By enabling people to climb the Ladder of Inclusion we interweave the “experience of inclusion” with the drivers of organizational performance (draft)

There are many ways to think about inclusion, but the concept can feel a bit nebulous.

Most models seem to focus on what those who already feel included can and should do to “make others feel less excluded.”

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to extend this mindset beyond the classroom and into the workplace. Part of the problem may be that we focus so intensely on eliminating the feeling of exclusion that we forget to actively help those around us experience the concrete daily work activities associated with feeling they are truly in a place that welcomes their full participation.

Recently, my colleagues and I have started trying to dig a little more deeply into the functional elements of the experience of actually being and feeling included.

We asked ourselves on a nuts-and-bolts level, “What does the experience of ‘being included’ look and feel like in terms of the daily activities of an employee?” and “How can increasing the number and range of people who feel included in these activities be aligned with the success of the organization?” Based on these questions, we came up with a schematic we call The Ladder of Inclusion.

The Ladder of Inclusion aligns with Timothy Clark’s Four Stages of Psychological Safety. We “experience inclusion” to the degree that we feel invited to join in and participate fully at each rung of the ladder. As we move up the ladder, our experience of being seen and valued by the people around us for what we bring to the organization increases. Simultaneously, the degree to which our activities become interwoven with the daily activities and goals of the organization also increases, so that the enhancement of our “inclusion experience” clearly contributes to the success of the whole, triggering a self-reinforcing feedback loop of inclusion experience and organizational performance.

Starting from the bottom, the rungs of the ladder are:

Challenger Inclusion – Satisfies the basic human need to make things better

Contributor Inclusion – Satisfies the basic human need to contribute and have an impact

Learner Inclusion – Satisfies the base human need to learn and grow

Belonging Inclusion – Satisfies the basic human need to connect and belong

The schematic works for figuring out how included “individuals” feel.

We each have unique strengths, weaknesses and other traits that we bring to the groups we work with. The degree to which we are welcomed to join as we are and feel supported in our efforts to move up the ladder so we can add more of what we bring to the mix is a proxy for the degree to which we truly feel included.

The schematic is also useful for figuring out how included “groups” feel.

There is significant evidence that we tend to mentally categorize and aggregate people into groups based on (often superficial) demographic traits. There is also evidence that people who are treated as representing a certain group (and who may or may not also think of themselves as representing that group) according to various demographic traits have different generalizable experiences of inclusion on the rungs of the ladder. Some of these differences in experience of inclusion may be attributable to individual traits, but some are also attributable to various kinds of bias that shape the inclusion experience. The bias may be unconscious, systemic, tacit or explicit, but it is often easy to see when we compare the participation statistics and reported experiences of people who have been categorized into different groups.

If there are significant gaps in either, there are clearly issues to be addressed. How the issues should be addressed can be a very contentious and nuanced question, but that doesn’t mean that the gaps can be ignored. Organizations that figure out how to raise participation and close the gaps in reported experience without flattening out the diverse experiences and strengths of the employees will have a competitive advantage over organizations that ignore the problems or apply band-aid solutions that don’t feel authentic.

Although ladder implies that one can only move up or down on a rung-by-rung basis, this is probably not the case. One of the things that makes each of us unique is that we each represent an inner multiplicity. That “inner diversity” enables some of us to experience inclusion on a higher rung even though we have not yet experienced inclusion on a lower rung. For example, there are people who we hire explicitly because they bring a specific form of expertise that enables them to contribute at the contributor or challenger level, but that doesn’t mean that they will automatically experience inclusion at the learning or belonging levels. At least in theory, though, failing to find ways to welcome these people to also join on the belonging and learning rungs reduces the degree to which the organization can benefit from everything these experts have to offer.

Likewise, there may also be people who are able to cope with the dissonance that comes with feeling they are in a place where they don’t belong to participate as learners, contributors and even challengers, but they will be doing so at a personal cost that many of their peers do not bear, and that cost will express itself as opportunity cost for the organization.

Research shows that feeling you do not belong can increase cognitive load (it is mentally draining to be an environment where you feel you don’t belong), thereby decreasing mental resources you have available to devote to learning, contributing or challenging. If you don’t feel invited to openly acknowledge it when you need to learn something, you can end up trapped at your current level of competence, leading to a reduction in opportunities. If you don’t feel invited to fully contribute, you may avoid new or difficult assignments, leading to lower evaluation of your potential. If you don’t feel free to challenge the way things are done, the organization loses access to your ideas and may miss opportunities for improvement. And, even if you feel comfortable challenging, contributing and learning, if you don’t feel that you belong, you will probably start looking for ways to leave.

While it probably isn’t practical to expect anyone to experience full inclusion on every level of the ladder in every context, for every domain all the time, it would obviously be good for an organization to have more people feel more included in more contexts, domains, more frequently over time.

To what degree do we and our colleagues feel included at the various rungs of the Ladder of Inclusion? What’s getting in the way of individuals and groups experiencing inclusion on each rung fully? What’s keeping some of us from climbing to higher rungs so more of us can add more to the mix? What are we doing to enable our people to climb it?

As we tease out the answers to these kinds of questions, we uncover hints about what we can do to invite a broader range of people to participate more fully in the experience of making our organization successful. In the process, we also increase our access to the full value of the investments we make in those people. People are after all our most valuable resource when we enable them to contribute everything they’ve got to our collective success.

© Dana Cogan, 2023, all rights reserved.

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