Open-Mindedness + Inclusion = Innovation

innovationAt a recent talk I attended, I heard the cure for our diversity and inclusion woes – basic open mindedness.  Simple, right?   Yes, and… no.

I had the opportunity to see Dr. Steve Robbins speak last week at a daylong institute on diversity, inclusion and equity, hosted by the Michigan Nonprofit Association.  He was insightful, compelling and engaging – I highly recommend you take the opportunity to see him yourself, should you get the chance.

Many people would probably agree that a lack of diversity and inclusion is driven by basic closed-mindedness.  But he took us much deeper.  Closed mindedness is grounded in a biologically and historically natural level of human bias which is, in turn, shaped by and programmed into us by a lifetime of societal messages.  This is in alignment with all the recent research on implicit and unconscious bias.

Bias plays out in the form of pre-judging people and circumstances based on social programming and also based on the brain’s ability to fill in the gaps when it sees a pattern.  You don’t have to know someone now to judge them – your brain will help you do that automatically – it fills in the gaps of what you don’t know about someone with social programming.  These patterns are commonly known as stereotypes.

Still with me?  The next one’s easy.

Exclusion is the problem.

Exclusion is one of the primary symptoms of stereotyping and closed-mindedness.  At some level, the brain is saying, “I already know this type of person” and then associates feelings and makes behavioral decisions based on that pre-determination.  It happens all the time.  In the workforce, perhaps it’s most obvious when it falls along identity groups like race, religion, sexual orientation, age, and more.

I think it’s easier to pick up on exclusion when several people in a group are getting the same or similar exclusionary treatment, several people are smelling the same stinky odor – like racial bias – whose exclusion often plays out as micro-aggressions.  It’s harder to pinpoint when the exclusion feels different to each individual (although they could also be labeled micro-aggressions, they smell a little different) – when the one Millennial staff isn’t taken seriously and the one lesbian is never asked about her partner, and the one single person never gets asked to socialize with the boss and his/her spouse, and the differently-abled person always gets asked if s/he needs help.

It’s much harder to see the forest when it looks like you’ve only got one tree – you might miss the shrub, the ground cover, the lily.

What’s the big deal?  It’s backed by neuroscience which demonstrates that exclusionary experiences, and the feelings that accompany them, actually create the same pain patterns in the brain as getting punched in the face.  It hurts, and it sends people reeling.

In short, it’s a real workplace downer.  Not only does it leave valuable members of our organizations out in the cold, it shuts down creativity and innovation.  It leads to higher turnover, lower productivity, and poorer performance for the organization overall.

What’s the solution?

1. Know thyself.  For those who are invested in making interpersonal changes, Dr. Robbins advises, “practicing mindfulness.”  He has a range of videos viewable for free at his website that explain some of his core concepts about brain function and neuroscience as it relates to diversity and inclusion.  To learn more, visit his website at http://slrobbins.com/.

2.  Assess Your Organization.  There’s an excellent 2008 Harvard Business Review article that’s still very relevant today, called “Is Yours a Learning Organization?”  In fact, in the face of the today’s on-demand and in-your-back-pocket technology, I’d wager it’s more relevant than ever.

The article provides access to a free anonymous online assessment tool for individuals who wish to assess their own organization’s learning environment based on their own perspectives.

I took the test.  Results were provided in real time, online and included categories such as psychological safety, appreciation of difference, openness to new ideas, time for reflection, experimentation, education and training, and information transfer.  It provided an interesting snapshot of my relationship with a particular work team.  The process of taking it led me to think more deeply about how I am landing on people in that team.  The article further provides a framework of four principals for cultivating learning organizations.

3. Use Tools to Boost Open-Mindedness.  There are a number of online resources that can help organizational change agents help their staff move out of the closed-mindedness pattern and into an open-minded one.  A resource I’ve used (that a group of young college students introduced me to a few years ago) is called Mindtools.com and has a range of excellent resources available to managers and supervisors, including decision making models, building communication skills and creativity exercises.

Is open-mindedness the key?  There are probably many keys, but this one looks promising – not only for building a more inclusive organization, but also inspiring engagement, creativity and innovation.


Kathleen LaTosch is a consultant specializing in diversity and inclusion planning for nonprofit organizations.  For more information about Kathleen’s work and availability, email her at klatosch at gmail.com