Diversity and inclusion in the new world of work

Frederick Hölscher’s second contribution on diversity and inclusion, co-authored with Sharon Olivier, looks at four narratives to help leaders on their D&I journey

Diversity and inclusion (D&I) are very much mainstream HR themes and D&I is becoming even more important as organisations face the challenges of inclusion at various levels in the new world of work.

Ginni Rommetty former CEO and chairman of IBM said, ‘Diversity is a fact, Inclusion is a choice’. One could seeD&I as two sides of a coin in that inclusion makes diversity work for the better or the worse. The narratives offered below describe four different ways people in organisations approach inclusion. Leaders find these useful as a lens to assess their approach to inclusion, and as a framework and prompts for conversation with their teams.

These narratives are not exclusive as we may see them all at various times in our organisations, and each has an upside and a downside. Each narrative requires special skills be practice effectively.


This is one of the most basic forms of inclusion based on a sense of sameness and uniformity. It compels teams to achieve consensus and agreement. This narrative is based on the belief of ‘unity through uniformity’ and including others in your ways of thinking and doing.  

The art of inclusion now becomes the art of collaboration, cooperation and even co-creation which requires a different skillset

On the one hand, this narrative is based on individual needs to ‘fit in’. Leaders often look for people with a ‘cultural fit’, with the same values and ways of dealing with issues. It is easy to work with people who think and behave like you.

The idea of unity through uniformity often assumes that a group can achieve harmony and coherence by enforcing sets of behaviours and standards for all. It aims to eliminate differences and promote conformity, with the belief that this will lead to a sense of unity and a common purpose. Unity through uniformity often cultivates a sense of belonging to something ‘bigger than yourself’, which is a powerful engagement catalyst.

On the downside, this narrative may lead to in-groups and out-groups, and may even lead to ethnocentrism. It may result in the exclusion of those who do not ‘fit’. Leaders may become manipulative in their desire to for people to accept their wishes and desires. This may lead to inbreeding and group thinking, with a lack of cognitive diversity and innovation.

Leadership skills within this narrative include effective communication, influence, instilling a clear brand, identity, and pride.

The next narrative does not exclude conformance but takes one step further to give recognition to individual differences.


The tolerance narrative is embedded in the humanistic values, especially of the West. It is based on respect for other cultures, values and beliefs. Dealing with diversity through tolerance means accepting and respecting differences in others, even if those differences challenge our beliefs, values, or ways of life. It involves acknowledging the right of others to hold different opinions, beliefs, and lifestyles, and treating them with respect and kindness, even when we may not agree with them.

One of the important contributions of this narrative is that it brings an awareness of psychological safety in the workplace and the need to work together despite differences. It also uncovers stereotyping, unconscious bias and unfairness and lays the foundation for dealing with the socio-emotional advantages and disadvantages of inclusion and exclusion.

On the downside, this narrative may lead to the notion of being ‘politically correct’ for the sake of not offending people or being polite without a real change of heart. Inclusion may become something that is confined to the workplace and not beyond. One may not get socially and emotionally involved with people who are perhaps racially or ethnically different by choice beyond the workplace.     

Leadership skills within this narrative include self-awareness (of one’s own bias and approach) and self-control, respect, empathy, and patience with people different to you.

This narrative requires understanding how others think and feel, but not necessarily changing one’s position. Adapting and changing come with the next two narratives. These are significantly more challenging because they require moving out of one’s comfort zone. The art of inclusion now becomes the art of collaboration, cooperation and even co-creation which requires a different skillset.


Dealing with diversity through accommodating differences calls for change, adjusting our behaviour or environment to make room for and to embrace the differences of individuals or groups. It implies the recognition of others unique needs, backgrounds and perspectives, and then making adjustments to ensure that they are included and treated equitably. These adjustments could be physical like accommodating people with wheelchairs, but also culturally such as accommodating others’ religious holidays and ritual, or being open to ideas and opinions that are different from your own and willing to adjust and compromise.

Listening well to others may expand one’s own views and lead to a willingness to make certain compromises to accommodate other points of view. However, there are often clear limits and ‘red lines’ which won’t be crossed during negotiations.

Leadership skills within this narrative include active listening, empathy, open-mindedness, transparency, flexibility, and conflict resolution.

The fourth narrative is firmly embedded in complex adaptive thinking and invite participants to co-creation, and innovation – moving beyond ‘I am’, (including you) towards together we are something new through acts of co-creation.


This narrative includes but moves beyond the socio-emotional dimension of inclusion towards the systemic dimension of diversity and inclusion. This includes seeing the world or organisation as a complex, messy ecosystem with many polarities and paradoxes that need to be managed, and interdependencies to be utilised. It is here where leaders trade their fear of the unknown for curiosity. There is a willingness to innovate and even transform as a result of engaging with diverse ideas and people. Some of the powerful keys to this innovation lie in what Roger Martin calls ‘integrative thinking’ and Barry Johnson calls ‘polarity management’.  It involves seeking out creative solutions that can resolve tensions or trade-offs between seemingly opposing ideas or interests and finding ways to synthesise different perspectives into a cohesive whole, where 1+1 =3.

People with this narrative embrace a ‘both-and’ vs a ‘either-or’ mindset and are able to help leaders and teams navigate complex problems and be innovative. A systemic view on inclusion also moves beyond inclusion of other people towards collaboration and integration of various parts of organisations like the various stakeholders, artificial and human intelligence.

The downside of this narrative is that it is time consuming especially when you work with people that are stuck in their points of view.  There is a time where managers need to stop talking about differences and take decisions (conform narrative).

Leadership skills within this narrative require an open and flexible mindset, a willingness to consider multiple perspectives, and the ability to hold complexity and ambiguity, integrative thinking, and polarity management.

Like the different instruments in an orchestra, these narratives are not exclusive – there is a time and place for the application of each.


It may be valuable to use this framework as a basis for evaluation and conversation in your organisation. Consider questions like:

 1.  What is your and the predominant narrative in your organisation or team and why do you say so?  

2.  Which narrative is calling for your attention and how might you collectively and practically apply it and develop the skills to apply it.

Frederick Hölscher teaches the Level 7 Senior Leader Apprenticeship at Hult Ashridge, part of Hult International Business School.  

Sharon Olivier is an organisational psychologist and senior faculty in leadership development at Hult Ashridge, part of Hult International Business School.  

Frederick Holscher

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