• Managing people

Inclusion by Design

Rotman’s Geoff Leonardelli explains the thinking behind an innovative program promoting diversity and inclusion


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There is growing understanding that diversity and inclusion can be key to creating better places to work, with better performance, and ultimately better bottom lines. Unfortunately, evidence suggests that in too many cases initiatives to improve inclusion in organizations have made very little progress, even that some poorly designed interventions have had unintended negative consequences.

The problem, according to Geoff Leonardelli, Professor of Organizational Behaviour and HR Management at Rotman School of Management, is that inclusion and diversity are too often seen as directives to be imposed on people from above, rather than positive approaches to be adopted in a user-centric, evidence-based, way. Furthermore, while most HR professionals now see inclusion as a top organizational priority, it is perhaps less well recognized how much a focus on inclusion is also the essence of effective leadership and a priority for executive development.

The role of a leader is to “create an environment where instead of being distracted and concerned about their own safety or security, employees can trust that people have a basic modicum of respect from which to interact, collaborate and communicate,” says Leonardelli.


Join Geoff Leonardelli and colleagues on Rotman’s new ‘Inclusion by Design’ program to innovate for diversity in your organization

Dates: 1-3 June, 2020│ Format: In-class study │ Location: Toronto


While it is of course important to foster diversity in terms of gender, age, race, sexual orientation, etc., it is also necessary to view inclusion from a broader perspective. Diversity and inclusion should be valued as a way to create an environment where a diverse bunch of people with different backgrounds and outlooks can work well together with what Leonardelli describes as a sense of ‘us’. “It has to do with how people think of the organization itself,” he says. “It’s about seeing the organization as an ‘us’, seeing it as a being that includes all members – the management and the subordinates – and asking ‘what does it mean to be an us?’ That more inclusive sense of us is truly supportive of diversity.”

This gets to the fundamental reason we should care about diversity at all. Which is, as Leonardelli says, “because we want people to collaborate and communicate when there's a need to do so. And we don't want people to be afraid or concerned or to suppress their own voice when they need to speak up.” This is a message that should come from the top of the organization, “that can have downstream effects in terms of shaping the culture, creating inclusion, and also allowing people to freely express their differences and even air their disagreements in healthy, productive ways.”

It’s about seeing the organization as an ‘us’, seeing it as a being that includes all members 

Different organizational cultures vary in how receptive they are to initiatives focused on inclusion. “In a ‘tight’ cultural environment, it's going to be very hard to change, to create an environment where people are allowed to have a voice, to disagree and to make the best collaborative decisions possible,” observes Leonardelli. “I'm not persuaded that the best way forward in creating an inclusive workplace is simply to hire diverse people. There's got to be some efforts on the part of the organization to create an environment that works for those new hires.”

Set in this context of a broader and deeper understanding of the dynamics of inclusion and diversity and the need for cultural change, Leonardelli and colleagues at Rotman are launching ‘Inclusion by Design’, an executive program for leaders and HR professionals aimed at helping them innovate for inclusion in their organizations.

The weakness found in too many diversity initiatives is the top-down tendency to dictate to managers and so fail to engage with them effectively. Autonomy – figuring things out for themselves and their team – is a defining characteristic of the leadership role. So, telling managers they have to do it ‘this way’ invariably creates conflict. “It's going against the idea of autonomy and going against the idea that people might actually be inspired to want to do this themselves anyway,” says Leonardelli.

‘Inclusion by Design’ takes a completely different approach. “It builds on the notion of a better us,” says Leonardelli. “The sessions are much more founded in the idea of empowering people to create the workplace culture they wish to create.”  This human-centred approach facilitates a more inclusive culture by reframing inclusion as an innovation challenge using the latest insights from behavioural economics and business design to innovate for diversity at the personal, team and organizational levels.

The program offers a disruptive and evidence-backed way to design, implement and evaluate inclusion practices that actually work. Whether it’s hiring, retention or compensation. The unique approach it uses moves past acceptance of diversity to true inclusion, enabling leaders and their organizations to engage, energize, inspire and benefit from the greater success diversity and inclusion can bring.

“When you allow diversity to flourish, the organization's work gets better too. The goals are achieved more easily, systems can be conducted more efficiently, money can be saved,” says Leonardelli before concluding that: “The message to managers can be, that you can be a champion for your people. You can help bring this environment into the 21st century and reflect the diversity of our cities, the diversity of our nations

Rotman School of Management is Canada’s leading business school and has Canada’s largest group of management faculty. It is home to some of the most innovative research institutes in the world

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