Common Biases

 

  • Implicit stereotypes: when people judge others superficially according to stereotyped traits of the social group they are affiliated with.

 

  • Similarity-attraction bias: people tend to be attracted to and prefer to connect with others who are like them.

 

  • In-group favouritism: people tend to favour members who belong to their own social group.

 

  • Attribution error: when people attribute another’s behaviour to the wrong reason, e.g., attributing a negative intent to the behaviours of out-group members.

 

  • Confirmation bias: people tend to seek and interpret information in a way that confirms their pre-existing beliefs. Thus, if they already have strong prejudices of others, this may be perpetuated through confirmation bias.

 

  • Groupthink: In a group, people tend to go along with the group’s decisions and opinions even if these are irrational or go against personal values. Thus, even if certain individuals in the in-group personally do not believe in exclusion, they may go along with the group norm of not behaving inclusively towards those in the out-group.


To build an inclusive workplace, we must first be aware of our own biases, assumptions and mental models of other subgroups.

2. Cultivate a mindset that values diversity

We can learn to acknowledge both the value of our uniqueness as well as the limits of our own perspectives. In this way, we can be more open in sharing our own points of view, and also to appreciate those of others, preparing ourselves for new ways of seeing that may change our own understandings and assumptions.8, 9, 10 We can recognise that there may be challenges in relating to those who are different from us, while being willing to find ways to overcome these by adjusting our own behaviours and building trust.11, 12


We can learn to acknowledge both the value of our uniqueness as well as the limits of our own perspectives.

Relating to Others in an Inclusive Way

The experience of inclusion is influenced by daily interactions between colleagues, so we all have a role to play in relating to others in a more inclusive way.13

Here are some habits that can help us improve how we relate to individuals who are different from us:

1. Listen actively and with curiosity

Practise active listening, so that others feel heard and respected. We should be mindful not to allow our biases to influence our views of others or their ideas. Some people may have unconventional communication styles: avoid making judgements about them on the basis of a single source of information or through our own worldview. When in doubt, assume positive intent; consider alternative explanations and clarify the facts rather than interpret others’ behaviours or ideas negatively.14 Listen with curiosity, not judgement, to those with different views. Seek to understand how they think their idea will work.15

2. Demonstrate empathy

We can be more sensitive to the needs of others by practising empathy—recognising experiences that are different from our own and seeing things from different points of view. For instance, we can be more aware of our co-workers’ different identities and personal situations (e.g., care-taking responsibilities, religious and cultural practices), and take these into consideration, such as when planning work schedules.16

Building Inclusive Teams

Besides being more inclusive in one-to-one interactions, we can also proactively do our part to make our work teams more inclusive:

1. Make communicating with sensitivity a joint responsibility

The words we use can include or exclude others in a group. We can adapt our communication style to take into account the different needs of others in our team.17 Avoid the use of jargon or insider jokes that only some team members are familiar with. Teams can discuss what behaviours or language make them uncomfortable and agree on what should be avoided. We can hold each other in our teams accountable for communicating sensitively, and make a habit of standing up for others when they face non-inclusive behaviours, including microaggressions.

2. Encourage an open and safe environment that values diverse viewpoints

A recent study on psychological safety in the Singapore Public Service found that peers have a significant influence on the extent to which a team member finds the team environment open and safe for contributing divergent viewpoints.18 Conversely, if a team member from a minority background has had a prior bad experience or expects to be rejected from a group, he may be reluctant to join a conversation.

Teammates can contribute to a working environment that promotes participation, by inviting everyone to share their views at a meeting, acknowledging their opinions, and returning the conversation to them if they have been interrupted or talked over.19 Inviting, highlighting, and giving credit for fresh ideas or different opinions can also create a culture of divergent thinking in the group, allowing better and more innovative answers to be produced.20 Disagreements can also be framed neutrally, as healthy debate, rather than as negative, interpersonal conflict.21

3. Build team cohesion

We can actively reach out to our teammates to build rapport with them, developing mutual trust and getting to know them on a personal, informal level. Over time, work relationships can become personal friendships that can lubricate interactions, reduce conflict,22, 23, 24, 25 and be a source of insider information, making team members feel more included in the workplace.26


We can hold each other in our teams accountable for communicating sensitively, and stand up for others when they face non-inclusive behaviours.

Leading Inclusive Teams

While the responsibility of building inclusive teams does not rest solely on leaders, those in formal leadership positions do have more opportunities to establish a more inclusive team direction, culture and norms.27

Here are some additional responsibilities for leaders:

1. Build a shared and clear vision for the team

Common goals encourage people to identify with the larger group rather than their own subgroups. Leaders, by providing a shared and clear vision, can enhance inclusion by galvanising people to work collectively, and providing a broader context for them to integrate their differences for the benefit of the team.28, 29 As leaders, we can help our team members see how they can contribute to the group through their unique strengths.

2. Establish norms and processes that promote inclusion

To feel included, we must feel that our voice is being heard and that we can make a difference to decision-making. Team norms and processes should therefore encourage healthy, open exchanges of views and broad participation in the decision-making process.30 As team leaders, we should give sufficient opportunity for all views to be shared, discussed and considered—not only those views that we agree with.31

As leaders, we can also facilitate reflections on the way each team member’s identities and core sense of self can inform interactions. Such open conversations can help make explicit the implicit biases and prejudices that individuals hold, which in turn helps the team better understand how they can work with one another in a more inclusive manner.32

We can also provide opportunities for informal interactions among team members, to foster a sense of connectedness. For example, we could take some time at the start of each meeting to check in on each member’s emotional and mental wellbeing.33

We should also establish processes to ensure that tasks and resources and opportunities are allocated transparently and fairly,34, 35, 36 regardless of team member’s backgrounds.

3. Role model inclusive behaviours

Leaders’ behaviours often come under great scrutiny. When it comes to promoting inclusion, we need to lead by example.

As leaders, we can role model inclusive behaviours in team discussions by encouraging members to share relevant perspectives that draw on their personal experiences as members of subgroups.37 We can respect and lend support to those with minority opinions and ensure such views are given sufficient time to be aired and discussed.38 We also need to hold others in the team accountable for building inclusion. As leaders, we should call out behaviours (both actions and omissions) that cause other team members to experience a sense of non-inclusion.39, 40, 41, 42

Such role-modelling helps the team to appreciate the value that diversity brings. It highlights our commitment to inclusion as leaders and inspires others to behave inclusively as well.


As leaders, we should give sufficient opportunity for all views to be shared, discussed and considered—not only those views that we agree with.

Building Inclusive Organisations

Individuals may feel included by other individuals or their team, but not necessarily by the organisation as a whole. Organisations should also consider how the broader context of their policies and practices are aligned with promoting inclusion.43

1. Establish and communicate clear intentionality and value of diversity for the organisation

Organisations should articulate their objectives for diversity.

Ideally, diversity outcomes should be clearly aligned with the organisational goals, mission and vision, so that diversity naturally becomes an organisational priority.44, 45, 46 Everyone, including members of the majority group, contributes to diversity and should be included in the vision of diversity for the organisation.47

Clarity about why an organisation needs to pursue diversity will also guide its policy direction, as well as its practices, so that its culture and system can effectively leverage organisational diversity. Efforts to promote inclusion in the organisation must also be supported by genuinely committed leaders, so that there will be adequate resourcing and alignment throughout the organisation.48, 49

 

2. Introduce inclusive Human Resource Management practices

Human Resource Management (HRM) practices signal an organisation’s approach to diversity. An inclusive organisation has fair, transparent consistent policies and practices on recruitment, selection, evaluation, promotion, progression and development that focus solely on work performance and contribution to overall organisational performance.50, 51, 52 These help members of under-represented groups feel that they can contribute, belong and commit to an organisation.53, 54, 55

Pro-diversity HRM practices should avoid the trap of tokenism, where individuals from minority backgrounds are perceived as being given precedence over other more qualified individuals in the name of organisational diversity. Such employees may question their capabilities and feel less satisfied with the organisation; while incumbents of the majority group may question the value of diversity for the organisation and feel discriminated.56

That said, work teams can be purposefully created with diversity in mind, by considering the functional competence, personal and work experiences, and the work preferences of individuals. The intent is to create teams where differences and similarities are evenly and adequately matched.57


Organisations should consider how the broader context of their policies and practices are aligned with promoting inclusion.

3. Provide organisation-wide training to build skills for working inclusively

Diversity can increase friction and social divisions. An organisation needs to make systemic attempts to build skills for working inclusively.

Such efforts may include workshops to build individual skills for working with others who are different. There could also be dialogues to clarify what it means to be an ‘insider’ in the organisation, instead of merely following the norms set by a privileged majority, and efforts to highlight the value of diversity and the possibility of biases towards under-represented groups.

In some organisations, attitudes and practices that promote homogeneity may be entrenched and it may take more effort to change prevailing sentiments about under-represented groups.58 Nonetheless, over time, as an organisation incorporates more tailored and effective inclusive practices, and more employees demonstrate inclusive behaviours, a reinforcing virtuous cycle can be built up towards a more inclusive climate.59

Conclusion

Organisations tend to focus on increasing the diversity in their talent pool without equal focus on the experience of the minority members once they are in the talent pool. Promoting inclusion can help organisations harness the benefits of diversity in their talent pool, and everyone has a part to play in improving the individual and collective experience of inclusion in organisations. Ultimately, these experiences, behaviours, policies and practices within an organisation all occur in the context of a broader societal framework. Developing a pro-diversity and inclusive organisational climate will help us, as members of a whole Public Service, interface more effectively and harmoniously with an increasingly diverse society.


An organisation needs to make systemic attempts to build skills for working inclusively.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Khoo Ee Wan is Lead Researcher at the Institute of Leadership and Organisation Development, Civil Service College. She designs and conducts research studies and analytics that generate actionable insights to inform talent assessment, leadership development and organisation development.

Zoey Lew is an undergraduate at Singapore Management University. She worked on this research while she was an intern at the Institute of Leadership and Organisation Development, Civil Service College.


NOTES

  1. O. Holmes, K. Jiang, D. Avery, P. McKay, I. Oh, and C. Tillman, (2020). “A Meta-Analysis Integrating 25 Years of Diversity Climate Research”, Journal of Management 47, no. 6 (2020): 1357–1382, accessed July 30, 2021, https://doi.org/10.1177/0149206320934547.
  2. A. Perez, Bridging the Inclusion Gap: Creating Transformation in the Workplace (University of San Francisco, 2018), ebook, accessed July 30, 2021, https://cpb-us-w2.wpmucdn.com/usfblogs.usfca.edu/dist/9/244/files/2018/09/perezalyssa_6183931_64785637_Alyssa-Perez_Capstone-Report-15a1a7i.pdf.
  3. N. Ellemers and F. Rink, “Diversity in Work Groups”, Current Opinions in Psychology 11, (2016): 49–53, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2016.06.001/.
  4. See Note 2.
  5. L. M. Shore, A. E. Randel, B. G. Chung, M. A. Dean, K. H. Ehrhart, K. H., and G. Singh, “Inclusion and Diversity in Work Groups: A Review and Model for Future Research”, Journal of Management 37, no. 4, (2010): 1262–1289, https://doi.org/10.1177/0149206310385943.
  6. M. R. Hebl and D. R. Avery, “Diversity in Organisations”, in Handbook of Psychology, eds I. Weiner, N. W. Schmitt, and S. Highhouse, 2nd ed. (John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2012), https://doi.org/10.1002/97811181338https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-54993-4_980.hop212025.
  7. I. Wasserman, “Strengthening Interpersonal Awareness and Fostering Relational Eloquence”, in Diversity at Work: The Practice of Inclusion, eds Bernardo M. Ferdman and Barbara R. Deane (Wiley, 2014): 128-154, accessed July 30, 2021, https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118764282.ch4.
  8. P. Allen, (2017). “D&I and Leadership in Organizations”, in Diversity and Inclusion in the Global Workplace, eds C. Aquino and R. Robertson (2017): 153–170, accessed July 30, 2021, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-54993-4_9.
  9. N. Nair and N. Vohra, Diversity and Inclusion at the Workplace: A Review of Research and Perspectives (Indian Institute of Management, 2015), ebook, accessed July 30, 2021, https://web.iima.ac.in/assets/snippets/workingpaperpdf/8631467072015-03-34.pdf.
  10. See Note 2.
  11. See Note 9.
  12. See Note 2.
  13. Wasserman (2014) highlighted the importance of ‘relational eloquence’, where we create a shared reality with others in conversations by acknowledging their unique existence and acknowledging that our own perspective is incomplete.
  14. D. Ellsworth, R. Imose, S. Madner, and R. van den Broek, Sustaining Inclusion in Our New Remote Work Environment”, July 22, 2020, McKinsey & Company, accessed July 30, 2021, https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/sustaining-and-strengthening-inclusion-in-our-new-remote-environment.
  15. A. Grant, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know (United Kingdom: Ebury Publishing, 2021).
  16. See Note 14.
  17. J. Bourke, “The Six Signature Traits of Inclusive Leadership”, April 14, 2016, Deloitte Insights, accessed July 30, 2021, https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/topics/talent/six-signature-traits-of-inclusive-leadership.html.
  18. A. de Souza Watters, and D. Ting, “Creating a Measure of Psychological Safety for the Singapore Public Service: Findings and Predictors of Safety” (presentation deck, forthcoming, Civil Service College Singapore, 2022).
  19. See Note 14.
  20. Ibid.
  21. See Note 15.
  22. See Note 17.
  23. B. Ferdman, “The Practice of Inclusion in Diverse Organizations”, in Diversity at Work: The Practice of Inclusion (2014): 3–54, accessed July 30, 2021, https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118764282.ch1.
  24. See Note 9.
  25. See Note 2.
  26. See Note 8.
  27. See Note 2.
  28. See Note 3.
  29. E. Mannix and M. A. Neale, “What Differences Make a Difference?: The Promise and Reality of Diverse Teams in Organisations”, Psychological Science in the Public Interest 6, no. 2 (2005): 31–55, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1529-1006.2005.00022.x.
  30. See Note 2.
  31. P. Daya, “Diversity and Inclusion in an Emerging Market Context”, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal 33, no. 3, (2014): 293–308, accessed July 30, 2021, https://doi.org/10.1108/edi-10-2012-0087.
  32. See Note 9.
  33. See Note 14.
  34. See Note 8.
  35. See Note 23.
  36. See Note 1.
  37. D. A. Thomas and R. J. Ely, “Making Differences Matter: A New Paradigm for Managing Diversity”, September–October, 1996, Harvard Business Review, 79–90. Also see R. J. Ely and D. A. Thomas, “Getting Serious about Diversity: Enough Already with the Business Case”, November-December, 2020, Harvard Business Review, accessed July 30, 2021, https://hbr.org/2020/11/getting-serious-about-diversity-enough-already-with-the-business-case.
  38. See Note 29.
  39. See Note 17.
  40. See Note 23.
  41. See Note 1.
  42. See Note 2.
  43. See Note 23.
  44. See Note 8.
  45. See Note 9.
  46. See Note 2.
  47. D. O’Donovan, “Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace”, Management and Industrial Engineering (2017): 73–108, accessed July 30, 2021, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-66864-2_4.
  48. See Note 8.
  49. See Note 47.
  50. See Note 17.
  51. See Note 23.
  52. See Note 1.
  53. K. April and E. Blass, “Measuring Diversity Practice and Developing Inclusion”, Dimensions 1, no. 1(2010): 59–66.
  54. P. Bailinson, W. Decherd, D. Ellsworth, and M. Guttman, (2020). “Understanding Organizational Barriers to a More Inclusive Workplace”, June 23, 2020, McKinsey & Company, accessed July 3, 2021, https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/understanding-organizational-barriers-to-a-more-inclusive-workplace.
  55. See Note 23.
  56. See Note 47.
  57. N. Bassett-Jones, (2005). “The Paradox of Diversity Management, Creativity and Innovation”, Creativity and Innovation Management 14, no. 2, 169–175. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8691.00337.x.
  58. See Note 2.
  59. See Note 23.

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