What they don't tell you about inclusive leadership

Briefing: Frances Frei was hired to fix Uber’s ‘bro culture’. Here’s her lesson for where diversity and inclusion go wrong.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 31 Jul 2020

On paper, it’s easy to know whether your organisation is diverse or not. There are characteristics that for the most part you can measure. If everyone ticks the same boxes, you’re not diverse. 

Inclusion is an altogether harder nut to crack. There are no boxes to tick, and few people will admit they have a problem. Asking someone if they’re inclusive is a bit like asking them if they’re fair or reasonable - everyone thinks they are, even if the evidence for it is dubious.

Challenging your assumptions - about yourself as well as about others - is of course essential if you want to become inclusive, with all the benefits that brings. And there is a way of doing that systematically that has proven effective even in the most challenging of situations - the rehabilitation of bro culture central, ride-hailing mega-start-up Uber. 

Harvard Business School professor Frances Frei was hired by Uber’s founder Travis Kalanick in 2017, after whistleblower Susan Fowler’s blogs on the company’s toxic culture went viral. 

Here, she shares how you can tell if you’ve got an inclusion problem, and why we so often get diversity and inclusion the wrong way round.


“When I go into a company, I look at what thriving looks like. It’s usually some notion of achievement and some notion of sentiment, for example self-reported satisfaction. I’d look at whether every demographic is doing the same on achievement and the same on satisfaction. If there are stark differences between groups then you can talk all you want, but you definitely have a cultural problem.

“Diversity itself may lead to inclusion, though we very often see that it doesn’t. You can bring in different people, but it doesn’t mean you’ve created the conditions for them to thrive. While diversity needn’t lead to inclusion, inclusion almost always leads to diversity.

"If you’re inclusive, different people will want to join you because they can thrive. In that sense, when we call it diversity and inclusion, it’s exactly the wrong way around.

“The key to inclusion is that we learn to celebrate difference, which is tough because instinctively we celebrate sameness. If you say something I was going to say, I might say ‘awesome, yes, that’s exactly what I think’, which means I’ve just celebrated sameness and taken a step away from inclusion.

“If you say something I’d never have thought of, that’s super valuable. So it’s a question of how you distribute your Scooby snacks [praise], to people who are like me and think like me or people who are different? If you redistribute from sameness to difference, you will see inclusion skyrocket.”

Image credit: Rich Fury/Getty Images

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