The inclusion paradox: Learning to be comfortable with discomfort

The key takeways from the online masterclass The inclusion paradox, by Jacqui Brassey, Annemarie de Bourbon de Parme, Camiel Gielkens and Amber Lingmont.


U.S. Civil Rights Activist Jesse Jackson once said, ‘Inclusion is not a matter of political correctness. It is the key to growth.’ These words are more relevant than ever today, as companies face unprecedented challenges worldwide, and their future growth depends on out-of-the-box solutions.

Yet, even in Europe, where diversity has long been a workplace priority, the gender pay gap in 2019 was still 14.1%. So, how can companies find the courage to create a fairer, more inclusive working environment—and unlock the potential for stronger, sustainable growth that comes from including more perspectives?

These questions were at the heart of the recent virtual masterclass, The Inclusion Paradox, hosted by Schouten Global and Consultive Strategic Leadership Services. During the one-and-a-half hour live online event, attendees heard perspectives from two women who have broken glass ceilings in their own fields of expertise.

After a kick-off by Schouten & Nelissen CEO Camiel Gielkens, guest speakers Jacqui Brassey (fellow researcher at VU Amsterdam, adjunct professor at IE University and director & global learning leadership team member at McKinsey & Company)  and Annemarie de Bourbon de Parme (leadership consultant and former Dutch parliamentarian journalist) took part in a dialogue that led to a rich exchange of ideas among the many international CEOs and business leaders in attendance.

Here are three takeaways from the masterclass.

Diversity doesn’t work without inclusion

Jacqui’s research shows that diversity alone is not enough to produce real benefits within an organization. Jacqui cited data from her PhD research at Unilever (2011) which showed that simply having  a more diverse workforce doesn’t automatically result in stronger performance or efficiency. Her research found that only diverse units that had a culture of pride and engagement showed a positive link with business results. And those with diversity but a less positive culture showed a negative link with business results. She argued: “We need more than just diversity, we need a positive, inclusive culture to make it work’.

So, what’s the difference between diversity and inclusion? Aren’t these the same thing? Think of it this way: ‘diversity’ is a quantitative term. You can count the number of individuals from diverse cultural backgrounds within your organization and determine whether you’ve achieved diversity. But achieving diversity in quantitative terms alone is not the same as creating an environment in which people all feel equally valued and confident to speak out with their creative ideas. That psychologically safe environment is what we call ‘inclusion’. In the words of Verna Meyers: “Diversity is being invited to the party, Inclusion is being asking to dance.”

Inclusion takes authentic courage

So, how do we move from merely quantitative diversity to a truly inclusive workplace? In order to do that, we have to understand the ‘Inclusion Paradox’, as Brassey explains. It actually takes authentic courage, and becoming comfortable with discomfort. Insights from neuroscience teach us that as human beings we have a strong need to be part of a group, we need relationships and we want to belong. At the same time, we also have an automatic preference for what’s familiar. And here is the paradox: if we bring diverse groups together, we want to be part of a group but we will gravitate to familiarity, this may result in subgroups of people similar to us. We may therefore end up with the opposite of what we hope for: disaggregation as opposed to integration. Consciously or unconsciously, working with people different from us (with different ideas, different backgrounds, different ways of doing things) may actually cause a bit of stress. It can push us out of the comfort zone. Even more so if we need to lead a team of diverse people.

In particular in the teams of today, multiple factors may influence the level of comfort. As leaders we need to integrate the new technical skills of today, we need to create an environment of psychological safety for all voices to be heard and we need to manage our own internal stress. Leading in today’s world asks for true courage, and becoming comfortable with discomfort. This starts with awareness and understanding this is happening. Furthermore it takes exercise and repeated experiences, and it gets easier over time, says Jacqui. ‘It’s like we are flexing muscles in the brain to build this type of confidence’, she says. ‘Authentic confidence is not really about never feeling insecure or uncomfortable, to the contrary!’ She adds: ‘it is about becoming comfortable with discomfort and the authenticity is really about acknowledging that you don’t always know everything, and that you are okay with that.’

Inclusion starts with ‘I’, but it’s a group activity

As teams become more complex and include people with many diverse technical and cultural backgrounds, leaders are increasingly faced with the challenge of providing bold, authentic leadership to many different types of people all at once. Jacqui says this is where self-leadership makes all the difference. Leading yourself to embrace inclusion, will help others to follow.

That means learning to be comfortable with discomfort. Flex those muscles in the brain that empower you to choose how you will react to whatever technical or cultural context you’re faced with. And don’t cave to the pressure of having to know all the answers.

Lastly, remember that change takes time. Annemarie closed the masterclass with a proverb that helps us take the first steps towards inclusion without losing patience: ‘If you want to go fast, then you have to go alone. If you want to go far, then we have to go together.’ Yet, the panel agreed that there’s no better time than today to get real about inclusion, and there are plenty of places to get started: ‘Many  small steps can make a huge difference’, says Jacqui.


Are you ready to get started on Diversity & Inclusion in your organization?

Schouten Global can support in changing ideas into actions. With research, practical interventions and training and support on leadership development and culture change we can help you drive this agenda to the next level?

For more info on our in-company options and programs, please feel free to contact Camiel Gielkens or Amber Lingmont.