One of the most frequent conversations I have about Diversity and Inclusion is the assumption that the inclusion of new people, especially in leadership, leads to the exclusion or expulsion of those who are already there. There seems to be a prevailing undercurrent that top level management teams (made up mostly of cis-, White, able-bodied males) are resistant to real inclusion because, in doing so, they might lose their power and privilege. In other words, the perception is that inclusion is a zero-sum game. And, it is not perpetuated just by leadership; it is pervasive across the board. The problem with this mindset and perception is that it is categorically false. Clinging to this thought is undeniably detrimental to an organization’s culture and health in the long run.
Existing Power Structures are Not Setup to Include Inclusion. But Change doesn’t mean a Loss of Power.
America’s colonial roots created all the structures in our society. This included power hierarchies that were built in a way to benefit only one segment of the overall population, while oppressing slaves and all others. Historically, inclusion was a zero-sum game. Since then, much progress has been made in society, legally. But the persisting influence of our inequitable history can still be seen in social, educational, cultural and professional spheres.
The foundations of leadership structures within all these entities were founded in values that in today’s world are considered toxic, discriminatory, and harmful to all segments of society. These destructive behaviors and attitudes block our progress toward the inclusion of everyone. Yet they still persist, because of the overall American system’s extreme resistance to change, and because of the very real and valid problems of persistent racism, sexism, able-ism and other forms of prejudice and discrimination.
The most visible marker of this is the scarcity of women and people from minority or marginalized groups in leadership positions across industries and fields. Even in traditionally female dominated fields such as education, leadership is usually male; even in a stereotypically Indian-American dominated field such as medicine, leadership positions are almost unanimously held by White, male medical practitioners or administrators.
Our structural foundation in colonial attitudes – that some groups are genetically or socially superior to others – makes inclusion antithetical to their very nature. It is the origin of the zero-sum myth of inclusion. The assumption is that by disrupting the status quo, we would be removing people from power. But this is simply not true!
This is because inclusion is not a zero-sum game! Inclusion will, without a doubt, disrupt old power structures and the imbalances built into them. This change however, is necessary to move forward into a space of equity where the potential of diversity can be maximized effectively. The whole process can be successfully guided and managed to leverage talent, leadership and profit. Negative effects to the operational processes or existing leadership can be minimized, as long as top-level leadership teams plan and navigate the changes well. This is the only way to create sustainable and positive change toward a more inclusive and healthy organizational culture.
Conformity is Not Equal to Convergence. Convergence is Inclusion. Conformity is not.
One of the biggest culprits in the zero-sum myth of inclusion is the continued confusion between conformity versus convergence to organizational culture. Most organizational leaders expect conformity from the employees to the organization’s goals and its culture. This mindset presents a huge barrier to inclusion, because conformity entails blind allegiance. Conformity happens when we fall in line with the norms, expectations and rules that are externally imposed on us, as passive followers instead of as active participants. Conforming to rules has almost no relation to what we actually believe in, and there is almost always no real internal value shift from those who conform. People only conform because they have to, because the consequences of not conforming might be too great. While conformity works well for many organizational and societal rules of governance, it doesn’t work well in inclusion, precisely because inclusion is not a zero-sum game.
When we truly practice inclusion, our lens shifts from conformity to convergence. Convergence to organizational goals and culture entails coming together on common grounds. It is based on intentionally, authentically and thoughtfully aligning the organization’s values and goals with the individual employees’ values and goals toward growth. Convergence necessitates employee buy-in, engagement and participation in discussions. By having this deeper and more involved process, convergence more effectively leads to shift in values towards a common organizational culture and goals, instead of a mere shift in superficial behaviors. Convergence also allows for a space for independent thought because it does not require blind allegiance. In doing so it recognizes the wholeness of each independent person. It promotes the coming together of diverse thoughts and values in a healthier, more organic process that lends itself to increased awareness of the issues, passion, and the ability to be pro-active instead of reactive in times of crises.
So what is the Reality of Inclusion as it relates to Power?
To put it very simply, inclusion adds to the overall power in any given situation because power and potential are limitless in human beings. When we allow for the possibilities of different types of power coming in through the inclusion of diverse thoughts, perspectives and people, we can begin to see just how limitless the potential of growth and power is. This does not mean that all of these voices and all of the power have to be used in every single situation or scenario. But, to have access to this power might be the singular overarching benefit that inclusion adds to our lives.
Ultimately, the truth is that inclusion is not a zero-sum game. Reducing it to a zero-sum game only does all of us a huge disservice. In reality, inclusion is a deeply empowering action that can lead to a beautiful alignment between employees and the organizational entity. When inclusion is implemented to add everyone’s voices to the chorus in a meaningful way, we end up with a magnificent symphony using whole spectrum of diversity that is available to us. We learn infinitely more by leveraging the diversity of thoughts and perspectives. We empower exponentially by adding more power to every single person in the organization. And, we unlock limitless potential of growth by increasing employee engagement, participation and contribution towards organizational goals.