Geffrye Parsons, Founder & CEO, The Inclusion Imperative

Through his DE&I consultancy practice, The Inclusion Imperative, Geffrye helps commercial organisations to build leadership capabilities and harness the power of inclusion as a key strategy for well-being, organisational learning, and superior business outcomes. Widely regarded as a thought leader and driver of positive change for workplace inclusion, Geff promotes a holistic, intersectional approach. He challenges received wisdom and practices to facilitate a culture shift and encourage business learning, drawing on 35 years of experience in front office executive roles, based in the UK, Hong Kong, Singapore, and the Netherlands, with leading international financial and professional services organisations. Geff is a respected writer, speaker, and facilitator, having worked with organisations in the fields of financial services, media, energy, law, advertising, publishing, logistics, government agencies, and others, spoken at multiple conferences globally, hosted a regular podcast series, and provided published content for multiple publications and online channels.


“Look, we have women and people of colour in our organisation – we are so diverse!”

We have all heard something like this, haven’t we?  An organisation portrays itself as diverse by promoting visible representation. Some women in senior management? Check. Photos of a few people of minority ethnicity in the annual report? Done. A rainbow logo for Pride Month? Oh yes.

But if that is where it all stops, this is mere optics: what I call “optical inclusion” (see what I did there…?).

The pity is, that many organisations which are guilty of optical inclusion may genuinely believe that they are doing this right. They have probably read some statistics demonstrating that diverse teams outperform homogeneous teams, and so rush headlong into a hiring spree targeted at people with (predominantly visible) minority characteristics, believing that will create the magic elixir they seek.

But there is a fundamental problem. Diversity and inclusion are NOT the same thing. Whereas diversity is about representation (a physical body count, if you will), inclusion is what unlocks the potential value of that diversity. It is the ‘secret sauce’ behind those statistics that the company read and hoped to re-create with its recruitment campaign.

But not only are diversity and inclusion different; there is a paradoxical effect. That is, very disappointingly for organisations that have adopted the tactic I described above, diversity does NOT create inclusion. Instead, the opposite is true: inclusion creates diversity.

How so?

Put simply, diversity without inclusion is a recipe for (self) deception and dissonance. Not only does it mislead key players (such as the C-suite) within the organisation into believing that they are doing all they can or should be doing in order to foster an environment in which everyone can thrive and create value-added synergies. It also fails the ‘team test’: forcing together a bunch of disparate individuals, not managed in a way that would help them not only get past but actually make the most of their differences, but rather in all probability fundamentally unable to relate to or communicate meaningfully with each other. More often than not, this produces an effect worse than falling back on homogeneity.

In other words, diversity without inclusion invariably spawns a ‘diversity deficit’ – more harm than good is done by it.

Contrarily, fostering an inclusive environment will naturally attract and stimulate diversity – of thought, perspective, and lived experience. A workplace in which participants are genuinely and empathetically valued, where they can exercise agency to bring authenticity to the table, where psychological safety allows players to challenge the status quo, question received wisdom, and take reasonable risks without fear of retribution, in which vulnerability is appreciated and where learning is a ‘team sport’ – this is an environment founded on respect and, above all, trust.

Such an environment allows ideas and initiatives to cross-pollinate, encouraging and facilitating diverse players and perspectives to synergise for the greater good. In other words, inclusion creates (not to mention attracts and retains) diversity – and results in what has been called a ‘diversity dividend’: a pay-off from fostering a nurturing environment.

The analogy of a plant is useful (and used often) in this context. In the right environment, a plant will grow and thrive; in a toxic one, it will wither and die. This is what happens to diversity when it is introduced to a workplace – its success depends on creating an environment in which it can thrive.

So what should organisations do? There are very many things, but for now let us focus on two key ones: hiring and leading.

Hiring is an inevitability, as no organisation is static. But this process of corporate renewal requires a delicate balance to be struck: newcomers need to be assimilated into the team or organisational culture, but not so rigidly as to stifle the stimulus which they offer as a new resource.

Companies that hire for optics find that those optical benefits are not only very temporary and unsustainable (because talent will not stay where it is not included), but also quite destructive, as we have already seen. Companies that hire purely for assimilation, allowing affinity bias to create clones of themselves, are risking groupthink, stagnancy, and ultimately market irrelevance.

By contrast, hiring for ‘stretch’ rather than ‘fit’, offers the opportunity to develop team culture positively, without losing the essence of its core identity.

I refer to this type of hiring as ‘highering’. And whereas optical or assimilative hiring can be miring, highering can be inspiring – it provides developmental stimulus and upward renewal for the team and the broader organisation.

But, of course, only if those new recruits are in a position to thrive rather than just survive. As we saw earlier, this requires an inclusive workplace environment. Critical to this are the leaders – and especially (and perhaps contrary to popular perception, which tends to focus mainly on the C-suite), the immediate leaders, i.e. the line managers, department heads and team leads. Regardless of the wider situation, and principled messaging trickling down from executive management, these are the leaders who will make or break the situation because they create the micro-climates in which their team members work daily.

A well-known mantra is that people do not leave organisations, they leave managers. That can happen when a manager fails to grasp the principle espoused by Simon Sinek when he said: “The real job of a leader is not about being in charge, it’s about taking care of those in our charge.”

The role of a successful leader is to create a nurturing environment in which trust is core and ever-present. The likes of Peter Drucker and Robert Greenleaf have observed that authoritarian leaders – those who derive their power from title rather than influence – never extract the maximum possible discretionary effort and loyalty from those who report to them. This is because this approach creates the very antithesis of the psychologically safe environment in which talent can (or even wants to) flourish.

Instead, leaders should be what Liz Wiseman and Greg McKeown have called “multipliers”, using their skills and position to bring out the best in their teams. This approach, often called “servant leadership”, is designed to empower individuals, allowing them to experiment and synergize to create a team that is much more than the sum of its parts. Leaders like this measure their own success by the success of the teams that they lead – which in turn reflects back on them, of course. So, by fostering the right (i.e. inclusive) environment for diversity to thrive, leaders like this become a catalyst for real progress.

So, by understanding the paradox of diversity, and hiring and leading inclusively, organisations can leap over the trap door of optical inclusion. Doing so will allow them to mine diversity fully for the priceless, sustainable potential it offers – getting the best out of, and engendering the loyalty of, their staff, and in so doing encouraging the creativity, innovation, and risk-awareness which are the lifeblood of a robust, future-proofed organisation.

Content Disclaimer

Related Articles