For most of my adult life I’ve been researching and writing about workplace diversity, beginning with mostly gender issues, then expanding to broader issues surrounding inclusive workplace practices. All of these have important implications for Talent Management, whether it be recruitment, engagement, succession, leadership or retention.

As someone from the United States, I focused on certain types of diversity—often visible signs of diversity—like gender, race, and physical differences. Yet, the more I research and learn, the more I understand that there are a vast number of ways in which diversity is not immediately visible; there are ways in which we can inadvertently exclude others if we’re not aware of the probability of hidden differences.

The most obvious examples of hidden differences are religion and sexual orientation—both of which are private dimensions of our being, and yet can be an enormous impediment to our sense of “belonging” if colleagues and workplaces seem negative or exclude certain groups. But there are many other hidden differences that can also create this impediment, such as cultural differences, thinking styles and learning styles. In other words, everyone has hidden differences!

The Importance of Including the Whole Person

We’ve learned that in order to get the best results in any intellectual endeavor, we benefit from various perspectives, opinions and solutions. The secret is to marshal those attributes and gain the ability to solicit the best thinking of each individual. Integrating that diversity of thought with a cohesive business strategy—all while respecting each person—leads to the vast benefits we’ve cited in many blogs and research papers. You can learn more about how to successfully collaborate with diverse people with RW3’s Global Inclusion Course.

Now, conferring a sense of belonging may sound easy, but it’s really not. As we think about hidden diversity, keep the following in mind:

  • People from different cultures are taught to think differently,
  • People learn in various ways and some individuals learn best in uncommon ways, and
  • All individuals have different ways of expressing themselves.

Those realities can lead to either breakthrough plans or non-productive, chaotic interactions. Being able to create an inclusive environment that welcomes all forms of diversity is a continuing challenge. Let’s examine these a little bit further.

How Hidden Differences in Manifest in the Workplace

Let’s look at learning styles, for example. People in France are taught to think “the French way,” which is a problem-solving method taught to all French school children. With that, they tend to value elegant language and discourse. Chinese students are taught to write letters in a very methodical way. By contrast, American school children are taught to express themselves in creative ways that emphasize direct and self-referential expression.

On top of cultural learning styles, all individuals absorb information in different ways, and everyone has different ability levels when it comes to receiving and communicating information. Some do their best with visual communication; others with written communication. All of this is further complicated by the various ways people express themselves.

When all of those hidden differences confront each other in the workplace, an effective inclusive leader must create an environment where everyone feels comfortable expressing themselves. But it’s more than that: In an inclusive workplace, everyone actively learns to respect each other’s different styles, regardless of the way they’re presented.

So why does this matter? Heightened awareness of hidden characteristics in an inclusive workplace mean that all people feel that their opinions are valued and heard. When everyone learns to respect and work with different learning and thinking styles, the group can successfully incorporate more diverse insight and information—leading to benefits like innovative ideas, more engagement and greater employee retention.

Here’s What You Can Do To Be Inclusive Despite Hidden Differences

  • Keeping in mind that some differences are invisible, try to find ways to accommodate people who communicate best in writing.
  • Give people advance notice of what’s going to be discussed and ask them to prepare their thoughts.
  • Allow time for individuals to write post-meeting communications that define their challenges and next steps. The goal is to be sure that everyone understands and contributes to the best of their ability. If the common way of presenting issues/ideas doesn’t allow them to contribute fully, encourage other avenues of contribution and communication.
  • Create a respectful corporate culture. In our experience, the best way to capitalize on hidden differences is to create a corporate culture where people are allowed to A) complete a thought without being challenged or interrupted, and B) express themselves through a variety of mediums. This encourages listening and allows people to flex their communication styles beyond their comfort zones.
  • In a meeting, it can help to have a group leader ask a team member to articulate the suggestions and recommendations just made by another colleague. The idea is to communicate the original thought in another person’s language and lens, assuring that ideas and opinions are understood.

Of course physical signs of diversity are the most obvious, but our differences go much deeper than that. Even people who grew up in the same culture can have a number of hidden differences that can impact the way they work together. But as long as employees can feel free to be themselves in an inclusive environment, all elements of diversity have the potential to come together and lay the groundwork for a high performing team.

Learn more about our new global inclusion course.