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In this episode, Liz Lewis, anthropologist, writer and researcher at Indeed, speaks with Stefanie Johnson, Associate Professor of Management at the University of Colorado's Leeds School of Business. Dr. Johnson is an authority on leadership and diversity, and the author of Inclusify: The Power of Uniqueness and Belonging to Build Innovative Teams. Their discussion includes:

  • Insights on how employers can nurture uniqueness and belonging among their employees
  • Research-based strategies on how to create a more inclusive workplace
  • Why boosting diversity, inclusion and belonging is good for business

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Liz Lewis: Welcome to Season 2 of the Lead with Indeed podcast, where we chat with the experts about the world of work. Here, authors, researchers and industry leaders share their expertise on the science of talent acquisition, management, the future of work and much, much more. 

I'm Liz Lewis, anthropologist, writer and researcher at Indeed. On today's show, I'm speaking with Stefanie Johnson, Associate Professor of Management at the University of Colorado's Leeds School of Business. 

Dr. Johnson is an authority on leadership and diversity. Today, she'll be sharing her insights on how employers can nurture uniqueness and belonging among their employees and, in the process, build more inclusive workplaces. In our chat, she'll offer research-based strategies on how to do this. And she'll show why boosting diversity, inclusion and belonging is good for business.


Liz Lewis: Let's get started. Stefanie Johnson, thank you so much for joining us.

Stefanie Johnson: Thank you so much for having me.

Liz: You've had this long career, about 20 years, researching leadership. What led you to this topic and why?

Stefanie: Yeah, I think I always just loved leadership. As a high school student, I always found myself leading stuff, being asked to take leadership roles. And I wanted to know how to do that better, but I was also fascinated why some people are chosen as leaders more often than others. And I think when I finally went on to graduate school, actually it wasn't finally because I did it right after undergrad, I thought leadership was actually a perfect topic because being a professor and a woman of color — I'm biracial. I'm half-Mexican and half-white, and already I thought I'm oddball enough. I'm very different from the norm. Neither of my parents went to college. That's not very typical for your average professor. And so I thought, 'I'm going to study the most mainstream topic in business and it's leadership.' It may be motivation. And it worked well and I still do it.

Liz: What led you to write Inclusify, and why did you decide to do it now?

Stefanie: As a business professor, I end up working with a fair number of companies which is great. It informs my research and helps my teaching. And I think it's useful for companies, but I started to see more and more companies actually investing in diversity.  The topic of women on corporate boards and women in the C-suite just started to become a conversation. And at the time there was a lot of data showing the business case for diversity, and not all of them were getting that full benefit. Or they were seeing the benefit but also, 'Hey, we've had an increase in turnover too.' And so it started just to become really clear that diversity is only really half of the story. That you have to create a culture where people actually want to stay, or you're trying to fill a cup with a hole on the bottom.

Liz: You're talking about inclusify, inclusfied workplaces, inclusified teams. I have the definition from the book, but I'd like to hear it from you. Can you explain briefly what inclusifying means in your framework, and specifically what it is that is distinctive from belonging or inclusion?

Stefanie: So I would say inclusifying is the intentional action of trying to create a workplace where people can be their unique selves and still belong as an essential valued member of the team. And it involves that intentionality and recognizing both of these elements.

Liz: There's a lot of buzz now around topics related to inclusion, diversity and belonging. Can you talk about how your work fits into this and also specifically what sets it apart? What is your contribution? Because I do think it's interesting, it's really interesting and different.

Stefanie: What's different about my approach is that belonging isn't the goal. It's really this feeling of having both uniqueness and belonging. So belonging is this basic and essential human need. We are social creatures. That's how we survive. We form societies and groups, right? That's humans. But we're not bees or ants that we all just are the same. We also have a maybe equally strong need to be different, to be unique. We have our own hobbies, personalities.

And we don't just want to be the same. That's just not part of who we are. And so it's both of those things. There's a theory, actually, called optimal distinctiveness theory. And it's the idea that we all want to be distinct. We want people to recognize us as different, but only to an optimal level at which we can still belong. The way I view it is inclusifying or inclusion is asking people what they want on the playlist.

Liz: I love that.

Stefanie: Not just letting me dance to your music, but actually creating an environment where I want to dance. It doesn't have to be all my music but at least I'm represented.

Microaggressions and exclusion at work

Liz: Feeling included, it's almost like infrastructure, right? We notice it the most when we don't feel it. And everyone knows that feeling because it's visceral. It's not just in your mind, but you feel it with your whole self when you do not feel included. Can you give a few examples here of sort of what it's like to not feel included in the workplace, and perhaps examples from some of your interviews or examples directly from the book?

Stefanie: Yeah, for sure. I mean, I feel like some of these are equated with microaggressions.

Liz: Sure.

Stefanie: I guess this is one that stands out to me because I've experienced this. I can be sitting in my office. Most of my work is running statistics behind a computer by myself. And I feel so happy doing it. And then I'm walking down the hall by myself to get to a meeting, and everyone else is kind of walking in pairs. And they're chatting. And they're asking about their weekend. And then we get into the meeting room. And there's an exciting conversation going about the stock market or sports. I know what sports are. I know what the stock market is. But it's not necessarily a conversation I really want to dive into. And I'm not welcomed into the conversation.

No one's saying, "Hey, Stef, how are your Sox doing?" or "Did you catch the game?" or whatever it might be. And then people at the end of the meeting are like, "Hey, do you want to go grab coffee after the meeting?" and not being invited to that. I think those are the points that you mentioned, visceral. Those are the things that stand out to me as the visceral. Or someone talks over you.

Women all experience this, like over and over again. You're speaking in a meeting and someone speaks right over them. And then the other one is they have these great ideas or comments and no one looks at them, no one says anything. It's just like dead air. Like, I actually think we should increase our marketing in Mexico. And crickets, right?

Liz: Right.

Stefanie: And then five minutes later, someone else says, “What about increasing our presence in Mexico?” and everyone's, “Ah, my god, that's such a great idea.” And you're sitting there like, “I'm pretty sure I said that.” But you don't want to be the jerk who's like, “I actually said that five minutes ago.” You did. No one cared. And it is interesting to do the interviewers, cause I'm like, really, I thought that was just me.

Liz: Interesting.

Stefanie: It was something about me, and it's not. It's a very shared experience.  I think that was another one I talked about a lot in the book Being Mistaken for Someone of Lower Status. I was giving a talk at a women's organization and one of my friends there, she had a broken foot or something, so she asked if I would get her wine. Oftentimes, talks, back pre-COVID, were preceded by Happy Hour, right?

Liz: Sure.

Stefanie: You drink before the presentation. Not me because I'm giving the presentation and I can't do both of those two things. So I went to get her a glass of wine and came back and then someone else said “Hey miss, would you mind getting me a glass of wine,” and I'm like –

Liz: Oh my.

Stefanie: – sure, so I went and got her some. And then I'm coming back and this other person is like, “Would you mind getting me something as well. I was looking for a red and I didn't see any.” I'm like, “Sure.” And that person said, “And do you when the speaker's going to start because I think we're running a little behind schedule.” And I'm like, oh, yeah, crud, that's me.

Liz: Oh my goodness.

Stefanie: Let me just stop fetching wine for you because I need to go and give the talk. If you feel different than everyone else and you're not represented, then most people will conform, right? They'll kind of fake it to fit in. And it takes away a fair amount of your psychological and emotional resources to be scanning the room seeing what everyone's doing and trying to act like them. Whereas if the culture were one where people were encouraged just to be themselves then you wouldn't have to do that and it would free up a lot of energy so that you could just be you. There's leaders who are really investing in belonging. That's super common. And there's leaders who are actually big champions for diversity. But there's not a lot that are doing both, right?

The inclusive culture disconnect

Liz: And I think one of the really important points you make is that people do tend to have good intentions and they do tend to sort of overestimate how well they're doing in these arenas and also otherwise, right. Like we all think we're better drivers than we are or we're funnier than we are, better cooks or what have you. But it's interesting to see how that plays out in these very well-intentioned efforts in the workplace when it comes to hiring and promotion and just creating inclusified cultures in the workplace. And you have some really compelling examples of instances where you've found a disconnect between what the leaders reported that they were doing or what they sort of viewed as how inclusive they were versus what their direct report said. Can you give maybe a few examples?

Stefanie: Yeah, absolutely. First of all, just that idea that people are well intentioned I thought was super interesting. The number of people who were like, yes, I absolutely care about this and I'm doing it and here's how. I thought that was great. That actually made me feel very positive. I think maybe the more surprising one that stood out to me were all the leaders who thought of the belonging piece. Like I'm doing a great job at creating belonging. We have this cultural awareness, we hire for culture fit and everyone feels really connected to the organization. And then in interviewing the direct reports, in some cases I would interview multiple, the person wanted to be like 'everyone belongs, everyone fits in'. And then the next person is like everyone belongs. And the third person is like, I don't fit in here. And I have to act like I fit it. I don't feel accepted. I have to keep a lot of myself outside the office.

Liz: I'm curious about feeling included or being made to feel included or not included during the hiring process because it seems to me that there are many, many opportunities for this to happen. Do you have any thoughts on that or is that something that came up during your interviews or during your research?

Stefanie: One of the ways to make people not feel included or welcomed in the hiring process is to make some kind of — I call it the “just because' jab” — I don't actually think it's in the book, but it's just because she's a minority or he's a minority, or she’s a woman. And the number of people who told me they heard this, like “Oh, we really did want to hire a woman.” We're interviewing you because you're a woman. Don't tell people that. Because there is very little data to support that women are ever hired because of their gender. And people of color are never hired because of their race. It's kind of the opposite according to data. But we're all made to feel that way. Every woman – if you don't feel this way as a woman or a person of color, kudos, because I always wonder. I was the only woman in my department. Did they hire me because I'm a woman?

Liz: Interesting.

Stefanie: And if they did hire me because I'm a woman then we should have a lot more women, right? And then I have this great, amazing friend who's a lawyer just like, “Even if they do hire you because you're a woman, just take the job because they hired that guy because his dad golfs with his dad. And they hired that guy because he went to the same school.” We hire lots of people for ridiculous reasons other than qualifications, and so think of all the jobs, there's so many jobs you won't get hired for because of your identity. Jobs that you're going to not be qualified for. Jobs that people are going to imply to you or you're going to hear you're being hired because of your identity. And if you only went for the jobs where that wasn't the case, there's like really no jobs left. 

So I think for the interviewers, I guess it is — don't say that to people and for the interviewees, you know what, if they do say it, just screw it, take the job and then kill it. Do a great job. Be the best person ever. Crush some stereotypes that you were only hired because you're a woman or a person of color because if it were true you wouldn't have that person's job next year.

Liz: What would you say to somebody who says that they want to hire for “culture fit”?

Stefanie: I think that's super risky because it creates huge potential for bias because it's impossible to actually judge that. And so I think you're a culture fit if you act like me, you know? Because it's not quantifiable, it's easy to make very poor judgments on culture fit. But also, if you hire on culture fit, you're really only getting one type of person and so you're eliminating that difference in perspective. And some of the people you hire aren't culture fits, they're just faking it. And so then those people are exhausted. So I think it's maybe the core values of the company. You want to hire people who align with the mission. If you're a non-profit where the goal is to support the environment, you probably want to hire people who care about the environment. But beyond that, I guess I say hire for people who actually add to your culture because the culture needs to evolve. The culture can be static.

Liz: Right, right. That's great. And then for an employer and/or hiring manager, recruiter, manager, what are some things that they can do to reduce bias in the hiring process and also, I assume there's a lot of overlap between reducing bias in the hiring process and then later for promotions and what not. Right? Because the hire is only one part, you also have to retain people and help them grow. Can you talk about that?

Stefanie: I think it starts with recruitment and who we recruit. There's talent everywhere, and unless you believe that talent rests in a very small portion of the population, you can try and broaden that applicant pool. And even when you're not using college recruitment, who do you look to?  Your network. People we've worked with in the past and people we know. And that means we're going to end up just replicating who we have here and not getting different talent, different ways of thinking, different educational backgrounds. One of the studies I love to cite is looking at venture capitalists who graduate from the same university and they are much less successful in their investments than people from different universities. Because they all think the same, right.

How to prioritize inclusifying your company

Liz: Whether people are interviewing in person or not, interviewing virtually, what are some specific tactics or strategies that they use to really prioritize inclusifying?

Stefanie: I would say check your networks. Consider who's getting the information about these job openings that you have, and the number one best intervention to increase diversity and inclusion is setting goals. So set some goals for what your new hiring pool and new hires are going to look like, and then figure out strategies to get there. And then the same thing when they enter. Set goals for the culture, how inclusive the culture is and measure that. And play the long game

This might take some time to change, but it's definitely not going to change without those goals.

Liz: Along similar lines, how would you make a business case for companies to build inclusified hiring processes and inclusified sort of work cultures? What's the ROI on inclusifying?

Stefanie: There's so many numbers, but there's great numbers surrounding the business case for diversity. We know diverse companies have higher sales. And then inclusive companies top that. If you just took it to the easiest argument it reduces turnover, maybe by five percent. Just do math on that. Inclusive companies have lower turnover. Five percent doesn't sound huge, but for someone in HR who runs those numbers, it's up to a year and a half of someone's salary to replace them.

Liz: Wow.

Stefanie: A five percent difference in turnover is a big one. And then it increases other things like engagement, attendance. If you could increase inclusion by 10 percent, it would increase attendance by one day per employee per year. So that's like, that's a chunk of change.

And it increases performance, it makes you more attractive as a company, particularly to Millennials and Gen Zers who expect their companies to have inclusive cultures — that's just the way they've grown up.

Liz: So I'd like to switch gears a little bit and talk about what your work means now, in the context of COVID, because right now there are sort of large debates, and there's a lot of speculation about the future of work. And of course, the future of work is always something that's in process, right. And now we just have a huge twist with a global pandemic. But I'm curious, how can, in your view, how can leaders, whether leaders of companies or leaders of teams, build inclusified work cultures and really ramp up inclusifying their teams during this time of crisis and specifically when so many people are working from home. What are some of the unique challenges that are posed to inclusifying right now and, on the flip side, maybe what are some of the opportunities?

Stefanie: Yeah. I’ll say I guess one of each. So I think it's kind of interesting pre-COVID — so I wrote — you know, every word in the book was written before COVID, obviously.

Liz: I know.

Stefanie: Because COVID happened in March, the book came out in June. And I think at the time in writing the book the challenge is really about promoting uniqueness or supporting uniqueness. More so than belonging. Belonging — we had that covered in 2019.

Liz: Right.

Stefanie: But now I kind of feel like it's the opposite because people are so disconnected that it's hard to build belonging when you're working from home. What are all of the cultural elements that we used to do to get people to feel like they belong, and it's more difficult to do that right now. So I think that's maybe the challenge.

But it also creates an opportunity I think, because I think before some people felt like they belonged and then there were many people who didn't. And now it kind of leveled the playing field a little bit because we are all equally isolated. On the flip side, I think we have become much more empathetic towards one another because we've seen into people's lives a bit. There's a pain point of, for example, I have two little children. I have always been an empathetic, I think, person. I'm empathetic towards other parents who — parenting is hard. For me it is at least. And especially people who don't have reliable childcare.

Liz: It's extremely hard, I will say.

Stefanie: But, man, I've never been so empathetic as I felt when I had my kids home for 400 consecutive days or whatever it's been. Seeing it firsthand is a different story. And seeing into people's homes. You can't see in mine because I have a green screen, but it's in the basement. And seeing people's cats walk across their computer and their dogs and the kids bust in and, you know, the cats out of the bag. This is how I look normally. It's like we have more of that uniqueness because it's more difficult to do the faking when you're just like, I'm at home. This is me eating on a Zoom call because I haven't eaten yet today. 

And so I think it creates the other half, the opportunity. The opportunity is, I think we're starting to see people more for who they are and realize there's value to that, and have a greater empathy and understanding for the fact that people's lives are different from ours. And one of the biggest impediments to charge was the status quo. This is how we've always done it. We can't create flexible work arrangements for women or parents because we have sensitive data. We can't do that from home. Well, guess what? You could because we all are doing it from home. 

At some point, I think the future of work will — we will rebuild the workplace in a way that's different. It's going to be different than it was before, but it can also be in a way that's better because the original demographics of the American workforce has changed much faster than the workplace itself. Well, here's the thing, this is the opportunity to change that because we have to rebuild it or we have to build a workforce that works for everyone who's in that workforce. And some companies are doing that. And those who aren't are going to have a huge war to find talent who wants to go back to the old workforce.

Liz: Excellent. All right, great. This has been such a pleasure. It was such a pleasure speaking with you. I loved your book Inclusify. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Stefanie: Thank you so much for having me.


Liz: I'm Liz Lewis. My thanks to our guest, Dr. Stefanie Johnson and a big thanks to all of you for listening. In today's episode, Dr. Johnson explained why our unique desire as humans to both fit in but also stand out is so important for today's employers. By nurturing these two tendencies, employers can build workplaces that are more diverse and inclusive and boost their business in the process. When employees have a song on the playlist, it's a win-win for everyone. 

In our next show, I'll be speaking with Atta Tarki, author of Evidence-Based Recruiting. He'll share his secrets for building a more data-driven, scientific approach to recruiting — and show you how to do it. I hope you'll join me.

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