Walking the tightrope of inclusion versus exclusion in the workplace: A leadership lens

Most people would agree that inclusion in the workplace deserves our attention. This is why Dr Hannes Leroy together with his colleagues from Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) Dr Meir Shemla and Dr Inga Hoever, and Prof. Claudia Buengeler from the Institute of Business, Kiel University and Dr Marlies Veestraeten from NEOMA Business School, have been looking at this; for a better understanding of the leader’s effects on inclusion. For several decades now, organizations have endeavoured to create a more inclusive work environment. However, we seem to have made little progress; there are still unfulfilled quotas, continued systemic bias, and more generally, unique individuals being denied entry or bullied out of the organizational club because they do not “fit in”.

Most organizations continue to think in terms of “fit”: Does this person fit the demands of the job, the competency framework, the values of the organization? And it makes sense – choosing new employees by considering the question “do you fit in?” reduces a lot of complexity and uncertainty and makes human resources much more manageable. However, it turns a blind eye to increased diversity in the workplace, and ignores any of the creative benefits that can come from pooling diverse perspectives.   

What is the alternative to the dominant focus on fitting in? A key word seems to be “inclusion”, which refers to creating a workplace that allows people to voice their unique opinions, where the work environment is adjusted to their strengths, and generally allows employees to be themselves. It sounds like a wonderful idea to strive towards and many organizations have tried hard to be more inclusive – however very few of them have met with great success. One important reason is that the complexity of creating a truly inclusive environment is often underestimated. Inclusion and exclusion are closely intertwined, such that it might feel like walking a tightrope to avoid the other side of the coin.

Consider these stories that we as researchers have heard over the years from leaders: You want to make sure that your people feel at home, so you organize an event after work that aligns with most people’s interests. But “most” means that not everyone will appreciate your efforts, with one or more person feeling more excluded or as if they don’t fit in as a result of your efforts to be inclusive. Take a male-dominated environment – your good intentions to watch the football game, play golf or go drinking might boost the extent to which your male colleagues feel included, but simultaneously might actually sideline female colleagues. Alternatively, you can proceed with a lot of care and caution to make sure that all work events are inclusive to all people – however in that process the event may lose its lustre.  For instance, while your vegan, fat-free, kid-friendly brunch may play it safe, it may not appeal to everyone. To cut a long story short: it is really hard to get inclusion right for everyone.


“You need to target inclusion from multiple fronts otherwise your efforts at inclusion will actually result in exclusion”


An important step in walking the fine line between inclusion and exclusion is recognising that inclusion is a multi-facetted phenomenon. Various papers have come to the same conclusion: you need to target inclusion from multiple fronts otherwise your efforts at inclusion will actually result in exclusion. Researchers have demonstrated this using a farming metaphor. Most leaders, in their earnest attempt to promote inclusion, will jump directly towards what we call harvesting the benefits of diversity – asking for employee input and calling people out on their lack of diversity. However, as any good farmer knows, if you don’t cultivate the land first, there’s no point expecting a plentiful harvest.

Consider this example: Let’s say you pay a lot of attention to the diversity of one employee, allowing that person to voice their opinions, and bringing their unique perspective to the forefront. The challenge for leaders is that this employee does that in a work environment where others might perceive their diversity as a threat, and the employee opening-up and expressing their perspective may make others more hesitant of opening up.

Indeed, you shouldn’t try harvesting the diversity in your employees without ‘cultivating the land’ first; making sure that the soil is ready for the seeds of diversity to be planted and with everyone in the team being open to the diversity that is brought forward. We call this cultivating value-in-diversity beliefs and our research is clear: if you harvest without cultivating first, you end up with more exclusion than inclusion.

But it doesn’t stop there. Before cultivating or harvesting diversity, a farmer will make sure the field is ploughed before harvesting or cultivating. We call this levelling the playing field and it refers to the extent to which everyone receives the same opportunities to speak up, be selected, or be promoted. When there is systematic – and often very subtle – bias towards one or more groups of people in the system, than efforts at harvesting or cultivating may be ill-received and may be perceived as perpetuating the system that leads to exclusion.

To sum up, and to extend the farming metaphor, we argue and show in research that fostering inclusion while avoiding exclusion is a function of harvesting, cultivating, and levelling the diversity field. To help people in their efforts towards inclusive leadership, we have developed and validated a measurement instrument that that make a checklist for diversity and inclusion. You can download it here: 


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We would like to use this instrument to get an idea of how inclusive the leaders of our readers are.


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We will follow up with the results in due course here on Discovery. 



Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is one of Europe’s top-ranked business schools. RSM provides ground-breaking research and education furthering excellence in all aspects of management and is based in the international port city of Rotterdam – a vital nexus of business, logistics and trade. RSM’s primary focus is on developing business leaders with international careers who can become a force for positive change by carrying their innovative mindset into a sustainable future. Our first-class range of bachelor, master, MBA, PhD and executive programmes encourage them to become to become critical, creative, caring and collaborative thinkers and doers. Study information and activities for future students, executives and alumni are also organised from the RSM office in Chengdu, China. www.rsm.nl

For more information about RSM or this article, please contact Danielle Baan, Media Officer for RSM, via +31 10 408 2028 or baan@rsm.nl.

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