29 Nov 2022

Protect Your Organizational Culture from Pseudo Inclusion

by Kim Ellet, CPC, ACC

Does your organization tell the truth about its culture? Many organizations tout their inclusion policies but let’s take a closer look at “true belonging”. Do individuals feel treated as an insider in your organization, despite differences in gender, ethnicity, culture, or other differences? Does everyone have the same opportunity for influence or advancement?

There are a couple of work culture types that from the outside, can look like an environment of inclusion and belonging but from the inside, an individual member may experience what Cornell Professor Lisa Nishii refers to as Pseudo Inclusion. 

Two main types of Pseudo Inclusion:

Assimilation An individual is treated as an insider in the work group when they conform to organizational or dominant culture norms; uniqueness is downplayed (often because of low status.) An example of low status can be someone who is younger or has a more junior position not being afforded the same level of credibility, influence, or leeway to present new ideas. 

Differentiation An individual is not treated as an organizational insider (e.g. socially excluded, fewer opportunities) but their unique characteristics or talents are seen as valuable and required for group or organizational success.   I talked with Alicia, who shared an experience she had working as an attorney for a male-dominated law firm.  The founding partner began inviting the new, lower-ranking male associate for cigars and whiskey at the end of the day on a regular basis. The invitation was not extended to Alicia, who was left handling a larger caseload while the others left for their “boys club,” as it was described to her. Her work ethic was valued, but being excluded from the networking time impacted her ability to develop a closer relationship with firm leadership and affected her opportunities for advancement. Her request for some changes was disregarded and she realized it was time to leave the firm. 

Once upon a time…a story of Ann’s Pseudo Inclusion:

Ann’s story is that of a member who was loyal to an organization for almost a decade and her contributions to the department and organization had been instrumental to new growth and engagement.  Yet, despite the value that she brought to her peers; she was denied a promotion. The issue was not that she was passed over for the role, but rather how poorly and dishonestly it was handled.  A newer-to-the-organization leader was promoted instead, which happens, but the leadership of the organization failed to discuss with the surprised /blind-sided Ann that this was coming, what was lacking, or what skills, behaviors, or organizational norms should be addressed. She had previously been given positive feedback and felt like she was accepted as part of the “in group.”  Rather than having a respectful and truthful conversation with Ann, she was left second-guessing her contribution to the organization, wondering who to trust, and feeling unwelcome. This is an example of the Assimilation type of pseudo inclusion when a person is allowed in the “in-group” as long as they play along with the norms of those who’ve created the culture; in other words, they may have to compromise their values or their voice. They may also not have a true picture of the behind-the-scenes culture which they are expected to conform. 

In today’s business climate, transparency and authentic communication are prerequisites for inclusion and belonging. Failing to treat even one individual with professionalism and respect reflects on the entire organization. Even if Ann didn’t disclose to her colleagues what she experienced, this organization’s leadership style will likely permeate the culture of the organization and create an overarching lack of belonging. In this case, Ann experienced both forms of pseudo inclusion, which equates to not belonging or feeling safe or valued in the group. Not only was her promotion denied without truthful explanation, but because of her unique talent, she was asked to work on creating a new program for the organization (an example of Differentiation,) while continuing to be excluded from the social hierarchy of the group.

The learning here is about inclusion and belonging and how individuals are treated in an organization. This is not to say that simply because someone has put in a lot of time and energy that a bump to a leadership position is a given. The fine line is how this type of situation is handled. The best leaders know how to communicate directly rather than side-stepping their concerns. They avoid surprises by communicating honestly on a regular basis. They cultivate a sense of inclusion and belonging for all members regardless of their status within a group or community. The best leaders openly discuss potential issues along the way, provide feedback, and ask for more information rather than draw conclusions based on assumptions. Without clear communication from leadership, interpretation is left to the imagination which leads to mistrust, a demotivated individual or team, and most likely a resignation or quiet quitting. 

I would love to hear about your experiences. I help leaders improve cohesion, collaboration, and connection within companies, organizations, and communities. 

Reach out to me for more information on bringing your team together for effective communication and facilitated safe conversations.  KEllet@thegrowthcoach.com or https://www.linkedin.com/in/kimellet/

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