Africa is the world’s most ethnically diverse continent, with the youngest population, and the highest percentage of women (more than 50%). But, as has been shown over centuries, diversity (when not understood and appreciated) can lead to increased intergroup hatred, conflict, marginalisation and exploitation. On the contrary, diversity can also be a source of creativity and innovation, improved problem-solving and decision-making, increased adaptability and resilience, expanded learning opportunities, team effectiveness, and strengthening of social cohesion and harmony.
My perspective on cultural power dynamics has been comprehensively shaped by not only growing up in a cross-cultural family in Namibia and South Africa during the apartheid era, but also by living and working in six different countries on three continents, and extensive international travel. I have seen time and time again that, depending on our perspective, cultural diversity can either be regarded as a problem to be avoided, or it can be fostered for individual, organisational, and societal flourishing.
Cultural diversity in and of itself though does not produce flourishing. Leveraging the power of diversity lies in our ability to be inclusive of that diversity. This is critical for Africa as we develop as a continent, and as we engage with global partners.
Clarifying terminology: diversity and inclusion
The field of Diversity, Inclusion, Equity and Justice is still emerging and constantly evolving. Simply put, diversity refers to the visible and invisible differences between people and groups. These include differences in race, nationality, gender, generation, socioeconomic status, religion, language/s and level of education.
There is a critical difference, however, between merely having diversity in an organisation’s workforce, and leveraging diversity as a powerful resource. Organisational emphasis on diversity while ignoring inclusion can lead to minority staff members assimilating into the dominant culture and adopting facades of conformity – rather than expressing their uniqueness in work situations.
Organisational inclusion can be defined “as creating an environment that acknowledges, welcomes and accepts different approaches, styles, perspectives and experiences, to allow all to reach their potential and result in enhanced organisational success”. Though overlapping and sometimes used interchangeably, diversity and inclusion have key differences – therefore clarifying the meaning of these two terms is helpful.
Select differences between diversity and inclusion
|Focuses on organisational structure and composition||Focuses on the extent of meaningful participation of all employees|
|Is an unavoidable aspect of most work groups and organisations||Embraces this ‘unavoidable aspect’ by appreciating people because of and not despite of their diversity|
|Can be mandated and legislated||Stems from voluntary actions|
|Focuses on increased recruitment from minority groups||Focuses on removal of barriers to enable high performance from all employees|
When organisations create space for uniqueness, employees can more fully contribute their diverse talents, skills and insights to better achieve the organisation’s objectives.
However, leaders require awareness, commitment, intentionality, and courage to overcome the challenges of diversity, addressing barriers to inclusion, and fulfilling the promise of inclusion. This includes making “radical changes in… both structure and culture of most organisations – in their policies and practices, the skills and styles of their leaders, and the day-to-day interaction among all of their people”.
Typically, organisations that engage diversity and inclusion do so for one for the following three reasons:
Focuses on the cultural diversity of the organisation’s target groups and argues that the organisation needs to mirror the diversity of its target markets to gain access and legitimacy to these markets.
Focuses on diversity as a moral imperative, meaning that the organisation believes in promoting equality in opportunities, justice, and fairness.
Recognises the insights, skills and experiences that employees have developed as members of various cultural identity groups as potentially valuable resources. Focuses on using these resources to rethink its primary tasks and redefine its markets, products, strategies, and business practices in ways that will better achieve its objectives.
All three of these reasons are valid, but the integration-and-learning perspective holds the most significant potential. It enables organisations to tap into and engage the diverse experiences and knowledge of all their employees, thereby enabling them to do the organisation’s core work more effectively.
But just how far does inclusion go?
Christianity is at its heart a message of inclusion of all people into the kingdom of God (Romans 11:12). In some circles though, diversity and inclusion have become closely associated with identity and gender politics, which has been met with resistance by others. Debates on inclusion, particularly regarding people with non-traditional sexual identities, have escalated and raised concerns that inclusion means a ‘blanket acceptance’ of all differences.
This poses the question: is there a danger of being ‘overinclusive’ or are there ‘legitimate’ boundaries? The reality is that in any context of meaningful human interaction (e.g. in any legal transaction, playing sports games, even something as simple as buying groceries), certain boundaries are implicit, otherwise the interaction would cease to be meaningful.
Any organisation seeking to foster inclusion therefore has to clarify its own boundaries, which are generally already reflected in its vision, mission and values. If it is a Christian organisation, its boundaries would also be informed by biblical statements of faith.
What is important though, is that this process of establishing boundaries must be inclusive, for it too can lead to exclusion based on the biases and power of those who control the setting and maintenance of boundaries.
How to foster greater inclusion
It is important to determine the organisation’s ‘why’. Fostering inclusion is challenging and ongoing work, and without deep conviction, people give up.
It is important to define precisely what inclusion means within the context of the organisation. They can decide to use different terms, or even to focus only on particular dimensions of diversity.
Senior leaders need to communicate the vision consistently and intentionally. Without an empowered champion at senior level who promotes inclusion, talks about it, and implements it strategically and systemically – it will not succeed in the long term.
The way the organisation views leadership is a critical driver in the process. For example, if displaying decisive individual leadership and being articulate in English are highly valued traits in senior leadership roles, this inevitably limits opportunities for those from cultural backgrounds where those traits are inessential.
When one particular group (or person) is always dominating, setting the agenda, and dismissing divergent views, an organisation cannot become inclusive. An enabling environment where there is humility, mutual respect, mutual trust, and a sense of interdependence, is essential.
Intercultural training at all levels of the organisation helps to raise awareness, develop intercultural skills, and create a common ‘language’. Again, the process needs to include a diversity of trainers, worldviews, resources and methods utilised.
Organisations are founded by leaders within a particular era and context. This moment both positively and negatively influenced the leaders’ worldview, the foundations on which the organisations were built, and embedded certain ways of working. In some ways, all people are products of their time.
Fostering an inclusive organisation therefore requires courageous conversations that emphasise relationships and diversity of input, and embraces ambiguity. There is no one-size-fits-all approach for organisations. Inclusion is a journey that requires an adaptive, learning posture and a commitment to continuous organisational growth, rather than being a final destination.
Growing up in a cross-cultural home, Reinhold Titus has lived in six countries on three continents, and has travelled to more than 60 countries. As a speaker and facilitator, he focuses on team-building and cultural awareness, as coach he supports organisations in their diversity and inclusion programmes, and he also runs an expat relocation programme. He received his Masters degree with distinction (University of Gloucestershire, UK), and holds several qualifications in Strategy, Workforce Diversity and Global Leadership in Intercultural Contexts.
 Winters, M.F. (2014) ‘From Diversity to Inclusion: An Inclusion Equation’, in Ferdman, B. M. and Deane, B. (eds.) Diversity at Work: The Practice of Inclusion
 Miller, F.A. and Katz, J.H. (2002) The Inclusion Breakthrough: Unleashing the Real Power of Diversity. Berret-Koehler
 Ely, R.J. and Thomas, D.A. (2001) ‘Cultural Diversity at Work: The Effects of Diversity Perspectives on Work Group Processes and Outcomes’, Administrative Science Quarterly