Why Diversity is Not Enough: 6 Keys to Building Inclusive Cultures

In an era where companies are paying more and more attention to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), inclusion remains one of the most elusive organizational cultural competencies to develop and maintain. Creating a work environment where all people feel respected, accepted, supported, and valued, while also allowing all employees to fully participate in decision-making processes and development opportunities, is one of the most important factors in running a successful business. Although most leaders know that inclusion matters, few truly understand that it is one of the key determinants to unlocking the true potential of their employees.

For years, organizational psychologists have conducted research to identify the areas that contribute to how companies create inclusive cultures. Evidence has been found to support traditional factors such as compensation and benefits, career opportunities, and access and participation in development opportunities. Researchers have also found that experiences of exclusion, such as company’s policies, senior leadership, direct managers, and peers play a role in how employees feel about inclusion efforts. By combining these two lines of research, our team at Bandelli & Associates has identified the most common situations in which inclusion efforts have worked as well as those where employees feel excluded. One of our key findings is that most experiences of exclusion are attributed to people, not policies.

Leaders have a great influence on whether employees feel included or excluded in their organizations. Specifically, the way leaders behave with their team members has the most significant impact on their experiences, and therefore on the perception of inclusion at work. If leaders are often seen as the most frequent source of experiences of inclusion for everyone in their companies, what are the key behaviors and practices that must be put into place to support these efforts? Our research has found that the Relational Intelligence skill of Embracing Individual Differences serves as one of the primary drivers of building inclusive cultures.

Embracing Individual Differences is the ability to be AUTHENTIC in acknowledging and accepting that everyone comes from different backgrounds and experiences. It’s having a favorable reception towards people who think, act, and behave differently than you do. It means appreciating racial and ethnic diversity, understanding the differences in how men and women think and communicate, embracing peoples’ sexual orientation, and understanding that cross-cultural differences and spirituality/religion affect how we interact with the world. Embracing Individual Differences is about creating cultures of inclusivity where people can bring their true selves to work. This leads to diversity of thought, which helps companies drive innovation, creativity, and growth.

Here are the six keys that relationally intelligent leaders practice to Embrace Individual Differences in the workplace and build sustainable inclusive cultures:

1. Get Comfortable in Your Own Skin: To become an authentic leader, the type that creates the conditions through which your people can feel comfortable bringing their true selves to work, you must first put in the time to learn about yourself and get comfortable with who you are as a person. You must understand how you’re wired and what makes you tick. This starts with strengthening your self-awareness and knowing the things you excel at on your best days as well as knowing your blind spots and derailers on the stressful ones. It’s coming to terms with your development areas, having the humility to ask for help when you need it, and surrounding yourself with people who complement the skills you bring to the organization. It’s only when you know who you are as a leader, that you can be authentic in how you come across to others.

2. Model Authenticity: Once you understand the things that distinguish you as a leader – and this includes all the good, bad, and ugly – you must begin modeling authenticity for your people. Some employees may be unfamiliar with how to be their true selves at work while others may be uncomfortable doing it. Leaders who Embrace Individual Differences have open, candid, and transparent conversations with their team members. This encourages others to do the same in their interactions with colleagues. They also value having people around them who think differently. This comes from having a workforce that is made up of people from various backgrounds and experiences. It doesn’t matter if these differences come from race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, cross-cultural factors, faith/spirituality, or neurodiversity. When your employees understand that different views, opinions, and beliefs are valued, they will be more comfortable being their authentic selves at work.

3. Create the Conditions for Psychological Safety: It is one thing to model authenticity for your employees. However, it’s another thing to create a culture of psychological safety where employees can thrive. To practice this skill, leaders must have the courage and humility to be vulnerable with their people. Vulnerability is one of most important factors in developing trust and creating a culture where employees feel heard. When leaders let pride, ego, or self-serving tendencies interfere with how they manage their people, it damages relationships, instills fear in how employees show up at work, and limits the effectiveness of how teams operate.

4. Strive for Belonging Across Your Workforce: One of the greatest ways to build an inclusive culture is to find ways to show your people that you care about them. Creating a sense of belonging is about having empathy for your people and being genuinely concerned about their physical, mental, and emotional well-being. It’s wanting something positive for everyone in the workplace and ensuring efforts are made to make this a reality for your people. When you give employees the opportunity to bring their hearts and minds to work, and support them every step of the way, you create a sense of belonging that garners trust, loyalty, and commitment.

5. Challenge Your People to Think Outside Their Comfort Zones: For inclusivity to truly develop across your organization you must not only embrace individual differences, but you must become skilled at leveraging those differences. This means challenging your people to think outside their typical patterns, habits, and norms. If you only have employees in your organization who think differently, but never challenge them to step outside their comfort zones to look for the value in what those differences are, you limit the power of what inclusivity can do to unlock and unleash their true potential. Relationally intelligent leaders know how to assimilate the ideas and insights of their diverse teams to drive creativity, innovation, and collaborative problem-solving.

6. Celebrate Diversity of Thought in Decision-Making: When you see your people bringing their authentic selves to work, and they have shown the courage to step out of their comfort zones to share different perspectives, you must celebrate the diversity of thought on your team. This means providing regular encouragement and recognition when new ideas are brought to the table. It is about making your people feel that they not only belong, but that the knowledge, insights, and experiences they bring to your organization are a necessity. It is the collection of your people’s differences that are the most critical drivers to the success of your business.


Adam C. Bandelli, Ph.D., is the Managing Director of Bandelli & Associates, a boutique consulting firm focusing on leadership advisory services and organizational development. He is the author of the book Relational Intelligence: The Five Essential Skills You Need to Build Life-Changing Relationships. It is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple Books, and everywhere books are sold. Follow Dr. Bandelli on Instagram at @adambandelli to learn more. You can also visit the firm’s website at www.bandelliandassociates.com for information on other leadership topics and to learn about their consulting services.