Diversity & Inclusion

Making the Workplace Work: How Inclusivity Drives Innovation

Wei Zheng leads panel discussion on implementing DEI initiatives

If your team feels alienated, uncomfortable or excluded, are you really leading anyone?

Inclusive leadership can improve individuals’ experiences in the workplace. And by inviting diverse perspectives, organizations become more productive and more innovative.

Headshot of Wei Zheng"Building an inclusive environment will fuel our higher motivation, innovation, and wellbeing, as well as steer us toward a sustainable and inclusive world." – Wei Zheng

The Stevens Leadership Portal recently concluded its four-part Inclusive Leadership Panel Discussion Series, which delivered keen insights on how leaders and organizations can foster inclusivity. The final panel discussion covered concrete steps to integrate inclusivity into an organization’s culture and offered ways to combat the challenges facing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives.

Facilitated by Wei Zheng, associate professor and Stevens’ Richard R. Roscitt chair of leadership, the panel featured DEI leaders from diversity-award-winning organizations who shared their tips and best practices. The panel included Valoria Armstrong, chief inclusion officer at American Water; Christine Geissler, global senior vice president of human resources at Rickitt; and Armond Kinsey, chief diversity officer for the Atlantic Health System.

“Inclusive leadership can foster an environment that satisfies a deep human desire for belonging and authenticity at the workplace,” said Zheng. 

Connection and Collaboration

Headshot of Armond Kinsey“The goal of diversity and inclusion education should be to upscale future leaders, not to be punitive.” – Armond Kinsey

Some of the great challenges facing DEI initiatives are getting buy-in and reaching an organization-wide understanding about what it means to be inclusive. To ease these headwinds, the panelists agreed that it’s essential to have accessible and effective diversity and inclusion education. But organizations must be purposeful with how they present that education. Kinsey explained that diversity education is often seen as punitive, as if it is a punishment for saying or doing the “wrong” thing. Instead, such education should be presented as a way to “upscale future leaders by building the skill set of being an inclusive leader.”

Headshot of Christine Geissler“We have to do things that educate, that make it non-threatening, because you want people to come on the journey with you.” – Christine Geissler

Beyond the organizational benefits, being inclusive is “personally satisfying,” said Zheng. “It is not just targeted at increasing worker performance and productivity, but also at building meaningful human connections that go beyond the work context.”

Improving the perception of diversity and inclusion education is important, but that alone doesn’t guarantee organization-wide buy-in. It’s best for DEI to be collaborative, not administrative, suggested the panelists. Be transparent and ask for feedback. Each of the panelists’ organizations conduct annual employee engagement surveys. Those surveys produce an “inclusion score,” based on employees’ feedback about their experience and comfort level in the workplace. Not only did the panelists recommend capturing this type of data but that organizations regularly publish their DEI analytics. By sharing analytics, organizations invite accountability, explained Geissler. And organizations hesitate to share their DEI data, even internally, for that reason. “The more you get into analytics, the more you know. It helps to unwind and unravel the data,” she said.

Headshot of Valoria Armstrong"Safety is not a program for us. I&D is not a program for us. It is who we are; it’s how we operate.” – Valoria Armstrong

According to the panel, rising inclusive leaders should focus on the few things that would make the greatest impact right now and give people something to do that moves the needle. “Be 1% more inclusive every day,” Zheng says. Maybe that means asking your team about their experience, initiating a conversation with a stranger, or inviting criticism of your ideas. If inclusivity efforts are authentic and collaborative, diversity, equity and inclusion become a part of the organization’s culture and identity rather than a program, which is Zheng’s goal. “I’d love to see diversity and inclusion not as a separate initiative or some metrics to fulfill, but part and parcel of how we do everything.”

Stevens Leadership Portal