How do you create an inclusive organisational culture?

We bandy around the word ‘culture’ when talking about organisations and it’s often used when describing what needs to change when wanting to steer any business to becoming more diverse and inclusive.

What has been missing, though, is an understanding of what is meant when ‘culture change’ is mentioned.

So, let’s agree on some basic definitions.

Diversity is, simply, the mix of visible and invisible difference. We often talk about race/ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, disability, marital status… but this list is not limited to the Protected Characteristics of the Equality Act 2010, it’s not exhaustive, it includes neurodiversity, socio-economic background, graduates, goths, fairy believers… etc. etc. etc. Diversity is simply the mix. Diverse is not something other people are. We are all part of diversity. (And whilst we at it, ‘ethnic’ isn’t something people of colour are. Everyone has an ethnicity. If you mean ‘ethnic minority’, then please use the word ‘minority’ after the word ‘ethnic’).

Inclusion is when all manner of diversity is accepted and valued. Even when that difference feels unpalatable, inclusion means you respect the difference.

So, what is culture? If you consider, there are organisational cultures, nationalistic cultures, ethnic cultures, the goth culture, the culture of Pride, deaf culture … what does that mean and refer to? In some cases, we hear “the way we do things around here”, or a shared system of values and beliefs. Still, I feel these are not specific enough to be helpful.

It’s very important to differentiate between creating a ‘Culture of Inclusion’ and being ‘Inclusive of Cultures’. The latter is another way of talking about being inclusive of diversity, and in that respect the word Culture would be too narrowly and, in my opinion, incorrectly defined.

The clearest and most accessible definition I’ve found is: Culture is what is ‘Acceptable and Familiar’.

If you’re trying to create a Culture of Inclusion though, what does that look like?

Well, the crux of the matter is that what’s Acceptable and Familiar to me, may not be Acceptable and Familiar to you. In order to be inclusive, we have to realise that what is Acceptable and Familiar to another is not wrong. It’s simply a different perspective. Many people are brought up to believe ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. ‘Treat others as you wish to be treated’. But this needs to be revised, and in creating a Culture of Inclusion we have to ‘Treat others as THEY wish to be treated’.

But how do you know how to do that?

This is why you need Cultural Intelligence (CQ™)1. Q stands for quotient, because as well as a skill, CQ™ is a measurement. Emotional Intelligence (EQ) isn’t enough, because you’re still approaching people through your own lens. Someone with high CQ™ means they’re much better at seeing through ‘the other’s’ lens.

Cultural Intelligence (CQ™) is the capability to work effectively with people who are different from you2.

So, to create an inclusive organisational culture, CQ™ has four capabilities3 you need to look at, at different levels: as an individual, as departments and overall as a business.

Four Capabilities of Cultural Intelligence

You first have to identify what you consider to be Acceptable and Familiar. Then, how motivated are you to think differently about what’s Acceptable and Familiar? This is CQ Drive.

What do you all need to know in order to respect and value to difference you come across? How do you ensure everyone has access to this information as you gather it? This is CQ Knowledge.

How do you plan for your interactions with others? What amount of time do you give to staff for adjustment?  How do you check your assumptions? This is CQ Strategy.

How do you put these into action? Can people openly provide feedback calling out issues and biases? This is CQ Action.

In order to then embed change, all four capabilities have to be looked at in terms of the four building blocks in the McKinsey Change Model4. In a McKinsey Global Survey, they examined successful transformations and found that they were nearly eight times more likely to use all four actions as opposed to just one5.

Fostering understanding and conviction: There’s clarity as to why the change is needed. CQ™ helps outline this as part of CQ Drive.

How your staff are developing their skills and talents – are they getting the training they need to help them understand CQ™? And developing CQ Knowledge about different values and norms?

Role modelling – are you behaving in a highly culturally intelligent way? Are the people around you? Are leaders following through on their own learning?

Are the policies and structures in place allowing you to reinforce with formal mechanisms? Whether that’s about recruitment, pipeline schemes, mentoring, clarity of vision, mission and organisational goals etc. Is it possible for your people to do their jobs in a high CQ™ way?

If implemented this is a clear system that will start to get you the results you need if you’re serious about changing organisational culture to become more inclusive.

But it is not easy.

There is no silver bullet. If you’re expecting a 30-minute corporate online video, a morning workshop or even a day on its own is going to provide results, that’s highly unlikely.

Get ready for hard work

The introspection required here is difficult and you and your organisation are expected to be vulnerable. Being open to being wrong, being told repeatedly you’re wrong, and getting up again anyway, until it is right, is obligatory. It requires great generosity and patience of the part of the under-represented and oppressed whilst you try, despite everything we/they have already had to deal with.

It’s naïve to think, even then, in a world where we’ve achieved a true Diversity of people and Inclusive culture, we’re all skipping around happy in a circle, singing songs and being immensely profitable and innovative; managing difference is effortful and requires ongoing resource. It’s challenging.

It is my opinion that within that challenge lies our evolution as a human species. We need to adapt our brains to stop calling on the biases that our “cave-person” inside tend to cause us, thinking we need to retreat to safety or act out in defiance or self-defence. Life needn’t be any longer about ‘survival of the fittest’, ‘dog-eat-dog’, “I have more, therefore I’m better”.

If we are to flourish, we must learn to not be threatened by difference, and truly acquire a deep understanding of self and each other for the betterment of all.


If this is a journey you would like to take, or lead your organisation on, please get in touch via LinkedIn or online






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