How to Design for Real Inclusion

September 26, 2019

How to Design for Real Inclusion

Many black professionals have little evidence that diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives actually help them advance in their organizations and careers. D&I initiatives are ubiquitous, and while they are meant to enhance career trajectories and foster inclusive climates for all groups, people tend to believe that D&I practices primarily benefit blacks. Even when black professionals are moving up the ranks, they frequently feel underutilized and perceive there to be a racial “glass ceiling” limiting their future opportunities.


The Psychology of Inclusion


Consider the following scenario: A firm initiates a black leadership development program. The program selects elite black managers, offers leadership training in functional areas and strategies for black leaders to navigate racial terrain, and encourages mentoring relationships with senior black executives. Would this D&I initiative foster inclusion for blacks? One black professional may welcome such a program, perceiving that the firm is attuned to the unique challenges of black leadership and is committed to inclusion. Another black professional may be repelled by it, perceiving that the firm assimilates blackness into a stereotyped set of experiences and is not serious about inclusion. The answer is, it depends.


Like most human behaviors, inclusion experiences are symbolic acts. Their meaning depends on their interpretation by the perceiver. Is being asked by the managing director, “How is work going?” in the elevator seen as an affirmation that the director cares or an ominous warning that he or she is tracking one’s work? If the first, it may kindle a friendship. If the second, it may cause avoidance. What appears to be the same situation can in fact be very different for different actors, or for the same actor at different times.


The Blueprint for Black Inclusion


One important design parameter for blacks requires that designers attend to and develop nudge strategies that eradicate the perception that race will be a barrier to advancement. The benefits of investing in such a design strategy are threefold. First, racial inequity and the perception of racial animus are problematic for any organization operating in the United States. They can undermine employee engagement and diminish work performance. Second, career development is an inherently collaborative task. Certainly, one must be competent and continue to develop expertise in her or his area of responsibility. However, career development also requires a web of relationships that must include connections across difference. Often, race can be an impediment to developing these connections with mentors, sponsors, and peers. Finally, black people are more than the sum of their responses to identity-based trauma. Like any human being, a black person holds both the aspiration to achieve in the world and the need to make sense of who she or he is and could become in a given situation. Black people want to experience positive aspects of identity, which include growth and flourishing.


Facilitating Explicit Communication


A hallmark of the dysfunction of race in U.S. companies is the unwillingness to talk about it openly. This silence has significant costs for black employees. It reinforces the habit of withholding performance feedback from black employees, depriving them of the opportunity to learn and develop. It diminishes the capacity to develop relationship resilience with colleagues across race, including the skill of managing conflict related to racial identity. It also has costs for nonblack colleagues, as the trust needed to foster authentic interaction is underdeveloped and they lose the benefits, both pragmatic and affective, of creating high-quality connections with black colleagues.


One company altered this script of “race silence” by creating contexts for its senior leaders to develop skill and comfort in talking about race publicly. Leveraging a highly salient community incident involving racial conflict, the predominantly white leadership team sought coaching on how to talk about race, with emphasis on how they entered into crossrace dialogue by discussing their whiteness. Some executives were less conscious of their race experiences; others, more mindful and articulate. All were accountable for engaging in dialogue with their direct reports on the racial climate. The impact of their openness was to begin to legitimize cross-racial dialogue throughout the organization several months after the impact of the precipitating event had lessened.


Building Knowledge about Race


A design for black inclusion counteracts this phenomenon by creating contexts for nonblack employees to develop their knowledge about race without requiring their black colleagues to participate in every aspect of the learning. Organizations can develop a capability for understanding race by relying on a critical mass of nonblack employees taking personal action to learn. In one consulting company, nonblack employees started a book club focused on black writers and organized visits to African American museums and historical sites.


But this knowledge development is not only personal. Like many other retail organizations, American Express has developed a market segmentation strategy that emphasizes understanding the communities and customers it serves, including the African American population. It tried to drive business growth by designing appropriate and appealing products and services for those constituents. To provide the necessary knowledge to expand into new markets, American Express developed a patent-pending process called Diverse Marketplace Intelligence. This system drew insights both from the firm’s existing talent base and from strategically chosen external partners. The most prominent avenue for learning within the company was provided by the black employee network group, among others. Organization-wide learning about race is powerful, not only because it increases knowledge but also because it signals to black employees that race is important.


Developing an Organizational Racial Learning Orientation


Building a knowledge base about race is fundamentally a learning task. Racial intelligence requires all organization members—both nonblack and black—to engage in ongoing learning about race. Cultivating this racial learning orientation is essential because racially significant events persist outside and inside the organization. Externally, demographic shifts continue to create more diversity among black communities in the United States as blacks immigrate from Africa, the Caribbean, and elsewhere. These shifts add complexity to our understanding of what drives black advancement. In addition, societal events, often traumatic, persist as social media reveals ongoing discriminatory behavior in places of business, police shootings, and social protest. Internally, developing black talent requires greater understanding of the evolving professional needs of blacks at different career stages (e.g., how a cohort of black junior analysts learn to collaborate as a group of minorities, or what dynamics accrue to someone who becomes the first black CEO of an organization). A design for black inclusion requires the development of a culture of inquiry about race.


One online financial services firm began to cultivate such a learning orientation after deciding to tap into younger, more ethnically diverse customer bases. The company struggled to understand why its widely successful business model was not appealing to black customers who should have been eager to adopt the online platform. The predominantly white male company instituted a program of cross-race dialogues called Know Us, which focused on bringing small groups of employees together to talk candidly about racially relevant topics. The dialogues started in response to police shootings of blacks in the United States in 2015 and 2016. The company is now working to encourage more targeted cross-functional diversity in the groups as a way of learning how to solve emerging business challenges related to its black customer base.


Leaders Emerge from the Design for Black Inclusion


Black leaders thrive in part because they are talented. However, far too often, relying on exceptional talent only creates short-term gain. Companies committed to fostering black excellence must be strategic and relentless in creating the conditions for that excellence. Understanding the underlying psychology of the black experience in such companies allows leaders to construct inclusive climates and cultures that create black leaders.



Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Adapted from “Is D&I about Us?: How Inclusion Practices Undermine Black Advancement and How to Design for Real Inclusion” by Valerie Purdie-Greenaway and Martin N. Davidson in Race, Work, and Leadership: New Perspectives on the Black Experience, edited by Laura Morgan Roberts, Anthony J. Mayo, and David A. Thomas. Copyright 2019 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

The Authors: 

Valerie Purdie-Greenaway is Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Columbia University.


Martin N. Davidson is the Johnson and Higgins Professor of Business Administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business where he currently serves as Senior Associate Dean and Global Chief Diversity Officer for the school.