4 lessons for moving the Diversity & Inclusion Dial | Blue Sky
Dan Mason - Partnership Director

4 lessons for moving the Diversity & Inclusion Dial

Lesson 1: Executives must be engaged on an emotional level (not just a rational level) 

Lesson 2: The narrative is crucial (think about implicit messages too) 

Lesson 3: Don’t hold Executives up as paragons of inclusion 

Lesson 4: ‘Story doing’ – the power of symbolic acts

What does diversity and inclusion mean for the workplace? 

Aside from social justice (which is extremely important), we all know the business case for diversity and inclusion: 

  • greater market share (Centre for Talent Innovation, 2013) 
  • exponential operating profit (Towers Watson, 2012) 
  • more discretionary effort (CEB, 2012) 
  • lower intent to leave (CEB, 2012), more innovation (Mayer & Warr, 2017) 
  • better collaboration (Newman et al, 2017) 
  • better customer outcomes (Montoya & Briggs, 2013)  
  • and the list goes on. 

That is not what this article is about. I want to focus on how you ensure your efforts yield this level of return. Great strides have been taken, but we will all agree, there is plenty more to do.  

Lesson 1: Executives must be engaged on an emotional level (not just a rational level) 

 Ask yourself the following questions: 

“Out of 10, how inclusive do you think you are?” 

“Out of 10, how inclusive do you think the average person is?” 

“Out of 10, how inclusive do you think the ideal person should be?” 

I would wager a bet that you scored yourself a 6 or a 7, the average person a 4 or 5 and the ideal person a 9 or 10. This is a form of self-enhancement bias. It is not mathematically possible for us all to be above average, yet that is what we tend to report when looking at issues of an ethical nature. 

The following chart was published by The Guardian around KPMG’s UK diversity targets. It’s described ‘certainly [not]… a moral crusade’.

And this is exactly what you are up against when trying to gain broad Executive buy-in. The rational argument isn’t the issue. It is that Executives don’t feel like this is an issue for them or indeed their teams/businesses. 

“I get it but we’re very inclusive here” 

Overcoming this is about showing them the mirror. A couple of ways to shift this (ideally use both): 

  1. Show them engagement survey results from their areas of responsibility. The comments are particularly effective as they can feel very personal. This created a “not on my watch” enthusiasm amongst the Executive Committee of a global insurance broker
  2. Catch them in the act by taking them through an experience designed to show their susceptibility. The “how inclusive are you?” exercise above can be a good starting point to make people aware that they may not be as inclusive as they think. 

Coupling this with exercises that show how they jump to conclusions can really land the message. A variant on the below can be great for this purpose (taken from Pendry, Driscoll & Field, 2007). 

Lesson 2: The narrative is crucial (think about implicit messages too) 

In those organisations who have made bold strides there has still been backlash. Organisations who have promoted women into more senior positions, for example, have also reported resentment from male colleagues (“she’s only there because she is a woman”) or indeed impostor syndrome from those promoted (“am I only here because I am a woman?”). 

This challenge is one of many parts, however, a large contributor is the stories we have been quietly telling at both the business level and the societal level. I am going to give you a very crude example to illustrate the point (please note reality is far more complex than this)… 

  • The media publishes several articles about inequality in the work place for women 
  • The government responds by forcing UK organisations to publish gender pay gap stats 
  • Businesses respond by setting representation targets and publicising them internally and externally 
  • Businesses run special leadership programmes for women 
  • Businesses begin to promote women into more senior positions, achieving representation targets and reducing the gender pay gap 
  • Businesses want to show their progress to build their consumer and employer brands so publicise this internally and externally – ‘first female CFO’, ‘we have just appointed a woman to our board’, ‘we now have 28% women in our leadership ranks’ etc 

Unfortunately, the subtle focus of the above narrative is that women have some special treatment (women in leadership programmes) and have been promoted to achieve a target, not because of their exceptional performance.

While publicising the fact your organisation has appointed a woman to the board is great message for other women, it is focusing the message on her biology and not on what really mattered, her performance. Women are already checking out diversity stats when they apply for jobs (Glassdoor, 2014). As such, you don’t necessarily need to call out that the person you have appointed to the board is a woman, the people you want to impress will have already noticed. 

In any case, organisations need to get their inclusion story straight and it needs to consider the societal context and address cynicism head on. By shaping the right story focused on fairness, track record, right person for the right job, we can avoid a lot of the unnecessary backlash. 


“Inclusion is not a matter of political correctness. It is the key to growth.” — Jesse Jackson, American Civil Rights Activist

“D&I needs to be something that every single employee at the company has a stake in.” — Bo Young Lee, Chief of Diversity and Inclusion at Uber

Lesson 3: Don’t hold Executives up as paragons of inclusion 

Executives are just as fallible as everyone else. Yes, we do want them to role model good behaviour down the organisation, but to hold them up as paragons of inclusion will lead to failure. This is especially true in traditional organisations where leaders are highly tenured. The longer you have been there, the more example of exclusion people will have to hand. 

Humility is the key here. Executives need to openly state that they are on this journey too. In one organisation, the CEO was among a few key Executive sponsors for a company-wide initiative to drive inclusion. Half way through the programme, it because publicly known that he was at the centre of a legal battle relating to topic. 


Well, not quite. 

He was open and honest about his personal journey. He articulated the importance of the topic and how it applies to those who never thought they would make such a mistake. He signposted the availability of a programme of training that could help people not make the same mistake he has. His messaging came across as brave and authentic and, as a result, voluntary uptake onto the training and requests to join the champion network significantly increased. People recognised his authenticity, probably recognised their own shortcomings, and acted. 

Lesson 4: ‘Story doing’ – the power of symbolic acts

Telling stories is not enough, leaders have got to do them too. This signals to the rest of the organisation that they are serious about creating an inclusive business where everyone can thrive. These need to be visible to the business and repeated regularly to be effective. The added challenge with ‘story doing’ in this particular context is that their biases and perhaps even life-long habits are working against them. As such, leaders need to consider both what they might be doing regularly that is derailing the effort (and stop), as well as agree on acts they are going to do to show commitment.

Examples of acts that derail the message:

  • When non job related tasks need to be completed, leaders revert to gender stereotypes. For example, asking women to make the group coffees/teas and men to move office furniture
  • Inviting the team to play golf at the weekend without considering whether everyone in the team plays

Examples of acts that support the message:

  • In one FS institution, Executives attended external inclusion events every quarter and shared their experience/learnings across the organisation using their internal communications channels

My final point is that this is an on-going initiative and you need to be honest with the business that their investment and sponsorship needs to be on-going. A 6-12 month programme will yield positive results but, as soon as the focus drops, so will the momentum and people will begin to feel marginalised again. Remember, your efforts are going against many of the other structures people interact with every day outside of work. 

Don’t assume your work culture is inevitable and can’t be changed. It can change. 

Being diverse in the workplace? ‘Well that’s just how it is’? That can change too.  

If you’d like help from people change experts, send me a message and I’ll happily connect you to the right people.  


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