What does inclusion in the workplace really mean?

Jessica Krueger
Article by: Jessica Krueger
What does inclusion in the workplace really mean?

By now, most organizations understand and appreciate the moral and business cases for inclusion and diversity in the workplace. The bigger question is how to implement inclusion and diversity practices that make a real and lasting impact.

In my research and interviews with I&D experts, I learned that inclusion is an incredibly complex subject. I realized though that the same topics kept popping up in my conversations about inclusion: practicing empathy, avoiding judgment, and listening to others. These are skills we should all be eager to improve, especially those of us in leadership positions. I spoke to three experts in the field to better understand how to build these skills and create more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplaces.

What is inclusion, really?

As you may have noticed by now, I’ve flipped the common phrase “Diversity and Inclusion” to “Inclusion and Diversity.” This is intentional. As Stine Fehmerling, Director of Global Talent & Leadership at Coloplast, one of the organizations THNK works with, puts it, “inclusion must come first.” In her experience, inclusive leadership is the foundation of meaningful diversity in any workplace. I asked Stine what inclusion means to her and she said simply, “It’s feeling like you can be yourself.” Well, that sounds straightforward enough, right? But take a moment to think about how often you feel like you can truly be yourself at work. Or maybe it’s easier to think of a time when you felt like you couldn’t be your true self at work. How did that feel? What would it have felt like if you could have been your true self in that moment?

Stine advocates for showing people all of the various layers and levels of diversity to help them realize that inclusion and diversity likely do apply to them, even if it’s not obvious. She also explains that, especially for those in leadership positions or those working in more homogeneous environments, it’s vital to know and remind yourself of your own diversity traits and experiences with inclusion (or exclusion).

If you skipped my earlier question about a time when you felt like you couldn’t be your true self at work, or you couldn’t think of a good example, take a moment now to see if you can think of an example. Take a look at the layers of diversity below. Which traits apply to you? Are you fully comfortable bringing these traits to work? Have you experienced any sort of discrimination or exclusion based on any of these traits or another trait? How did that feel? How did that experience impact how you show up at work or in other areas of your life?


Many of these traits are fluid and can be categorized in multiple ways depending on the person or situation. This image is not meant to be definitive and we encourage you to form your own interpretations of these traits.

How can I promote inclusion as a leader?

Now that we have a foundation of what inclusion is, it’s important to talk about what it means to be an inclusive leader. Inclusive leadership isn’t something you can do overnight, it’s not something you learn in one or two workshops, and it’s not a specific process or policy. Instead,  inclusive leadership is a set of skills or traits that, for many of us, take time and intention to develop and practice.

Bernice Feller-Thijm – Inclusion Strategist, Team Performance Coach, and THNK Faculty member – defines inclusion similarly to Stine Fehmerling: “Inclusion is feeling like you belong – the way you feel around your friends. It’s not a policy or a process. It’s the way you show up, speak, listen, and lead by example. If you just have an annual inclusion workshop, you’re missing the point.” To help leaders understand inclusion better, Bernice is a proponent of the six traits of inclusive leadership as defined by Deloitte.

Bernice adds that it’s important to remember that inclusion is a journey. “We are all imperfect and once we know better, we do better,” she says. This type of mindset requires a high level of psychological safety, self-reflection, and vulnerability that is often missing in the workplace. This is one of the reasons, according to Bernice, that inclusion can be a challenge in the workplace.

inclusion in the workplace
Inclusion is feeling like you belong. It’s not a policy or a process. It’s the way you show up, speak, listen, and lead by example. #inclusion #inclusive #inclusivecultures #workplace #workculture Click To Tweet

Why inclusion can be a challenge

When I asked Bernice why many companies struggle with inclusion, she cited a few reasons. First, “Inclusion is not a simple issue with a simple solution,” Bernice says. “Inclusion deals with people and people are complex. To make things more challenging, there is no common blueprint for success; it looks different for every team and every organization. You cannot apply a methodology or framework like many other business problems that leaders are used to solving.”

Second, “Inclusion is a leveling of the playing field in some ways which can be intimidating for some organizations and leaders.” Bernice explains that larger, more hierarchical organizations tend to struggle more with inclusion. Finally, the ROI of inclusion takes time and is often hard to measure. Inclusion, or lack thereof, is a systemic issue in many ways and can feel difficult to change.

Bernice offers the following advice to overcome these challenges and build your inclusion muscle: “If you don’t get it, listen more to others. The way you see the world is often not the reality for everyone else. Become aware of your biases and how those affect your behavior and work. Talk about inclusion and speak up when you see bias or non-inclusive behavior. Finally, slow down. Many non-inclusive behaviors and decisions happen when we are working too fast and not asking enough questions.” 

Another way to improve inclusion in your organization is to recruit leaders and team members who display inclusive traits like listening, empathy, curiosity, courage, and cultural intelligence. You can also reward and promote inclusive leaders by evaluating people on inclusive traits in performance reviews and 360 feedback surveys. Holding people accountable to inclusion and rewarding those who excel is a great way to show visible commitment as a leader.

inclusion in the workplace
If you don’t get it, listen to others. The way you see the world is often not the reality for everyone else. Become aware of your biases and how those affect your behavior and work. #inclusion #inclusivecultures #bias #workplace Click To Tweet

Diversity is no longer optional.

Once your organization has an understanding of inclusion, you can really start to think about meaningful diversity. Diversity is broader than most people realize, and there are many more layers and levels of diversity than you may think (see the image above).

Each of these traits has its own level of visibility as well. Some traits are highly visible while some are more difficult to see. By truly understanding these layers, it becomes easier to see how most of us can likely relate to at least one of these diversity traits.

When thinking about diversity and inclusion in the workplace, many organizations are highly focused on gender and race and fail to consider many of the other characteristics that contribute to a diverse team. “Diversity is broad,” explains Souraya Sarraf, formerly a partner at the executive search firm Holtrop Ravesloot specialized in diversity. “It’s not only about hiring a woman or a person of color. It’s about different backgrounds and experiences as well.” Sarraf explained to me that too often, organizations determine who their “ideal candidate” is for a position based on specific work experience and educational background but fail to realize what qualities they truly need in the role. She recommends thinking more about the traits and qualities you need on your team and recruiting for those traits. In her experience, this approach will likely result in a more diverse pool of applicants.

For those in recruiting roles, Sarraf recommends always presenting conventional and unconventional candidates to hiring managers. “Too often people choose the person most like themselves. Ask your hiring managers to think about what skills, qualities, and traits are missing on their team, and challenge them to consider the unconventional candidates.” 

In 2021 and a (hopefully) soon-to-be post-pandemic world, adding diversity to your team, in all layers and levels, is no longer optional. Today’s world requires innovative solutions and creative thinking. As Sarraf explains, “Hiring the same types of people will not get your organization to new solutions and creative ideas you need.” However, without meaningful inclusion embedded in your organization, you will likely not be able to retain the diverse and creative team you worked so hard to assemble. Before you invest time and energy into diversity strategies, start first with inclusion.

To learn how to build inclusive cultures, join the THNK THRIVE: Lead With the World in Mind program.