DEI | Inclusion

Leaders Should Be Striving Toward ‘Optimal Inclusion’—Here’s Why

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Most leaders—from those in large multi-national organizations to those in small, nimble companies—have gotten the word that diversity and inclusion are important.

The research is overwhelming, and virtually impossible to miss. Diverse teams, and inclusive habits, are as close as you can get to a one-two punch of team performance and corporate responsibility. With that, however, comes the possibility of focusing so heavily on one factor—inclusion—that leaders neglect another important element: balance.

Balance, as it relates to inclusion, is leading in a way that supports the needs of the individual, while still focusing on the needs of the business. At NLI, we call this balance “optimal inclusion,” because it allows leaders and co-workers to focus on getting the right perspectives quickly and deliberately, for both the employee’s and the organization’s benefit.

Inclusion, defined

Inclusion is about the physical act of representation, whether it’s being invited to the right meeting or being on the right email, but it’s not just about that. Inclusion is also about valuing someone’s input, ideas, point of view or contribution. Optimal inclusion requires someone to be physically present (or virtually) and to have their perspective valued – this can be a delicate balance.

When our need for inclusion is unsatisfied—what we can call “under-inclusion”—an employee may feel that their ideas are not welcome, or that they themselves are not welcome. We have all experienced how threatening that can feel, and research even points to how it can have such deleterious effects as negatively affecting IQ, pro-social behavior, and even overall health.

The opposite, however, is over-inclusion. This manifests itself in too many people on emails or in meetings, individuals with too many projects and responsibilities, and an overall feeling of being taxed or overwhelmed. Much has been written about the degree to which some workers have begun to equate busy with important. That desire to be involved in a lot of things, even as the pace of the business continues to increase, can be self-defeating, as people may take on more, but successfully execute on less.

Neither of these conditions is advantageous for getting the most out of a team, which is why the solution, as simple as it may seem, is reaching optimal inclusion.

Why optimal inclusion matters

Optimal inclusion is about making sure people feel included in the right ways, at the right time, without compromising speed to execution. When leaders fail to optimally include, they risk creating social threats in others, primarily to their senses of fairness and relatedness.

Consider the classic research, designed to induce exclusion, called Cyberball. A participant, Player 1, is focused on a screen, and hooked up to an fMRI, so that we can see what is happening in her or his brain. They are told they are playing with two other participants, and the goal is to toss the digital ball using a keyboard.

At first, everyone passes the ball to one another, and everything seems fine. But soon after, the other two participants start passing the ball only to one another, excluding Player 1. What Player 1 doesn’t know is that there aren’t two other players; they are actually no more than a computer program designed to stop tossing Player 1 the ball. What Player 1 does know is that they feel excluded, frustrated, and upset.

Likewise, we saw firsthand how much over-inclusion affects people’s daily work life in the responses to our article in Harvard Business Review entitled, “How to Gracefully Exclude Coworkers from Meetings, Emails, and Projects.”

Little did we know just how much it would resonate with leaders and employees all over. We certainly didn’t expect the volume of email we got from people who said that they had just forwarded a copy of that article to their team, or that they could breathe sighs of relief now that they knew they weren’t the only one dealing with over-inclusion.

Clearly, optimal inclusion was a topic leaders thought a lot about, even if they didn’t necessarily have the language for it. Now that leaders and employees have the language, let’s have those productive, transparent conversations about what it means to be optimally included—and start creating more efficient, effective teams as soon as possible.

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