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If differences are to make a difference, we need an “inclusion breakthrough”

by Frederick A. Miller and Judith H. Katz

 Frederick A. Miller

If only human differences actually made a positive difference in our organizations. Unfortunately, in most organizations, we haven't figured out how to value our differences, let alone leverage them for higher individual, team, and organizational performance.

For far too long, many people have carried the mindset that differences are a problem: they keep people apart, are difficult to manage, and convey no advantages. This mindset is costing our organizations the optimal use of their best and most expansive resource: people.

History is rife with examples of how not to approach differences. All too often, we have identified with a narrow version of we: immediate family, village, clan. Differences are often met with hostility in myriad forms, from stereotypes and employment discrimination to violence and even ethnic cleansing. The fundamental attitude is "They are not like us, so we have to watch out for them or they will hurt us in some way."

We also rank the differences with which we come in contact. We put the distinctions on a ladder—a hierarchy in which one difference outranks another in terms of status and privilege. To the privileged go the spoils, and those privileges rarely extend beyond the upper rungs of the ladder.

As the world becomes more connected, the cost of this approach to differences becomes even greater. We can no longer afford to be fearful of those who do not fit into our we. Organizations, in particular, cannot afford to turn their backs on the talents brought by people who are of a different generation, socioeconomic status, gender, color, region, nationality, sexual orientation, or background from the traditional group in the organization (or different from the people in the country that is the home base of the organization). Organizations need to include people with as many different perspectives and experiences as possible to meet the incredibly complex challenges that this century is bringing to their doorstep. So we must find a breakthrough. We need to create a new we. How do we do that?

How Individuals Place People in Boxes—and Why It Fails

Our ability to categorize things as "similar" or "different" serves a valuable function in its proper context. Imagine entering someone's living room for the first time and picking out a chair for yourself. You have never sat in that chair before. But because of your experience with chairs, you know what a chair is, how chairs work, and what styles are likely to support you. The category of "chair" allows you to make an automatic decision as to the chair's function, without a time-consuming evaluation. You trust your categorization of the chair, so you make an assumption and sit without even testing the chair first.

Categorization works well with objects but fails completely with people. Imagine driving along and seeing a broken-down car on the side of the road, with a young African American man standing beside it. If you knew the young man, you would probably stop and offer to help: for you, the person falls into the category of "known people." Many passers-by, however, are likely to keep driving, because of the categories they have formed (sometimes unknowingly) around gender, color, and/or generation. How many cars might pass by before someone stops to offer assistance? By contrast, if the person beside the car were an attractive white woman, how long would it take someone to stop?

Human beings are far too complex and multidimensional to be categorized like chairs and other objects. This is all-important in the organizational environment. Categories lead to stereotypes. When we treat people as members of a specific category—when we see them as representing the common, stereotyped, or feared characteristics of the category—we only see one element of them and therefore prevent them from fully contributing their unique talents and wisdom to a team or organization.

Our actions are based on an often unrecognized inner dialogue: “I don't see YOU as like me. I only see the category that I have put you into (such as 'person with disabilities'), and I perceive you through my assumptions about that category. Although I may say people are unique individuals, and that I want to honor and recognize differences, I don't treat you that way" Instead, we treat some others only (or at least partially) as representatives of a category that we see in a certain way. We have blinders on that do not enable us to see all of them.

Our categorizations affect our talent decisions. Intellectually, we know that talent comes in all forms. Still, many people and organizations, often without being conscious of it, select people more similar to themselves over people who are less similar to themselves. The result is that we reinforce the categories and stereotypes—the boxes we put people into, the limitations that we believe exist for them. We make them less, or smaller, than they really are or can become. To put it another way, we do not allow them to Be BIG (Katz & Miller, 2008), to be bold, in the way our organizations need if they are going to truly engage and use everyone’s talents. The dynamic quickly becomes self-fulfilling, and it is hard for people to get out of the boxes they are in. As a result, countless resources go untapped and underutilized. The organization becomes less than the sum of its parts.

This is no small problem. Our informal polling of thousands of people in various organizations suggests that between 26 and 50 percent of each organization’s people are underutilized. How much do we miss because we keep people in a category, a box, and don’t give everyone the opportunity to do their best work?

How Systems Sustain Privilege...and the Need for Breakthroughs

Addressing this problem is not simply a matter of changing individuals. Rather, it requires a transformation of systems—what we call an inclusion breakthrough (Miller & Katz, 2002)—that moves the organization from simply having a workforce that looks diverse to leveraging those differences (Katz & Miller, 2012c). This inclusion breakthrough actually consists of several breakthroughs:

Breakthrough #1: Everyone Is One-Up and One-Down

As the model in Figure 1 illustrates, each of us encompasses difference in its many dimensions. In some of these dimensions, we may find ourselves in the “one up” or privileged position, for reasons of social norms and history. In other dimensions, we might be “one down” with respect to privilege for the same reasons. The breakthrough here is that nearly all people have both one-up and one-down elements of their identity within society and within organizations. For example, a man who is heterosexual and African American will experience being one-down in most organizations (and in society at large) based on race; however, as a man and as a heterosexual, he will in fact be one-up and enjoy the privileges afforded those groups. Acknowledging that most of us have elements of one-up andone-down recasts the conversation of difference as a discussion about every person. That, in turn, enables each of us to extend privilege to others. Moreover, by understanding that all of us experience being both one-up and one-down, we can see our linkages and similarities of experience and connect with others more profoundly.

Figure 1

Figure 1
Click to expand.

In some cases, the differences placing a person in a one-down position are so dominant that they trump the aspects that would place her or him one-up. However, knowing that in certain circumstances almost all of us have privilege moves us away from an “Us-Them” conversation (e.g., YOU always have privilege and I never have privilege) to more of a WE conversation (i.e., we are in this together, and we both have situations where we have privilege).

The conversation of difference also raises our awareness of how our systems and structures favor elements of identity that are one-up. Historically, the structures and policies of our organizations are based on the culture and needs of people in one-up groups. Why? Because members of one-up groups founded most of our organizations (and often the very institutions that make up our society), and the underlying assumptions of these organizations and institutions are based on the experiences and needs of those founding, one-up groups. Again, most of this does not occur on a conscious level; it is simply “the way it is.” Conversely, the same structures and policies (written or unwritten) do not work as well for people who have historically been in one-down groups. A few examples demonstrate how this works.

Age. At this point in our history, boomers are generally considered one-up in the age category. Many of the senior leaders of most organizations are boomers. The assumption is that they have the most knowledge because they are senior, even though associates in their twenties and thirties might have even more to contribute depending on their areas of expertise. Average boomers need not strive at all for this privileged position; it is theirs because of the simple fact that they were born between 1946 and 1964.

Religion. Particularly in the United States, Christianity continues to be one-up, and that extends into organizations. For proof, look no further than the paid-time-off policies of organizations. Christians automatically get their religious holidays off because they are part of the dominant culture. A majority of U.S. companies close for Christian holidays. In many of these organizations, by contrast, people who are Jewish have to use vacation or personal time to observe their holidays; most Muslims do not get their holy day (Friday) off, and they receive little accommodation during Ramadan. In many U.S. organizations, religious holidays outside of Christianity are rarely taken into consideration when scheduling work and meetings, though great pains are often taken to avoid scheduling events on or around Christian holidays.

Household status. Employers understand why married people with children have commitments outside of work. People who are single, on the other hand, are sometimes perceived as having few or no obligations, so they are often asked to work double shifts or holiday hours. Married workers, in this context, are one-up.

Gender and household status. The picture gets more complex when viewed through the gender lens. Historically in many organizations, married men have been perceived as more stable and thus more reliable. With women, it is sometimes the opposite: employers often perceive married women as having divided loyalties, which can impact their careers, whereas single women (without children) are often seen as free to devote themselves to the job with little conflict from outside factors.

Education. Some organizations do not listen very well toemployees without a college degree; some (depending on the industry) pay little heed to those without an advanced degree. Education is valued more highly than long-term experience. In some cases, people may incorrectly attribute certain skills to certain levels of education: one team member in a recent seminar challenged the pervasive assumption that “a graduate degree automatically makes you able to manage people.”

Class. A CEO was riding in his company’s elevator when several front-line team members came on, carrying cups of water. When he asked why, they told him they had to get their water from the cafeteria several floors down. Other employees, he was told, at least had coolers on their floor. The CEO, in contrast, found bottled water on the table of every meeting room he entered—and in the refrigerator that was in the break area on his floor. It never occurred to him that most other employees didn’t enjoy a similar privilege.

Breakthrough #2: Challenging Privilege

The above anecdote illustrates a key point about privilege. We cannot assume that people in the one-up group have privileges because they demanded privileges—or that they are even aware that what they experience is in fact a privilege and not simply the norm. The system feeds privilege upward by its very nature unless individuals see it and challenge it. People at all levels need to make that challenge, but especially those in the one-up group; they are in a unique position to reach out and include those who are in the one-down group. Until they do, people who are in the one-down position will continue to be ignored, not heard, not seen, or not valued for their thinking; their opinions will be discounted, and their contributions will be underused or lost to the organization. In today’s hyper-competitive environment, no organization can afford to waste human resources in that way.

These examples (and the identity groups identified in the model) are by no means meant to be exhaustive. In fact, the blank box is included to represent other differences that make a difference within the organization or context—it might represent being a veteran, experiences with a significant illness, surviving abuse, being from a family in which drugs or alcohol has been an issue, or other such experiences. At an organizational level, it might be related to department or function, or being from one legacy company or another in a merged organization (Katz & Miller, 2012a).

Breakthrough #3: Seeing Differences as an Asset—and Leveraging Them—via Inclusion as the HOW®

To truly change how we leverage differences, we must join with others who are different and shift to seeing those differences not as a deficit but as an asset. Remember the ladder of privilege we mentioned earlier as a way to visualize our tendency to rank differences in people? When we turn the ladder sideways, it becomes a bridge: the differences are still there, but now they are all on the same level—one is no more valued than another. We shift our mindset to understanding and experiencing what we can learn from people at every level, age, position, race/color, and background in the organization.

Traditional diversity initiatives have stalled when we have only paid attention to differences. It is one thing to acknowledge that differences exist and that they can be of value rather than something to be feared or avoided. The next step is to determine how to truly leverage those differences: how to tip that organizational ladder on its side and create an environment where differences can be not just accepted but welcomed and utilized as a key element for success.

In taking this step, we approach inclusion specifically as the way to accelerate results and achieve higher performance at every level of organizations. This is what we call Inclusion as the HOW, in which differences of perspective, experience, background, and other factors become a critical component of HOW the organization achieves results. Inclusion as the HOW is not about inclusion for inclusion’s sake; instead it recognizes that, by bringing together the “right” (relevant) people for the right work at the right time across differences, the organization or team gains a 360-degree vision of the situation at hand, creates Right First Time interactions, and eliminates waste in organizations. In the process, Inclusion as the HOW enables us to strengthen our interactions across differences, to see others for who they truly are, to take our blinders off to the value they bring, and to eliminate the boxes we put them into (Katz & Miller, 2012b).

Inclusion has nothing to do with smoothing over differences. Quite the opposite: any effort to be inclusive must actively acknowledge the differences among us. Our definition of inclusion speaks to this. Inclusion is:

A sense of belonging:

Feeling respected, valued, and seen for who we are as individuals;

There is a level of supportive energy and commitment from leaders, colleagues, and others so that we—individually and collectively—can do our best work.

Breakthrough #4: Joining as the Prevailing Mode of Interaction

Joining (see Figure 2) means that we are giving others the benefit of the doubt, assuming that we are going to connect, collaborate, and partner effectively. By fostering a climate of joining with others who are different, rather than judging them—by engaging differences as other perspectives that enrich our thinking to solve problems faster and make better decisions—organizations gain the advantages of inclusion, especially the 360-degree view of any issue they might face. Their ability to resolve issues increases. This joining is the final, culminating step in creating the new we that will enable all people to do their best work and all organizations to maximize their potential.

Figure 2

Figure 2
Click to expand.

Many people think of honoring, valuing, and leveraging differences as about holding hands and singing “Kumbayah.” But there is a bottom-line business reason for leveraging differences—for seeing the value of all people, hearing their perspectives, and enabling everyone to contribute: it drives the whole organization forward. When you create an atmosphere in which people can do their best work, they have a genuine stake in the organization’s success. The resulting openness creates a flow—of knowledge, of ideas, even of people—up, down, and across the organization, and results soon follow. Differences do make a difference.


Katz, J. H., & Miller, F. A. (2008). Be BIG: Step up, step out, be bold. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Katz, J. H., & Miller, F. A. (2012a). How human dynamics create winners and losers: Using inclusion as a HOW for successful mergers and acquisitions. OD Practitioner, 44(3), 63-67.

Katz, J. H., & Miller, F. A. (2012b). Inclusion: The HOW for the next organizational breakthrough. Practising Social Change, 5, 15-21.

Katz, J. H., & Miller, F. A. (2012c). The path to a joining mindset: Inclusion as the HOW. Troy, NY: The Kaleel Jamison Consulting Group, Inc.

Miller, F. A., & Katz, J. H. (2002). The inclusion breakthrough: Unleashing the real power of diversity. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

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