Here’s How a Lack of Inclusivity Can Create a Toxic Culture


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MIT Sloan found that employee perception of company culture is ten times more predictive of attrition and turnover than compensation. The message from that research is clear: Employees don’t want to work in a toxic company culture.

But what exactly is a toxic culture? Most of us tend to think of it as something so extreme that it couldn’t possibly describe our organization or us as leaders.

However, one often-overlooked factor plays a bigger role than many suspect: inclusivity. Laura Wronski found that workers who are satisfied with their company’s efforts on DEI issues are actually happier with their jobs. A toxic culture, conversely, is often one in which employees don’t feel their voice is heard. In fact, more than half of the employees who left organizations during the recent Great Resignation did so for that reason.

Clearly, inclusion is becoming a priority for employees. And it needs to be a priority for companies, too. We can’t hide our corporate culture anymore in this world of online reviews. If the candidates we’re trying to recruit are searching for information about our culture — and at least 70% are — they’ll quickly find it.

Company culture is one of the most difficult things to change. Yet, effective change in the area of inclusivity is achievable for any company from startup to Fortune 500 … if they know where to start.

Related: Why You Need to Become an Inclusive Leader (and How to Do It)

Developing the skills for inclusivity

As it turns out, two-thirds of all leaders hold an inaccurate view of their own inclusive leadership capabilities. This causes a myriad of problems.

On one end of the spectrum, a third of leaders do not feel skilled in the area of inclusion, many of whom succumb to the temptation to do nothing. They’re afraid they might do more harm than good by stepping out of their comfort zone.

Alternatively, they may want to be inclusive, but they don’t know where to start. Consequently, they may not prioritize inclusion in their own leadership approach, much less attempt to lead a company-wide effort. In such cases, well-designed learning and/or coaching can help them gain enough confidence in their own skills to begin taking steps that characterize an inclusive leadership style.

However, a leader can’t address a lack of inclusivity in their organization if they don’t know it exists. Such is the case when there’s an “Inclusion Delusion.”

Combatting the “Inclusion Delusion”

The other third of those who hold an inaccurate view of their inclusive capabilities skew in the opposite direction, thinking they’re more inclusive than they really are, as rated by colleagues and reports.

This is a complex phenomenon referred to as the “Inclusion Delusion,” where tendencies for leaders to over- or underestimate their inclusivity capabilities create perceptual vulnerabilities in how they see and express leadership. Similar to how the tendency to overestimate one’s driving skills can create trouble, this perception gap poses a barrier to companies in creating an inclusive culture. One reason for this is that leaders who see themselves as more inclusive than they really are may not recognize the impetus to change, improve or learn to behave differently.

Closing this perception gap requires a healthy dose of self-awareness and input from others in the form of data. For some leaders, getting that data might be as simple as asking direct reports questions in one-on-one interviews, such as: “To what degree would you say we’re an inclusive work environment?”

This, however, requires a high degree of trust and openness. If employees think the wrong answer might be held against them, they may not answer honestly, perpetuating the delusion. In that case, it might require a more formal evaluation or anonymized input, conducted internally or by a training partner.

Related: How to Create a More Inclusive Workplace

In devising such an evaluation, remember that inclusiveness is not an inborn trait — it’s a skill that can be grown and measured. In developing my own assessment method, I evolved the approach from one that asked “Am I inclusive or not?” to one that asks “What are my strengths and stretches when it comes to being an inclusive leader?” Then I broke that question down into granular behaviors that can be observed and mapped to specific competencies proven to move organizations toward an inclusive culture, such as:

  • Openness to divergent ideas, perspectives and processes

  • Flexibility to change opinions, plans or decisions based on those ideas

  • Curiosity to seek out the perspectives of many others, not simply a select few

  • Humility to acknowledge one’s limitations, vulnerabilities and tendencies

  • Active self-management of one’s biases

  • Empathy to seek to understand others’ thoughts, feelings and experiences

An approach based on observed behaviors empowers leaders by taking them out of their own heads. It’s no longer about how much they may want to be inclusive or how inclusive they feel they are — it’s about how much others perceive that they are modeling inclusive behavior. And I find that by looking at inclusion through this lens of outward behavior, leaders are often a degree more self-critical. This, in turn, creates a highly effective opening for discussion, self-awareness and the leader in the driver’s seat of their own growth.

Inclusion starts at top leadership

I’ll write in future posts about how creating an inclusive culture involves addressing inclusion at various organizational levels. Suffice it to say, however, that none of it will make a difference if top leadership does not fully embrace inclusivity in their day-to-day interactions.

And let’s be clear: Even those who aren’t in the “inclusion deluded” category still have perceptual vulnerabilities when it comes to inclusive leadership.

To compound the challenge, organizations are not directly supporting leaders as much as they need to. Only 1 in 3 organizations as of 2021 were designing a strategy to develop inclusive leaders.

Consequently, many leaders silently flounder as they attempt to increase inclusivity in their organizations. They may earnestly intend to be inclusive, but in leadership, it’s not our intentions that count — it’s our behavior.

By following an assessment-based approach designed to help leaders identify their inclusivity perception gaps, along with a skills-based approach that allows them to develop inclusivity competencies (where they personally need them most), leaders can align their behaviors with their intentions. And in doing so, they lay the foundation for a truly inclusive culture within their organizations.

Related: 4 Commitments All Inclusive Leaders Must Follow


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