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  • Andrew Gordon-Kirsch

Five Principles for Inclusive Culture Change

This is the second post in a series on diversity and inclusion (D&I). When designing an intervention to change organizational culture, figuring out where to start may seem daunting. Previously, I laid out why inclusion matters in D&I efforts. In this post, I focus on 5 principles to keep in mind when designing inclusive culture transformations.

1. Meet the organization where it’s at.

Regardless of whether they specialize in diversity and inclusion, thought leaders in the field of organization development such as Clayton Alderfer, Peter Block, and Edgar Schein suggest preceding any intervention design with an exploratory phase to collect and analyze data in order to empathize with the client’s current situation.[1] Consistent with this approach, Fred Miller of the Kaleel Jamison Consulting Group recommends designing inclusion interventions based on a diagnosis of where the client is currently located on a spectrum from an “Exclusive Club” to an “Inclusive Organization.”[2] Once a diagnosis is made, veteran diversity consultant Taylor Cox suggests designing diversity education programs that blend content to progressively move groups from “awareness” to “deeper knowledge” to “behavior or action.”[3] Similarly, Kaleel Jamison leaders Judith Katz and Miller chart a progression of organizational commitment from “awareness” to “experimentation” to “mastery and internalization.”[4] By first understanding where the client system is at, a change agent can more effectively steward the organization along a path towards inclusion.

2. Redefine leadership in terms of collaboration.

In order to successfully build inclusion, claim Katz and Miller, leaders need to foster collaboration and partnership instead of competition.[5] This is a fundamentally different approach to traditional leadership behaviors in which supervisors often pit individuals, teams, or departments against each other as a form of motivation to work faster and harder and to produce more. Interestingly, the benefits of collaboration are also lauded by Daniel Pink and Ron Friedman, among others who write about motivation and human behavior. They argue that competition and other forms of extrinsic motivation prove to be counterproductive to the bottom line when employees are responsible for complex — as opposed to simple, transactional — tasks. In an increasingly dynamic and turbulent marketplace, much of today’s work is complex by nature.[6] By redefining leadership in terms of behaviors that focus on collaboration and partnership, organizations set a new example for supervisors that supports growth in complex business environments through forms of intrinsic motivation such as positive relationships with colleagues.

3. Renegotiate the distribution of power in groups.

Having the opportunity to influence decision-making is one component of inclusion.[7] When women and people of color are introduced into a white, male group, Miller insists, the questions must shift from whether to incorporate someone who is obviously different from the rest of the team, to whether team members are willing to share power with the new person, and how much incumbent team members are willing to adjust their white, male cultural norms.[8] One way to go about this is to make the flow of information more transparent through detailed note taking and the distribution of meeting minutes. Knowledge is a form of power in organizations, and sharing knowledge supports collaboration.[9] We can also pay closer attention to the extent to which people of different identity groups have decision-making authority.[10] Who calls the shots? What identity memberships do they hold? Starting with an assessment of this sort can lead to informative conversations and redirective actions. By renegotiating the distribution of power in a group, leaders adjust who has the opportunity to influence.

4. Train all employees in conflict management skills.

Conflict is inevitable when differences are acknowledged (i.e. in pluralist, inclusive cultures) rather than swept under the rug (i.e. in monoculturalism). How employees and leaders manage interpersonal conflict is critical for successful culture change. Author Kenneth Labich champions practical conflict management trainings that use cases and role plays relevant to daily problems workers face.[11] Frederic Laloux, whose book Reinventing Organizations has helped fuel the responsive movement, discusses the importance of conflict management skills in creating more democratic, self-managing organizations.[12] Techniques in Nonviolent Communication play a central role in implementing Holacracy and sociocracy — self-governance processes and structures that expand the autonomy of employees and increase transparency in decision making. By equipping employees with the skills necessary to navigate disagreement, organizations set themselves up for higher functioning and more inclusive teams.

5. Address organizational culture, not just policies and procedures.

Inclusion is a question of culture. Therefore norms, values, beliefs, and expectations must be addressed before attention is paid to policies and procedures common to diversity management.[13] Employees come to work embodying an intersection of identities (gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, age, religion, sexual orientation, disability status, etc.). An individual’s background may influence how they behave in interpersonal interactions.[14]. These identities, however, don’t directly translate into inherent personality traits. That said, identity memberships do influence how an individual is treated by society. Alongside their personality, this socialization process may impact their behavioral patterns. Furthermore, the organization as a whole embodies its own cultural norms, which often reflect the personalities, temperaments, and identities of its founders and executives, as New School University professor Mark Lipton demonstrates in his latest book Mean Men.[15] Thus, acceptance and validation are prerequisites for individual engagement and success, and dominant norms must be modified to achieve such acceptance and validation.

In 2014, only 24 Fortune 500 CEOs were people of color, and 24 were women. And after Ursula Burns stepped down from her position as CEO of Xerox in January 2017, not a single Fortune 500 company is run by a black woman. Taken in this light, inclusion is therefore about renegotiating cultural norms that have been dictated by white men. In an exclusive culture, pre-established norms rigidly dictate overt and covert day-to-day behavior. In an inclusive culture, on the other hand, norms are more fluid and adjust to the specific attributes of organizational members.[16] For a company to include all of its employees, top leaders must understand how organizational norms reinforce, collude, or clash with each employee’s individual norms based on their unique experiences, personal preferences, as well as identity combinations.

Inclusion is not about ensuring white, male executives are skilled at incorporating people of color and women in lower tiers of an organization. Inclusion is about creating the right conditions to cultivate diversity at all levels of leadership.

Fantastic. Now I have some ideas for how I might start changing the culture of my organization to be more inclusive. But how can I measure progress when inclusion is so hard to put a finger on?

Read more in my next post, Measuring Inclusion.


  1. See Alderfer, C. P. (2011). The practice of organizational diagnosis: Theory and methods. New York: Oxford University Press; Block, P. (2011). Flawless consulting: A guide to getting your expertise used (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer; Schein, E. H. (1999). Process consultation revisited: Building the helping relationship. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

  2. Miller, F. A. (1998). Strategic Culture Change: The Door to Achieving High Performance and Inclusion. Public Personnel Management, 27(2), p. 155.

  3. Cox, T. (2001). Creating the multicultural organization: A strategy for capturing the power of diversity. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, p. 84.

  4. Katz. J., & Miller, F. (2016). Leveraging Differences and Inclusion Pays Off: Measuring the impact on profits and productivity. To be published in OD Practitioner, p. 3.

  5. Katz. J., & Miller, F. (2014). Leaders Getting Different: Collaboration, the New Inclusive Workplace, and OD’s role. OD Practitioner, 46(3), 40–45.

  6. Pink, D. H. (2011). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. Edinburgh: Canongate; Friedman, R. (2015). The best place to work: The art and science of creating an extraordinary workplace. New York, NY: Perigee Book.

  7. Sabharwal, M. (2014). Is Diversity Management Sufficient? Organizational Inclusion to Further Performance. Public Personnel Management, 43(2), 197–217.

  8. Miller, F.A. (1988). Moving a team to multiculturalism. In B. Reddy & K. Jamison (Eds.), Team Building: Blueprints for Productivity and Satisfaction(192–197). Alexandria, VA: NTL Institute for Applied Behavioral Science.

  9. Katz, J., & Miller, F. (2008). Inclusion: The HOW for the next organizational breakthrough. In W. Rothwell, J. Stavros, R. Sullivan, & A. Sullivan (Eds.), Practicing Organization Development: A Guide for Leading Change (3rd ed.) (436–445). San Francisco: Pfeiffer.

  10. Cox, T. (2001). Creating the multicultural organization: A strategy for capturing the power of diversity. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

  11. Labich, K., (1996). Making Diversity Pay. Fortune 134(5), 177–178.

  12. Laloux, F. (2014). Reinventing organizations. Brussels: Nelson Parker.

  13. Pless, N., & Maak, T. (2004). Building an Inclusive Diversity Culture: Principles, Processes and Practice. Journal of Business Ethics, 54(2), 129–147.

  14. Miller, F.A. (1988). Moving a team to multiculturalism. In B. Reddy & K. Jamison (Eds.), Team Building: Blueprints for Productivity and Satisfaction(192–197). Alexandria, VA: NTL Institute for Applied Behavioral Science.

  15. Lipton, M. (2017). Mean Men. New York: Voussoir Press.

  16. Mor Barak, M. E. (2000). Beyond Affirmative Action. Administration in Social Work, 23(3–4), 47–68.

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