The One Ingredient You Need to Build an Inclusive and Diverse Workplace

It’s 9 a.m. on International Women’s Day, and Frances Frei is wasting no time starting the morning off on a motivating foot. The Harvard Business School professor—who was most recently a senior vice president for leadership and strategy at Uber—is at WeWork’s Chelsea HQ to speak about diversity, inclusion, and trust in the workplace with Lakshmi Rengarajan, WeWork’s director of workplace connection, and the house is packed.

Frei is here to discuss how best to build an environment where people feel comfortable bringing their authentic selves forward in a group.

When there’s only one person in a room, authenticity is never a problem, and in a two-person partnership, authenticity only has what she calls “some weird contours,” or nuanced applications. But it’s really in a three-person team that authenticity becomes threatened.

“If we’re different, we tend to go toward the common ground. This is called the ‘common information effect,’” says Frei, whose 2018 TED Talk, “How to Build (and Rebuild) Trust,” has been viewed more than 3.1 million times and translated into 18 languages. “If we don’t do anything super-duper-explicitly to account for the fact that there are diverse people among us, not only is it bad for the team … you don’t get to bring the full version of yourself. You only get to bring the version of yourself that’s in common with everyone else.”

So how can a workplace go about promoting diversity, inclusion, and trust so that authenticity is not simply accepted but celebrated? Below, Frei discusses three concrete ways to effectively and respectfully welcome the authentic differences among us.

The scene at WeWork Chelsea HQ during Frances Frei’s talk on International Women’s Day (above and below).

1. Make it safe for our differences to show up.

Inclusion for one means inclusion for all, so it’s up to each individual to help everyone feel welcome. What are some practices we can employ on a day-to-day basis so our respective workspaces become more inclusive?

One audience member provides an example of a company that ceases a meeting if all participants in the meeting are men. Frei appreciates the sentiment but isn’t convinced it can foster more inclusivity in the long-term. “I want this to go away forever, not for that meeting. In environments where there are fewer women, imagine if a woman had to be in every meeting. The woman was never going to get any work done,” she says. “I don’t want the burdens of diversity to be solely shouldered by the diverse.”

The more appropriate response, she says, would be to make the best out of every situation and vow to make it better in the future. That includes being receptive to other people’s comfort levels and advocating for them accordingly. “When you’re in a room and you’re comfortable,” she says, subtly reach out to someone who might be less comfortable and “help them be their authentic self.”

And how does one do that? Create a culture of self-disclosure and make it contagious. The more you expose your authentic self and talk about your life, the more others will feel safe doing the same.

2. Reinforce that our differences are welcomed not just tolerated.

This means prioritizing diversity and inclusion. Frei explains that diversity often focuses on our differences, while inclusion is the deliberate act of including diversity in the conversation. While this responsibility needs to codified within companies, Frei also says that anyone can get involved by keeping tabs of what they see in their day-to-day interactions.

“Watch the people who do it with grace, and copy it,” she says. Sometimes that looks like a subtle gesture in a meeting. Frei proposes one phrase that can be asked at the end of a meeting, which is: “Did we hear everything we could from your perspective?”

“Any time you’re feeling comfortable, just look around see if anyone else needs an inclusion boost,” suggests Frei, on incorporating authenticity into the workplace.

The flip side of that is praising inclusive behavior when we see it—right then, publicly, and briefly—by saying something like, “Great question because it included everyone else.”  

“Any time you’re feeling comfortable, just look around see if anyone else needs an inclusion boost,” she says. “If you just start there while we also systematize it, I think it’s going to be pretty awesome.”

3. Cherish the differences among us.

“An organization that doesn’t cherish difference is an organization where we’ll hear things like, ‘What’s the business case for diversity?’” says Frei. “The differences among us are the only thing that is going to allow us to outperform everyone else.”

This kind of organization is more in line with “meritocracies,” or companies that evaluate people on their skills and abilities without consideration of their gender, race, sexuality, physical ability, or socioeconomic status.

“I think you’re only fishing in a narrow pot, and you forgot to fish in the rest of the pond,” she says. “When someone tells me they’re a meritocracy, I say, ‘I’m sure you are, for whoever is dominant.’” If a diversity of candidates isn’t rising to the top during the hiring process, it’s not candidates’ fault—the organization is responsible.

Frei is also adamant that businesses collectively have been overindexing on thinking that diversity alone—without inclusion—is a solution in itself. “Everything is a journey,” she says. “It’s not a destination.”

Photos by Liz Devine

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