By: Bernardo M. Ferdman, Ph.D.

Inclusion at Work

Why should we care about diversity and inclusion?

Diversity—the many ways in which people are different—can be a vital resource for groups and organizations. We know from research, for example, that diversity helps to catalyze innovation, especially under the right conditions. When we welcome and engage with diversity, we are more likely to encourage generation and sharing of new and different ideas and to bring together a greater variety of ideas, information, perspectives, and opinions—ultimately leading to better decisions and problem solving. Doing this is much more likely in an inclusive group or organization—one characterized by openness to and appreciation of difference.

Diverse and inclusive organizations can attract, recruit, and retain a greater range of people, consequently availing themselves of broader talent pools. To truly embrace and leverage diversity and inclusion—to create workplace cultures where everyone feels welcomed and their differences are appreciated and valued—it is important to become clearer about what we mean by diversity and inclusion at work, and to learn what each person in the organization can do to help foster a more diverse and inclusive workplace culture.

What do we mean by diversity and inclusion?

At its most basic level, diversity is simply about difference; people vary in many ways, some based on individual differences and others grounded in the range of social identities and groups that we belong to. At the same time, diversity can be multilayered and complex, because these identities and characteristics combine within each of us, and because there are histories of relationships between groups that also come into play.

When we first hear about diversity, we tend to focus on demographic or identity dimensions, especially the most visible ones (e.g., gender, race, ethnicity, culture, age, national background, sexual orientation, physical ability/disability). At the same time, diversity also involves less visible and more individual dimensions (e.g., personality, abilities, thinking style, values, experiences). In short, diversity involves the differences and similarities among people across many dimensions represented in a particular group or organization. These dimensions combine within individuals, influencing how we approach and experience work and life as well as how we perceive and treat each other. More diverse groups and organizations have the potential to benefit from these differences, but they can also experience the tensions that are also associated with more dissimilarities.

Inclusion is how groups and organizations can get the greatest benefit from their diversity. Inclusion involves creating a sense of full belonging and participation in a group or organization for everyone, so that no one feels the need to hide or subsume their differences, and everyone can tap into their strengths and contribute these for collective benefit. When we experience inclusion, we feel safe, engaged, valued, appreciated, and able to be fully ourselves—both as individuals and as members of multiple social identity groups.

Although we often see the terms diversity and inclusion together, it is important to keep in mind that they do not mean the same thing. To fully benefit from diversity’s advantages, organizations and their leaders must also foster inclusion. Without the experience of inclusion, people who are different in notable ways from traditionally represented groups may not feel quite as safe, accepted, or valued and may therefore be less likely to fully engage, participate, and contribute. If their sense of identity is threatened or they do not feel that they can be their authentic self, their talents and full contribution may be diminished or lost. In inclusive workplaces, people can be fully themselves, striving to be their best, without fear or without a sense that they must hide or become someone else.

How can we foster a more inclusive workplace? What can leaders do to create a truly inclusive workplace?

Fostering inclusion is both simple and challenging. At its basic level, all members of the organization need to learn more about what inclusion is, how it matters, and what they can do to create and sustain it—for themselves and for others. At the same time, leaders have a responsibility to create the opportunity for this learning, and to provide ways to make inclusive behavior something that is expected and rewarded, as well as to embed inclusive values and processes in all aspects of how work is done. Inclusion can also be difficult because it requires us to balance comfort and discomfort—the goal is for many types of people to be more at ease at work, but at the same time, we must be prepared to leave our comfort zones as we more frequently encounter and collaborate with people who may be different or see things quite differently than we do.  By expanding our repertoire of inclusive behavior, we can get better at proactively achieving and maintaining this balance, and consequently improving our organization and its results.

The following are suggestions for what all of us—and especially leaders—can do to build more inclusion at work:

  1. Acknowledge and appreciate differences of all types in the group and in the organization.
  2. Learn about and be mindful of personal biases; examine and address assumptions about power, voice, competence, and effectiveness, especially how these relate to our different identities.
  3. Seek to notice and remove systematic bias and discrimination—whether conscious or inadvertent—and to replace these with more productive and fair ways to work with difference.
  4. Model and encourage authenticity.
  5. Create opportunities tailored to individuals’ special qualities and strengths, seek out unique voices, and highlight both individual uniqueness and collective identity.
  6. Give all stakeholders the opportunity to engage in constructing norms and processes for inclusion while holding each other accountable.
  7. Learn to be comfortable with discomfort and seek out situations that will result in learning, growing, and collective mutual benefits.


Diversity and inclusion are inevitable and necessary in our increasingly globalized organizations. Creating and sustaining an inclusive workplace can be challenging—and very rewarding. Everyone can contribute to creating inclusion for themselves and others, by learning about inclusion, behaving inclusively, contributing to an inclusive culture, and supporting organizational initiatives on diversity and inclusion. Diversity and inclusion can have great benefits to the organization and its people, especially when each member of the organization plays a part.

About the authorBernardo M. Ferdman, Ph.D.—Principal of Ferdman Consulting and distinguished professor emeritus at the California School of Professional Psychology, Alliant International University—consults, speaks, coaches, and writes on diversity, inclusion, and leadership. He is an SCP, SIOP, and APA Fellow, and served as chair of SCP’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee. (Twitter: @bferdman; LinkedIn:

Sophia Sung, project associate for Ferdman Consulting and Ph.D. student at the California School of Professional Psychology of Alliant International University, also contributed to this blog.

What the Christmas Trees in Zanzibar Hotels Teach Us About Good Leadership and Inclusion

By: Rehman Y. Abdulrehman, Ph.D., C.Psych. 

While consulting to the Minister of Health of Zanzibar and the State University of Zanzibar this December, I noticed something peculiar here. In hotel lobbies across the island, there are Christmas trees of all shapes and varieties. But the island is almost 99 percent Muslim, with almost all of the hotels run by families who are not Christian, or from cultures that would celebrate Christmas. The answer of why then they have Christmas trees in the lobbies of a predominantly Muslim region of the world, may seem obvious. But it also provides us insights, we may not have considered, for leadership in diverse settings.

It makes complete sense that the hospitality industry succeeds by making the client feel comfortable. But their success is not just about anticipating the needs of the customer, but more importantly their ability to anticipate the way their customers think. When we can successfully understand the way others think, then we get closer to making them feel understood.

Culture, ultimately, is a set of beliefs, thoughts, and practices based on a way people live. How we live varies, based on many variables, be it culture, religion, sexual orientation, gender, even our socioeconomic status. Many of the tourists coming to Zanzibar are from European or North American countries, who do celebrate Christmas.

Christmas tree, gingerbread houses, and other baking at The Park Hyatt, Zanzibar, Tanzania. 2017

Christmas tree, gingerbread houses, and other baking at The Park Hyatt, Zanzibar, Tanzania. 2017

Understanding the cultural importance of Christmas to many Western cultures, hotels who cater to this population of people are wise to create an environment during the Christmas season, that elicit good memories of home for those away from home. In some hotels, there are gingerbread houses, Christmas baking with locally sourced ingredients, and even a group dinner for residents on Christmas Eve. This attention to detail of the way people might think, not only makes patrons of the hotel feel more comfortable, but it is also very good for business. 

It’s a basic understanding (supported by research) among clinical psychologists that the most predictive factor to the success of therapy is the quality of therapeutic relationship. That means that above therapeutic modality, the nature of the relationship between the therapist and the client determines emotional and psychological growth and success.

This makes logical sense too, as it is difficult to trust good advice if we feel that we cannot trust the source. In terms of the way we think, the ability to change patterns of thinking have to be based on experiences. And to change patterns of thinking to be more positive, we need to have experiences that make us feel more positively.

These are critical values to keep in mind for leadership, in particular when dealing with matters of inclusion. When leaders reflect a diverse group of people, their natural inclination is to behave in a way that reflects their own personal cultural life experiences. But excellent leadership is about being mindful of the people being represented.

To overcome an unconscious bias, good leaders must be critically mindful of the diversity they represent, and ensure that their decisions (particularly with policy and practice) make those they represent feel understood, rather than  simply reflect the leaders own world views. These are qualities that take some experience and time to develop, but can also be anticipated and developed sooner, if organizations are mindful to look for such insightful qualities in their leaders.

The psychological process that occurs is like a chain reaction. When a leader reflects the needs of a diverse group of people, it increases the belief from a group, that a leader is trustworthy, and has the interest of the individuals within that organization at heart. That belief triggers then an emotional response of admiration, respect, but also a motivation to engage more in the organization. These two building blocks then trigger the most important aspect of all; behavioral change. Which in the end, will be the critical factor that drives an organization to success.

As leaders of diverse groups of people, it is easy but not successful to think the way their own culture has trained them to think and lead. Although a challenge initially, it is  more fruitful and empowering, when leaders think and govern the way other cultures and groups might think. After all, it is global thinking, that produces global and dynamic lead