Breaking the Mold: Transformative Strategies for Lasting Diversity and Inclusion

Posted by Mai Hoai Thu on

Diversity and inclusion (D&I) are increasingly recognised as critical factors for enhancing business performance. In a comprehensive survey conducted by Deloitte for its 2017 Global Human Capital Trends report1, two-thirds of the 10,000 leaders surveyed expressed the importance of D&I to their organisations.

This overwhelming consensus highlights the growing understanding that fostering a diverse and inclusive workplace is not only the right thing to do but also a strategic imperative for achieving long-term success.

Apple Inc. acknowledges this by asserting that “the most innovative company must also be the most diverse”2. Alan Joyce, CEO of Qantas, agrees: “I believe diversity makes you stronger, gives you a better understanding of risks in planning”3.

Research supports these claims, demonstrating that fostering diversity of thinking in the workplace can boost innovation by approximately 20%, reduce risks by up to 30%, and foster greater buy-in and trust for effective decision-making and implementation2.

Read more: Top 6 Benefits of Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace

Breaking the Mold: Transformative Strategies for Lasting Diversity and Inclusion

The Role of Inclusive Leadership in Fostering Diversity and Inclusion

Juliette Bourke, a Deloitte Human Capital partner and a D&I consulting leader based in Australia, points out that “generating diversity of thinking requires more diligence than simply assembling a disparate group of people, encouraging random brainstorming and crossing one’s fingers”3. After extensive research, Bourke has identified four enablers of diversity of thinking:

  1. 1. Composition: Creating groups that are diverse in terms of race, gender, educational background and functional roles. This diversity enhances the group’s ability to consider scenarios from various perspectives and engage in vigorous debates.
  2. 2. Conversation: The inclusion of diverse mental frameworks allows for more effective discussions and disciplined thinking processes. Rather than relying on random brainstorming, this approach encourages thoughtful and constructive dialogue.
  3. 3. Bias mitigation: Paying attention to and implementing mitigating measures to eliminate unconscious biases and foster an environment that promotes equal attention to diverse ideas and avoids favouritism.
  4. 4. Inclusive leadership: An inclusive leader not only values D&I but also serves as a role model, demonstrating the inclusive behaviours that the organisation seeks to promote.

Cognitive diversity plays a crucial role in solving complex problems by incorporating team members who possess diverse mental frameworks essential for effective problem-solving. Demographic diversity complements cognitive diversity by enabling teams to access specialised knowledge and networks unique to specific demographic groups.

Read more: Why a Growth Mindset Is What You Need for Life Success

This approach embraces intersectional complexities, ensuring that discussions and decision-making processes reflect a broader range of perspectives beyond singular demographic identities2.

However, diversity alone is not enough. It must be complemented by inclusion to drive better business outcomes. Research conducted by Deloitte2 has pinpointed four distinct elements of inclusion:

  1. 1. Equitable and respectful treatment: It is essential to ensure that everyone is treated fairly and respectfully, without any form of favouritism or discrimination.
  2. 2. Fostering a sense of belonging: Creating an environment where individuals feel a strong sense of belonging and connection, ensuring that their unique selves are valued and appreciated.
  3. 3. Establishing a safe environment: It is important to create a safe space where individuals are empowered to express their thoughts and opinions freely, without fear of embarrassment or retaliation.
  4. 4. Encouraging growth and empowerment: Providing opportunities for individuals to grow, develop, and reach their full potential, fostering an environment that supports continuous learning and career advancement.

Read more: Fostering Diversity and Inclusion Through Internship Programs at TRG

Leadership, both at the senior executive level and middle management, plays a pivotal role in driving inclusion. The behaviours exhibited by leaders can significantly impact the level of inclusion within an organisation. In fact, studies have shown that leadership behaviours can account for up to a 70-percentage-point difference in the inclusion levels experienced by employees2. This statistic alone attests to the power and influence of leadership in promoting D&I.

By integrating these four elements of inclusion into the fabric of an organisation and demonstrating inclusive leadership, leaders can cultivate an inclusive culture that embraces diversity. They can empower individuals to thrive, innovate, and contribute to meaningful business outcomes rooted in goals shared by everyone.

It has been found that highly inclusive leaders share the six following traits:

  1. 1. Commitment: Inclusive leaders are deeply committed to promoting D&I within their organisations. They actively challenge existing norms and embrace change, recognising that D&I are essential for innovation and growth.
  2. 2. Courage: Inclusive leaders demonstrate the courage to acknowledge their own limitations and welcome input from others. They create an environment where diverse perspectives are valued, fostering a culture of collaboration and mutual respect.
  3. 3. Cognizance of bias: Inclusive leaders consistently monitor themselves and the systems in place to identify and address biases. They proactively work to eliminate barriers and ensure equal opportunities for everyone within the organisation.
  4. 4. Curiosity: Inclusive leaders approach people with genuine curiosity, seeking to understand their experiences and perspectives without judgment. They actively listen and create a safe space for open dialogue and constructive conversations.
  5. 5. Culturally intelligent: Inclusive leaders possess the ability to adapt their behaviours and communication styles to different cultural contexts. They embrace diversity to create an inclusive environment where everyone feels equally respected.
  6. 6. Collaboration: Inclusive leaders empower individuals to collaborate and actively encourage diverse thinking. They create a sense of empowerment and trust, enabling team members to benefit from other members’ unique perspectives and collectively drive innovation and success.

Read more: The Building Blocks of Great Leadership

Inclusive leaders play a crucial role in driving success by their willingness and ability to adapt themselves and the workplace to accommodate the needs of every individual, irrespective of their background. By fostering inclusivity, these leaders cultivate a culture where everyone can thrive and contribute their best, ultimately driving overall organisational success.

Download whitepaper "Why your leadership development programme fails"here

Transforming Organisations through Effective Diversity and Inclusion Strategies

In promoting D&I in the workplace, organisations often resort to training. With nearly all Fortune 500 companies requiring diversity training, it has become “the go-to solution for all inequities”4.

Analysing data from hundreds of employers spanning years, Kalev and Dobbin have examined the effectiveness of various equity measures in promoting diversity. Their findings reveal that traditional diversity training programs not only fall short in advancing diversity but actually result in a decline in management diversity4.

Read more: Diversity and Inclusion Training: Importance and Practices

The concept of anti-bias training has a long-standing history, with social scientists exploring different approaches as early as the 1940s. However, despite their evolution over time, the results of these training programs have consistently fallen short of expectations.

Extensive research clearly demonstrates that biases cannot be significantly altered through training sessions lasting only an hour, a day, or a week. Biases are deeply rooted in enduring stereotypes that have become ingrained through a lifetime of exposure to various media forms, such as radio, television, and social media. This reality has been consistently supported by numerous studies conducted on the subject4.

Hiring tests, in addition to training, are widely employed by many companies as a popular measure to address bias. However, research suggests that managers often use these tests selectively, favouring certain individuals and/or disregarding the results5.

Performance ratings are another commonly used tool to ensure fair pay and promotion decisions. However, research indicates that these ratings often result in the undervaluation of women and minorities. Additionally, some managers may inflate ratings to avoid conflict with employees or to keep their options open when making promotion decisions5. Despite the intent behind performance ratings, they do not contribute to increasing D&I.

Grievance procedures are another popular solution intended to address biased behaviour in managers, but they often fall short as well. Instead of changing their behaviour or addressing discrimination, many managers choose to retaliate against employees who file complaints.

This hostile response discourages employees from speaking up, creating a cycle where discrimination goes unreported5. Further exacerbating the problem is the false belief among organisations with low complaint rates that they don’t have a problem, leading to complacency among managers.

The prevailing issue with popular approaches to addressing bias and discrimination lies in their emphasis on regulating and controlling managers’ behaviour. Research has consistently demonstrated that this approach tends to activate bias rather than eliminate it, as individuals often resist and rebel against rules and regulations that impinge on their autonomy5. Consequently, focusing solely on controlling managers does not effectively tackle the root causes of bias and discrimination within organisations.

Read more: How cognitive biases make interviews unreliable

Fortunately, other simpler managerial approaches have proven to be more successful in promoting D&I. These approaches include:

1. Engagement

Engagement plays a crucial role in addressing bias and promoting diversity. When individuals experience cognitive dissonance, a misalignment between their beliefs and behaviour, they tend to resolve it by either changing their beliefs or their actions.

Research shows that prompting individuals to act in ways that support a particular viewpoint can lead to a shift in their opinions. For instance, when managers actively participate in initiatives aimed at boosting diversity within their companies, they start viewing themselves as champions of diversity5.

College recruitment programmes targeting women and minorities exemplify this phenomenon. Managers are asked to participate in these programs to identify strong candidates from underrepresented groups, such as female engineers or African American management trainees. As a result, cognitive dissonance sets in, and managers who previously had ambiguous views on diversity become strong advocates.

Research by Dobbin and Kalev5 shows the remarkable impact of these programs: Five years after a company implements a college recruitment program targeting female employees, the share of White women, Black women, Hispanic women, and Asian American women in its management rises by about 10%, on average. A program focused on minority recruitment increases the proportion of Black male managers by 8% and Black female managers by 9%.

The positive impact of initiatives like college recruitment programmes in promoting diversity and creating opportunities for underrepresented groups is evident in these results. Using cognitive dissonance to effect change, these initiatives yield effective results in fostering a more inclusive and diverse environment.

Read more: Fatigue, Exhaustion, Disengagement in A World of Working From Anywhere

2. Contact

Contact between different groups has been shown to reduce bias6. One effective approach is the use of self-managed teams, where individuals from different roles and backgrounds collaborate on projects as equals. By increasing contact among diverse individuals, these teams challenge existing divisions along racial, ethnic, and gender lines within organisations. The exposure to different perspectives breaks down stereotypes and contributes to more equitable hiring and promotion practices.

Another method to foster contact is through rotating management trainees across different departments. This cross-training not only allows individuals to gain a broader understanding of the organisation but also exposes both trainees and department heads to a more diverse range of people5.

Read more: Why is Collaborative Leadership Important?

3. Social accountability

Social accountability is a powerful tool as people naturally want to appear favourable in the eyes of others, and this can be harnessed for positive change. When people are asked to justify their decisions or are expected to be transparent about them, they tend to evaluate the quality of work based on its merits rather than relying on stereotypes associated with the individuals involved.

This notion applies to the workplace as well, where transparency can foster social accountability. By openly sharing information on performance ratings and pay raises categorised by race and gender, organisations create a sense of awareness among managers that their decisions will be visible to their colleagues, superiors, and employees. As a result, this increased visibility leads to a substantial decrease in disparities and promotes more equitable outcomes.

The formation of diversity task forces, consisting of department heads and members from underrepresented groups, can complement these efforts by fostering accountability and prompting managers to evaluate the fairness of their decisions regarding hiring and promotion.

The presence of these task forces creates a sense of responsibility among managers, encouraging them to critically assess their actions and ensure equal opportunities for all individuals within the organisation. This collaborative approach helps to address biases and promote diversity and inclusion in decision-making processes5.

Although popular approaches focused on controlling managers’ behaviour have not been fully effective in addressing bias and discrimination in organisations, alternative strategies such as engagement, contact, and social accountability have shown promising results in promoting D&I.

By actively engaging managers in initiatives that support diversity, challenging existing divisions through contact between diverse groups, and fostering social accountability through transparency and collective responsibility, organisations can create a culture that values diversity and eliminates bias.

It is crucial for organisations to move beyond superficial programs and invest the necessary effort and resources in creating inclusive cultures. By doing so, they can drive significant and lasting change that leads to equitable opportunities for all individuals and the realisation of the benefits that D&I brings to the workplace.

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1. Schwartz, J. et al. (2017) 2017 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends. Deloitte University Press. Available at: (Accessed: 5 July 2023).

2. Bourke, J. and Dillon, B. (2018) ‘The diversity and inclusion revolution’, Deloitte Review, 22, pp. 82-95.

3. Bourke, J. (2016) Which Two Heads are Better than One? How Diverse Teams Create Breakthrough Ideas and Make Smarter Decisions. Sydney: Australian Institute of Company Directors.

4. Kalev, A. and Dobbin, F. (2020) ‘Companies Need to Think Bigger Than Diversity Training’, Harvard Business Review Digital Articles, pp. 2–4. Available at: (Accessed: 5 July 2023).

5. Dobbin, F. and Kalev, A. (2020) ‘Why Diversity Programs Fail’, Harvard Business Review, pp. 54–61. Available at: (Accessed: 5 July 2023).

6. DeAngelis, T. (2001) ‘All you need is contact’, American Psychological Association, 32(10). Available at: (Accessed: 6 July 2023).

Topics: Talent Management

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 Rick Yvanovich
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