Why it's so Difficult to Build an Inclusive Culture

Updated: May 13

Written by CultureCon Guest Blogger and Keynote Speaker, LaTonya Wilkins



If you search “building an inclusive culture,” dozens of articles come up. Many of them list out simple processes that encompass a three to four step process that usually includes phrases like “start at the top, make leaders accountable, and integrate diversity into your values.” Unless you are in the C-Suite and have a huge team, it’s virtually impossible to follow all these steps. Even if you do, it’s rare that you create an inclusive organizational culture. These processes are way oversimplified. So, why is it so hard to build an inclusive culture?


Organizational culture can be defined as an organization’s vision, values, norms, systems, symbols, language, assumptions, beliefs, and habits (Needle, 2004). So what is an inclusive organizational culture? If an organization has an inclusive culture, it fosters systems and norms in which differences are encouraged and accepted. Systems are equitable. Diverse employees get promoted. People in the organization use inclusive language. Employees express that they feel like they can bring their whole selves to work and perform better because of it. Thinking inclusively becomes the norm. For example, when planning an event or outing, an inclusively minded leader will proactively question if something is exclusive. They might go out of their way to invite people are that are in the minority. They think beyond what is convenient for them and shift their focus to anticipating what the team would want. Inclusivity is a habit.


Developing inclusive habits is difficult but the presence of them are very valuable. These habits are typically driven by employees; not the organization. The organization can encourage them but, ultimately, it’s up to the employee to execute. The sum of all of habits leads to an inclusive culture.


So, how do you get to the point where the culture becomes inclusive? Four ways to get started:


1. Communicate the diversity and inclusion strategy and encourage people to develop their own goals to support it. When people develop their own goals, they buy into them. For example, many organizations measure inclusive cultures through a leadership, diversity or culture survey. They may ask that a manager achieve a certain rating. It’s important to let the manager plan out how they will get there. If the manager develops their own goals, research shows that they will be more committed to making it happen.


2. Work with employees to remove roadblocks. Once employees develop their goals, it’s important to coach them to remove roadblocks. Roadblocks include difficulty buying into diversity, helping the employee see what it’s in for them and helping employees understand how to be inclusive in action. Many organizations contribute to roadblocks as they are too prescriptive about how the employee should create their own inclusive roadmap. How do you coach employees for inclusion? A couple of questions to ask:


How can inclusion benefit your team?

What are the biggest opportunities for inclusion in your organization?

What goals do you have for yourself and team?

How will you get there?

How can the organization help?


It’s important to sit down and listen to the answers to these questions. Inclusion doesn’t come naturally for some so coaching will help them move forward.


3. Support leaders to develop new habits. Inclusion is not a task list, it’s a shift in thinking. Once you coach leaders, work with them to not only meet their goals, but to also develop inclusive habits. Ask employees what they can do each day to shift their habits. For example, maybe a leader wants to get in the habit of looking outside their network for potential talent. In order to develop a habit, the leader might want to start reading publications or attending diverse networking events. They may want to do something each week so that their shift eventually becomes a habit.


4. Reward inclusive leaders. It’s important to reward inclusive leaders on an ongoing basis. You don’t need a formal program. Easy rewards include highlighting the behavior to others in the organization and discussing business results as a result of the behaviors. Rewarding is easy to do and can be part of a staff meeting or newsletter.


It takes years of discipline and evaluation to build an inclusive culture. These tips are not meant to be a checklist, they are a means to get started. Many of the items listed here are often forgotten as we can tend to focus on the organizational, not individual, goals. If you are spinning your wheels focusing on high-level strategy, shift your focus to individuals and teams.



As a global culture leader, credentialed coach, facilitator and speaker, LaTonya Wilkins helps people, organizations and entrepreneurs thrive. LaTonya has over 15 years of experience working with Fortune 100 companies, higher education, tech and consulting firms and executive leadership teams. LaTonya’s coaching clients include leaders from underrepresented groups, powerful executives, purpose-driven entrepreneurs, ambitious leaders and purpose-driven professionals.

For coaching or speaking requests, e-mail me at latonya@latonyawilkins.

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