Three ways to incorporate diversity and inclusion in the workplace

Three practical strategies for promoting diversity, inclusion, and equity in the workplace from Modupe Akinola, Professor of Business at Columbia Business School

Former VP of Inclusion Strategy at Netflix, Vernā Myers, once said: "Diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance.” 

“But I actually think this quote is missing something,” asserted Modupe Akinola, Barbara and David Zalaznick Professor at Columbia Business School. As a leading global diversity and inclusion expert, Professor Akinola explained that in reality, exclusion occurs not only when individuals are not invited to the party but also when they are not given the opportunity to contribute their own unique perspectives. 

True inclusion, then, involves more than just inviting people to the “party” or to “dance”; it requires allowing them to choose the music, express their individuality, and contribute to the collective experience, said Professor Akinola, who recently spoke at the World Business Forum in Sydney (which UNSW Business School was an academic partner for).

Discussing the need for more diversity in senior leadership positions across various sectors, including companies, universities, news organisations, and mainstream media, Professor Akinola also acknowledged that while the world is changing, the pace of change is too slow. In 1980, for example, all of the top 50 Fortune 500 companies’ CEOs were white men. In 2023, 37 of the top 50 CEOs are white men. Women still make up only around 10 per cent of all CEOs Fortune 500 CEOs. But while change at the top is slow, the role of senior leadership in fostering inclusive environments is pivotal and one that demands senior leaders reflect on their organisation's EDI efforts. 

For this reason, Professor Akinola encouraged everyone to self-reflect: to identify areas of success, challenges, and confusion within their organisations. Specifically, she presented three key ideas that leaders and organisations can adopt to boost the effectiveness of their EDI initiatives.

The importance of effective communication

In her talk, Professor Akinola emphasised the importance of effective communication, particularly in addressing EDI challenges, and urged leaders to prioritise the art of apologies. Good leaders know when to own up to their mistakes and ask for help when they don't have the answers. To do this, she stressed the need for prompt, candid, and remorseful acknowledgments, and a commitment to future improvement. “Do it [effective apologies] quickly. Don't let it fester. Be open, candid, fully disclose what you messed up on, and be remorseful. Focus on the other person. And then talk about what you will do to improve,” she said.

To achieve this, Professor Akinola highlighted an often overlooked skill of building interpersonal relationships; the courage to have those crucial conversations in the first place, and the ability to address mistakes head on. “Courage to have the conversations that we need to deal with the mistakes we might make,” explained Professor Akinola.

She also underscored the importance of open conversations and fostering a culture of continuous growth. In urging reflection on instances of exclusion, Professor Akinola encouraged leaders and organisations to consider the obstacles that are preventing inclusivity. “Just think about when were you not inclusive and equitable. And what prevented you from being so?” she said.

Stress as an opportunity for positive outcomes

Professor Akinola advocated for a proactive approach to stress management, encouraging individuals to acknowledge stress, understand its underlying causes, and utilise it as a catalyst for positive change. Challenging the conventional view of stress as inherently detrimental, Professor Akinola also presented research findings that stress mindsets significantly influence outcomes and stress can sometimes enhance performance. “Acknowledge it. I am stressed right now, and that's okay,” she said.

Why? Because a positive mindset shift towards stress can lead to better outcomes in EDI efforts. “The stress that you might feel from the work that you do regularly, and also from being an inclusive leader, does not always have to lead to negative outcomes,” she said. She prompted the audience to introspect, identifying instances where inclusivity fell short and to prioritise examining the factors that hindered equitable practices within their organisations. “What I want you to leave here today knowing is that the stress that you might feel...does not always have to lead to negative outcomes,” she said. 

Read more: Advancing diversity and inclusion in an age of hybrid work

Providing practical steps for a healthier stress response, Professor Akinola advised self-awareness, channelling stress towards goals, and understanding one's physiological reactions for a more productive and fulfilling work overall. “What's one thing you're going to do differently, to be more inclusive, to have a healthier relationship with stress?”

As a call to action, Professor Akinola encouraged the audience to reflect on tangible changes, both in their professional and personal lives, fostering inclusivity and cultivating a healthier relationship with stress.

Individual responsibility for inclusion

But most importantly, creating an inclusive environment starts with individual actions. Each person plays a role in fostering diversity and inclusion.“I want you to leave here today knowing that the stress that you might feel from the work you do regularly... you'll be happier, healthier, and more productive in your work journey,” said Professor Akinola.

This also means that businesses must go beyond superficial inclusion and actively encourage individuals to bring their authentic selves, including aspects that might make them feel excluded. The goal is to create an environment where everyone can learn from each other, understand different perspectives, and thrive collectively. 

So how do they do this? The key is to look internally. “What talent are you capturing or not capturing? What potential are you harnessing or failing to harness? And then, what are some of the diversity dynamics that are at play that you need to be more cognisant of that can influence both individual and organisational performance?” said Professor Akinola. By asking these introspective questions, leaders can bring awareness to diversity dynamics and their role in motivating and engaging everyone for inclusivity. 

Professor Akinola alsourged individuals and organisations to examine their past internal practices and foster equity, diversity, and inclusion for a more inclusive environment. “What are the dynamics that you need to be aware of as a leader? Can you recognise these dynamics when they're at play in your organisation and intervene? How can you motivate and engage everyone in your organisation to create a climate of inclusion?”

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Finally, understanding the experience of exclusion is crucial for fostering inclusivity. If you find it challenging to recall moments of feeling excluded, it's advisable to seek environments where you can genuinely sense exclusion – this, according to Professor Akinola, is essential for building empathy, connecting with others, and contributing to the creation of a more inclusive environment.

“If we're trying to think about inclusion, then what do we also need to think about when we were included? How did it feel when we were accepted and respected for who we were, and contrast to experiences where you've been excluded? What are some of the differences between your inclusion and exclusion experiences? And then what are some of the characteristics? What made you feel included, excluded, or included? Think about that for a moment, too."


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