• Marisa Guerin

Resisting the Tyranny of Inclusion in Organizations

Updated: Apr 12, 2018

Marisa Guerin, PhD - March 5, 2018

Engagement, teamwork, participation and a sense of belonging are good, right? It’s important to involve people in the decisions that affect them, isn’t it? Or can there be such a thing as too much inclusion?

Yes! Sometimes people go overboard with an excessive sensitivity to the participation of everyone in everything – which is neither necessary nor helpful to an organization. It’s what some call “the tyranny of inclusion.”

For this short reflection, I am not taking us in the direction of exclusion; instead, I’m going to explore the realistic value of working with differences. The distinction is important.

Individuals in a community or on a team have different personal identities, roles, histories, needs, skills and interests. And especially when the organization is deeply committed to creating an inclusive culture, it is correspondingly important to be able to recognize the rich variations within the shared identity that binds the members. Honoring the distinctions in realistic ways means some people get to do or decide or discuss things that others don’t. The resulting teamwork is more powerful for it.

This is a counter-intuitive insight, however.

I have noticed that some organizations with strong espoused values about collegiality experience discomfort, or tension, or guilt in the face of real differences, especially if there is an underlying concern not to perpetuate inequality or power differentials. Instead of working with their realities and appreciating the ‘gifts differing’, some of these cultures operate under a default value of inclusion with a rigidity that borders on tyranny. Unless they are willing to examine what drives this assumption, they will miss the paradoxical insight that a group becomes capable of its best precisely through capitalizing on relevant differences for the common good.

For the formal reference in a nutshell, we know from classical organization theory: (1) that systems need enough differentiation internally to be able to respond effectively to their environment as they pursue their mission, (2) and that the more differentiated the group, the more they need forms of integrating their work, 3) and finally, that you can’t jump to integrating something that hasn’t been clearly enough differentiated to start with. (P.R.Lawrence and J.W.Lorsch, Organization and Environment, 1967, Harvard Business School)

So – when it’s working right, an organization generates various processes or teams or roles for different purposes, and then it makes sure to coordinate collective action when needed. For example, a national organization might give a fair amount of latitude to a dispersed network of small teams who are building up local membership activities without second-guessing every decision they make; and at the same time, the organization would ensure that there are meetings or cross-regional committees that keep everyone sufficiently well-informed and able to consult with one another as needed. Such a well-balanced system depends on trust and on the willingness of members to respect the authorization and stewardship of others in the areas under their responsibility.

In the attempt to balance differentiation and integration, there are two risks of error – one is too tight, the other is too loose. The first error is “under-differentiation” – that is, involving everyone in everything or setting up far too many teams or groups or managerial roles for coordinating things. The result is slower action and less empowered people, and confusion about decision authority. (Some healthcare and government systems come to mind.)

The other error is “under-integration” – having lots of distinctive roles or delegated responsibilities but failing to make sure that individual efforts are coordinated for the greater good. The result is wasted or redundant resources, missed opportunities, and people who feel isolated or only weakly affiliated with their organization. (Some grass-roots activists and justice networks might fit this description.)

Obviously, the potential for the “tyranny of inclusion” to appear is with the first error, under-differentiation. The word “tyranny” offers a clue to the fact that this dynamic is not logical but emotional. When the value placed on equal voice or consensus in decision making becomes absolute, it may be a sign of over-reaction to a past history of authoritarian leadership, or a fear of the dehumanizing or corrupt dynamics that can be observed in some business settings, or an anxiety on the part of those in leadership when it comes to taking up the risks assigned to their roles.

As well, the desire for inclusion can be an unconscious defense against the anxiety of recognizing actual differences in the status, power, or authority of the members. For some in religious communities, any discussion of authority is fraught; there is a positive allergy to the idea. If that is that case, the rigorous attachment to inclusion on the part of members can serve to neutralize the rights or responsibilities of leaders. I am not referring here to the normal processes of consultation, discernment, and communal decision making that many communities employ, but rather to the situation one recognizes by the angst and tension that arises when a decision process becomes a subtle - or not so subtle - battle for control.

And yet another possible driver of the under-differentiation error, especially among US or white majority organizations, is the desire to demonstrate an espoused value of inclusion across race or culture even if the reasonable way to tackle the issue might call for differentiation.

For example, for some of my religious community clients, it was almost un-discussable to raise the possibility that leaders gathered in an international or inter-regional meeting might want to caucus in separate groups sometimes. The idea of working separately on some topics may feel like a violation of their deep values of unity and collaboration. It can be hard for them to register the fact that without making generous space for real differences, the unintended consequence is a blurring of the needs and uniqueness of BOTH parts. Furthermore, if the group as a whole is dominated by a US cultural style or social context, then the perspectives and voices of members who live in other countries will struggle to be appreciated on their own terms or may be unconsciously understood as “other” or “not the norm”. This has obvious implications for the risk of unconscious bias and unacknowledged dynamics of race or other inequality among the parts.

The resistance to some differentiated space and opportunity for separate voices often comes from the dominant group, very possibly because in their strong desire to be united, they would rather not face the small or large differences that realistically need to be understood. Making it okay to have distinct perspectives and different prerogatives, AND THEN listening and integrating these differences into a respectful and creative solution for the whole leads, paradoxically, to exactly the feelings of solidarity that were the original hope...but, “You can’t get there from here” if you fear the reality of difference.

The same dynamic can be at play in the broader society when we think about how best to fulfill the promise of inclusion in the experience of workplace diversity with respect to culture, race, gender, faith, or class. Blindness to differences out of a desire for harmony does not work; what is more difficult but ultimately more enriching is an honest recognition of differences and a genuine valuing of those varied gifts.

How to resist the tyranny of inclusion in favor of the freedom to collaborate? By striking an authentic balance between respecting difference and embracing unity for the good of the whole.