Getting to the Impact of D & I: What Makes Us Who We Are?

Obvious answers include personality, biology, family history, culture, and important social-historical shaping experiences. But even if we accept this as a plausible set of factors that contribute to adult identity formation, there remains the question of what makes us different? After all, even as we tick off inclusion in such categorial groupings—i.e. extrovert; white female; intact middle class family; East Coast urban culture; and coming of age in the '80s—there remain qualities that differentiate us as individuals.    

Diversity & Inclusion 

Presumably, the rationale for calling out diversity and inclusion as focal themes in organizations today is to overcome biases that favor one group of people over others, i.e., primarily, white males over women and people of color. The practical imperatives that motivate such initiatives are ethical (fairness), legal (nondiscrimination), and pragmatic (increasing diverse talent pool). And most would agree that, initially, the emphasis was on achieving increased demographic representation. 

Once that was achieved, however, issues of inclusion quickly become paramount as we observed phenomena like the “glass ceiling” and “unconscious bias” that were systematically causing us to overlook the potential of nonwhites and females to lead at senior levels. By then, research confirmed that the legacy prototype (mental picture) of leadership—“think manager, think male”—still prevailed and especially in certain sectors (technology) and disciplines (engineering). 

These advances were important, but eventually management began demanding proof that achieving D&I goals yielded practical impacts and warranted further investment. Demographic representation may have seemed ethically right and legally compliant, but what about the promise of pragmatic benefit, i.e., that tapping all segments of the talent pool would enhance the talent pipeline and yield better business results? For most companies this remains to be proven. 

I would propose that the inclusion challenge requires that we move beyond the general categorial thinking of demographic diversity. Specifically, that we must get to know to know who the diverse members of our talent pool are in order to deliver on the promise of inclusion. That’s why I believe it is important to understand the question, “What makes us who we are?”, and that we learn to apply the answers to that question as we seek to encourage their development. 

What Makes Us Different? 

There is no doubt that our increased attention to the effects of unconscious bias and stereotyping has been helpful, particularly when it comes to recruiting and hiring in more representative ways. But once we acquire this more diverse talent, what do we do to promote their development? Ultimately, we must get to know who they are, and with our vulnerabilities to bias somewhat in check, we must begin to notice their personal qualities, their interpersonal tendencies, and their practical work style.

We must ask, how do they get things done, relate to others, and deal with issues that block collaboration and performance? What is it that seems to explain their successes and their failures? You probably won’t obtain these answers by referencing a behaviorally anchored competency model. You might need to place them in situations of challenge and notice what they do. You might need to engage in dialogue, notice how they think about things, their attitudes, their feelings, and their approach to practice.

If you do this with an attitude of curiosity and openness, and with a willingness to inquire—lots of why and how questions—you will learn more about who they are and what makes them different. They will know that you are learning this, which will create even more openness and even deeper mutual understanding of who they are and what makes them different. You’ll become a better coach and mentor, and they’ll become more eager to stretch, take risks, and try new things. 

Your coaching and advice will build on who they are to begin with, rather than imposing ways of thinking and acting that feel foreign to them. It will be more tailored. It will look and feel that way to them too. That engenders a more deeply felt sense of inclusion, and it sparks a sense of commitment, what the management literature describes as “organizational citizenship.” You will be giving them the best chance to thrive, show their stuff, and generate results.  

All that remains, then, is to employ appropriate and effective means of measurement to demonstrate impact, something we have rather simple ways to accomplish. It’s all about knowing what the indicators of impact are and how they most manifest case by case, early in the learning process and later in results.

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As always, we're happy to discuss any questions you may have about how the topic in this blog might be relevant to you and others in your organization, and your ways of being helpful to them. Contact me by phone at 401.885.1631 or by email at