Creating a culture of inclusion: It’s all about balance

Jan Hills shares some recent research into inclusion and neuroscience.

Many companies are focused on helping leaders to be more inclusive in their behaviours, but understanding what those behaviours are and getting the right balance is the key. Helping leaders to understand the science, reduces resistance to change and provides the ‘why’ to the advice you are giving.

The keys to an inclusive culture

Focus on everyone

Creating a workplace that is good for everyone is more powerful than a focus on making one group, or even many targeted groups, feel included. And there is evidence that a focus on trying to change the culture for identified groups can create a backlash.

Research by Valarie Purdie-Vaughns from Yale found that focusing on difference makes minorities uncomfortable, increasing rather than decreasing feelings of inclusion and inciting anger.

Whilst people in the majority can feel resentful, confused and anxious, particularly if they are implicitly blamed for a lack of inclusive behaviour and when expectations about the ‘correct’ behaviour are unclear, according to research by Victoria Plaut from Berkeley.

When we look at inclusion through the lens of evolutionary neuroscience it suggests inclusion is important to everyone.

A majority of companies are still focusing on minority groups and this may be one of the reasons we are seeing little progress on diversity. The recent McKinsey/ research ‘Women in the workplace 2017’ has found that organisations are making limited progress. They say initiatives have stalled because we have got used to the status quo.

The dangers of exclusion

By focusing on minorities we are emphasising that some people are excluded and we are scrambling to bring them into the group. Studies by Naomi Eisenburger at UCLA found being excluded activates our pain system, suggesting that it is a threat to our very survival.

When we’re excluded from a meeting, when we don’t get the promotion, when our ideas are ignored… the pain we feel is experienced in the same areas of the brain as physical pain.

The pain of rejection or humiliation is just as real as a stubbed toe. Whilst social pain may ‘feel’ different (just as the pain of a stubbed toe feels different to stomach cramps), the networks processing it in the brain are the same. And taking a conventional painkiller like aspirin, actually relieves the pain of social rejection.

And in an organisation, we can expect being exclusion to impact performance, intelligence, social control, self-awareness and wellbeing according to Roy Baumeister, who found evidence of this. His research shows exclusion leads people to be less helpful, to be lethargic and to have low self-esteem.

When we look at inclusion through the lens of evolutionary neuroscience it suggests inclusion is important to everyone. We’re shaped by our social interactions which are processed in a particular area of the prefrontal cortex – the medial prefrontal cortex. We need to be included in order to thrive.

Get the definition right

It’s hard to know if you are doing the right thing if you can’ t define what it is you are trying to achieve. Research by Catalyst across 250 organisations in six different countries (Australia, China, Germany, India, Mexico, and the United States) found inclusion is a balance between having a sense of belonging and feeling unique.

Inclusion means people feel similar to colleagues and recognised for their distinct qualities. Feeling included is the fundamental drive to form and maintain lasting, positive, relationships with other people. These feelings can be extended to the organisation and to the work itself.

Getting the balance right

When people feel too much as though their identity has been lost in the group, they try to set themselves apart, to feel unique. They emphasise their differences from the rest of the group and this can set up tensions and even result in exclusion.


When people feel too different from other group members, they feel as if they don’t belong and try to minimise their distinctiveness in order to assimilate: to be part of what is termed the in-group. They emphasise similarity rather than difference.

In the Catalyst study, ‘uniqueness’ accounted for 18%-24% of an employee’s feelings of inclusion, while ‘belongingness’ accounted for 27%-35%. These findings may seem counterintuitive, but they’ve been found in other studies too: humans have these two apparently contradictory needs for belonging and individuality in group settings, and they are virtually universal.

These findings indicate that organisations and their leaders, must value both the diversity of talents, experiences and identities that employees bring, and at the same time create a sense of belonging. Focusing too much on diversity, having people purposefully challenge the group’s ideas for example, could lead employees to feel alienated or stereotyped.

Focusing primarily on belonging can leave employees reluctant to share views and ideas that might set them apart, increasing the likelihood of group-think.


About the author

Jan Hills is the author of several book including Brain-savvy Woman which was published on 30 October. Her company Head Heart + Brian uses an understanding of neuroscience in leadership development and inclusion. 


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