If you think you’re doing a good job measuring inclusion, think again

24 Oct 2018 This article is the first in a series that Rebekah Steele and I are posting on LinkedIn, focused on how organisations can do a better job of inclusion.

By Alison Maitland and Rebekah Steele

ARE your inclusion measures helping you achieve your critical business goals? Or are blind spots obscuring the path to better results?

Companies need to address the whole of inclusion — feelings, actions, and organisational factors – to know what they need to do differently to face the business challenges ahead. Consider this case at a multinational conglomerate.

Senior managers agreed that Devon (name changed to protect identity) was a strong performer, regularly meeting or exceeding objectives. At the annual meeting to assess high-performing employees’ potential to grow, there was no dissent on that point. One executive, however, noted that Devon lacked commitment and was therefore not promotion material. 

Rebekah was surprised by this assessment and knew how disheartened Devon would feel about it. She asked which performance objectives or leadership competencies Devon had failed to meet. All agreed that this talented employee surpassed requirements for results and behaviours, including going ‘above and beyond’ for customers and influencing others to do the same. In that case, why was there any objection to putting Devon forward, Rebekah wondered. She asked for specific evidence of ‘low commitment’.

The problem, replied the executive, was that Devon left work at 5pm every day. This was unusual at a company where the dominant belief was that advancement required long working hours. However, staying after 5pm was not a real requirement. And Devon demonstrated outstanding commitment by consistently exceeding expectations.

The purpose of the meeting was to identify future leaders with the strengths needed to help the company grow sustainably. Yet Devon was very nearly left out, depriving the company of top leadership material, because of hidden individual and systemic bias about what ‘commitment’ looks like.

Once identified, the bias could be mitigated swiftly. Devon was immediately included in leadership development plans and promoted later that year. The company also recognised that inclusion requires more than individual awareness and actions. It refined its people processes to make clear the real requirements of commitment – such as doing what you say you will do to meet company goals – and to eradicate rewards based simply on long hours. Leaders went further, developing a strategy for a flexible environment focused on rewarding results, not working hours.

Why typical inclusion measures are not enough

Many companies use representation as a measure of inclusion, for example the ratio of women to men in leadership, but that is really a diversity measurement. Those that do employ inclusion measurements typically rely on a few questions in periodic employee engagement surveys, focusing on individuals’ feelings about:

·     Belonging, being valued and respected

·     Being able to speak freely and contribute

·     Being given opportunities to develop

These data provide a very limited perspective, and yield little insight into the impact of inclusion on business goals. Feelings alone do not tell the whole story of inclusion, and the many dimensions of inclusion cannot be captured by a small number of questions. This approach also treats employees as passive actors to whom things are done, rather than individuals with the power to contribute to inclusion themselves.

How to have greater insight and impact

For several years, we have focused on researching and designing better ways for organisations to understand, measure, and elevate inclusion. In our work, we know that not only feelings, but also actions and, most distinctively, organisational factorsare critical. I might feel included without realising that people like me are unintentionally but systematically excluded from leadership.

Feelings must be considered along with concrete actions – whether the actions of individuals, teams, managers, and senior leaders, such as respectful behaviour, contribute to the company’s aspiration to be inclusive. Adding a review of organisational factors, such as the people processes in the case study, yields a more thorough understanding of how to foster inclusion in ways that support individuals and business goals.

Your company might have ‘inclusion’ as a stated value, but your employee engagement survey shows people are feeling less included. You cut the data to see which workforce segments are most affected. What then? Unless you also know how people are behaving and whether you have structures in place to support inclusion, you won’t know how to start addressing the problem.

For example, you won’t know that your leadership identification process is failing. You won’t know that hidden biases are holding people back from promotion. You won’t know that you run the risk of losing high performers to the competition. You also won’t understand how building inclusion can support other crucial business goals like innovation, collaboration, expansion into new markets, and sustainability.

Companies need to address the whole of inclusion – feelings, actions, and organisational factors – to know what they need to do differently to face the business challenges ahead. 

Because our case study company took this approach, Devon is still exceeding expectations to drive competitive advantage, still leaving work at 5pm most days, and, as a senior executive, leading an inclusive work environment that helps the business grow.

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