The title of this article might trigger some negative reaction for the wrong reason, a few minutes later it is going to be clear what it refers to.  The example under the title is a common metaphor used to highlight the difference between diversity and inclusion, which some people assume are synonymous. The quote has a nice ring to it, but it fails to address the missing link, the issue of low self-esteem, or lack of self-inclusion.

The term inclusion seems to be everywhere nowadays. If you google the word, chances are the search turns up rainbow-coloured graphics of people, puzzles, and trees, and a very long list of links to articles on the subject. And yet, despite all the energy and money being invested in this area, everyday life shows little improvement which is even more reflected in the current political climate. 

Why is the concept of inclusion so difficult to put into practice? The more I research the topic—and diversity, culture, and mindset—the clearer it becomes to me most approaches focus on the symptoms rather than the root cause of its challenges. 

I believe the main issue is low self-esteem. Put simply, what we think of others depends on how well we think of ourselves. Having low self-esteem makes us feel we don’t measure up to other people or their expectations. People with good self-esteem don’t depend on external validation: they know who they are, and most importantly, they are okay with it. If we already accept ourselves, we don’t have to throw our weight around or hide away to feel safer. 

One the other hand, if somebody lacks self-esteem, they often display aggressive behaviour, such as bullying, to make themselves feel good or at least better. 

It is nearly impossible to be aggressive without feeling threatened. I’ve seen that countless times in martial art classes. The loudest, scariest-looking guys never scared me. I know they had a lot to compensate for, and I quickly found out what that was so I could use it against them. The ones who arrives on the scene quietly, but looked into everybody’s eyes, were the ones to watch out for. They had nothing to hide, nothing to prove. That is real confidence. 

Bringing other people down gives bullies a false feeling of self-confidence. We can see this type of behaviour at work and in politics. The more uncertainty people face, the more stress they experience, and the more they revert to survival mode, which is certainly not inclusive. When we perceive a situation or person as intimidating, our reptilian brain kicks in. We don’t have to be friendly or smart―we have to be quick and strong. Low self-esteem is a widespread mental affliction that has reached epidemic proportions. The highly deceptive nature of social media created an immense illusion of gap between our normal and the new, seemingly insanely higher level of normal around us. It allows (or maybe forces?) us to compare the real or made-up highlights of others to our lowest and darkest feelings. The more deprived we feel, the more we crave something and the lower our self-esteem goes if we are not in control of our own mindset. 

Only when we start with self-inclusion can we fully include others. But not until then. 

The more we understand our own mindset, the more credibility we earn with ourselves, the more skills we acquire, the more confident we become, then the less we project our fears and insecurities onto others. 

For example, let’s imagine you invite me to a party and once we get there you ask me to dance. I would be really grateful, but I would politely say no. “It’s not you, it’s me” is such a cheesy way of brushing off somebody, but in this case it would be true. I would love to say yes, but I can’t because I’m bad at dancing. I would find it embarrassing to step on you or miss 87% of the beats. You have the best of intentions, you are being as inclusive as possible, and yet your attempt at inclusivity still seemingly fails. If I make things worse by not being brave enough to tell you why I’ve refused, you might interpret my reaction based on my behaviour alone and conclude I am antisocial, cold, boring, rude, awkward or I might even have a problem with you. 

Inclusion, like leadership, starts with us. If we cannot lead ourselves, we struggle to lead others. Either we aren’t strong enough or we overcompensate because of our insecurities and inability to trust.

What’s more, without inclusion first, diversity can cause more trouble than benefit. Companies proudly aim to be more visibly diverse because it is supposed to be good for business. In theory, it is true, but management needs to know the difference between diversity and inclusion. 

Discussion is as often mistaken for argument as inclusion is for diversity

Have you ever been to IKEA to buy a piece of furniture? Most people have, and it’s a weird experience. You check the brochure or the display, and you fall in love with a wardrobe. You jot down the number, go to the till and order it, and then you get a flat pack. You go home excited and begin assembling it according to the instructions. If you’re like me, you ignore them because nobody can tell you what to do, you know how to assemble it anyway, and it can’t be that difficult with your skills and experience. Two hours later, you might realise it isn’t that simple, there are more or fewer pieces than needed (suspicious, isn’t it?), you have had enough, and you have come to the conclusion flat packs are a stupid idea: they don’t work. 

This is where the IKEA experience costs us a significant amount of money. Relying on common sense and previous experience is not enough to turn diversity into inclusion. Diversity is the equivalent of the different pieces on the floor with a lot of potential to become a dream wardrobe. Inclusion corresponds to all those parts fitting together, supporting one another, and transforming into a stunning piece of furniture.  

The process is quite similar in companies. It’s the difference between lots of people working independently and unsure of what they should be doing next, and a successful mix of people who work in harmony, creating synergy and superior performance. 

Companies hear about the potential business case and also understand they have to be politically correct, so they start employing people from a wide range of cultural backgrounds. Then problems start emerging: misunderstandings, arguments, frustration, high staff turnover, decreased productivity, confusion. In the worst case, lawsuits and legal action.

What happened? Diversity seemed to be so tempting and simple in the news. Where is the potential it promised?

Nowadays diversity is dealt with on the superficial level and focuses on identity differences such as gender, generation, nationality, and so on. This approach has no proven benefit. As researchers Alison Reynolds, of the Ashridge Business School, and David Lewis, a director at the London Business School, discovered, the kinds of diversity we most commonly think of—gender, race, age—have no correlation to a team’s performance (Harvard Business Review, 2017). Again, what does make a difference is cognitive diversity, or whether team members have different perspectives and different styles of processing knowledge. The challenge with cognitive diversity, up to now, has been the difficulty in measuring it and publishing the numbers on websites. 

Here I must clarify my last statement to avoid misunderstanding. I am not suggesting we should ignore the visible layer of diversity. The fact leaders tend to prefer employees who are more similar to them is a real problem. It’s simply wrong that women don’t get paid the same salary as men for the same work. It’s unfair that our name can determine whether we get a job interview or not. Tackling issues such as gender and race (to name but two) is important, and the approach I’m talking about here isn’t instead of but in addition to. 

There continues to be another challenge though. Even if a team is cognitively diverse, that alone does not guarantee a good result. What’s required is a level of cultural intelligence (ICQ), or how much the team can leverage their personal and cultural differences. If cognitive diversity is what we need to succeed in dealing with new, uncertain, and complex situations, we need to encourage people to reveal and deploy their different modes of thinking. We need to make it safe to try things multiple ways. This means leaders will have to get much better at building their team’s sense of psychological safety.

There is much talk of authentic leadership, i.e., being yourself. Perhaps it is even more important that leaders focus on enabling others to be themselves.

When people don’t get along, the problem isn’t incompatibility―it is usually inflexibility and lack of self-awareness, in other words, cultural intelligence. Diversity offers the potential for, not a guarantee of, success. If somebody gave me all the parts for an airplane, I would not be able to put it together, so the different pieces would not add much value to my life. I could assume the pieces are worthless and airplanes don’t fly.  I could blame the media for promising a wide range of metal pieces would allow me to fly, but the truth is it would be my responsibility to acquire the knowledge to make the most of what I had. 

Companies realise they need to motivate their workforce, so they spend a fortune on employee engagement and well-being programs. But, like a spa treatment, this approach is not going to solve the problem: it deals with symptoms only. When employees go back to work and discover they still cannot stand their colleagues, they find the clients irritating, and they are unable to handle their boss, they become even more upset and stressed. If we have a headache, we can take a painkiller to make it go away; however, that won’t solve the problem if we are dehydrated or have a more serious health issue.

Engagement is closely related to self-esteem, inclusion, and how much we understand the science of uncommon sense. Most employee engagement programs offer instant gratification packaged as tiny happiness tokens in the hope of improving productivity and overall morale at work. The real solution is to understand what drives those employees, so they can create a motivating environment where they can get into the flow. It is about making them feel understood and fulfilled. That is the sustainable solution, while. 

Leadership is not about making everyone happy but about taking responsibility for providing the right amount of challenge and support simultaneously. Competition and disagreement are essential for growth. Diversity provides plenty of opportunities for both. Even though different perspectives often clash, ICQ can turn those differences into synergy instead of painful liability before they rip the teams and their future apart. 

When we have a disagreement with someone, what is our first thought? What is our strategic objective? There are politically correct answers and there are real ones. It does not matter how much we practice and understand ICQ—instincts are strong, and most of us want to be right and come out of the situation as a winner as quickly as possible. That is a normal reaction. A constructive response would be the willingness to learn more about the other person’s perspective and come up with a solution together that is better than either originally suggested. 

That is how diversity is packaged. So much potential, but nobody told us how difficult it is going to be. When I was a teenager, I bought a lot of gadgets to sculpt my body into the shape of Greek statues of gladiators (not my best case study: never happened). My assumption was buying the latest, most advanced devices and supplements would guarantee my success. I paid for them, so I deserved to look good. That logic kept me a half-finished sculpture of an Olympic athlete because I did not put the required amount of work and consistency into my project. Diversity is pretty similar. It is the potential, and it is real, but it needs a lot of work and the mastery of uncommon sense. Good intention is not enough.