Practical analysis for investment professionals
05 October 2018

Building an Inclusive Work Culture

Culture is key to creating a diverse and inclusive workplace, one in which everyone feels valued.

But what does a culture of inclusion look like? And what steps can leaders take to ensure that they are being inclusive?

These were among the questions that Lori Nishiura Mackenzie, executive director of the Clayman Institute at Stanford University, tackled in her presentation at the CFA Institute Diversity and Inclusion 2018 Conference. She encouraged delegates to shape the culture around them by developing and practicing inclusive mindsets and breaking down barriers to inclusion.

The first step is understanding the role that culture plays within an organization.

“Culture is set by the organization,” Mackenzie explained. “It’s a global priority. It’s something that the entire office or the entire organization aligns behind. Yet culture is not experienced at that level. It’s experienced in the one-on-one relationships you have: what your manager says to you, what your teammates say to you, or even how your clients treat you. While culture is a global priority, it’s an individual accountability.”

What exactly does “an individual accountability” mean?

Even if we are not in charge of setting the organizational culture, we can still help create one where everyone feels valued, she said. To do so, we must be “curators of culture,” that is, curators of the everyday experience of our organizational culture.

“In our one-on-one relations, there might be authority. We might have rewards that we can give out fairly, like promotions, salary increases, and bonuses. But on our teams, the rewards are different,” she said. “They’re whether our ideas are valued, whether we’re heard, and whether we’re recognized for all that we have to contribute.”Handbook on Sustainable Investing

Inclusive Mindsets

To curate culture, it’s important to focus on inclusive mindsets. Three mindsets, in particular, promote inclusive leadership, according to Mackenzie:

1. Assume Good Intent

Most behavioral biases are implicitly generated: They are not conscious or intentional, Mackenzie said. So the first step to new understanding is to assume good intent and not start out suspecting bias.

“I’m going to assume that you are trying to evaluate people fairly. You’re trying to include people fairly on your team,” she said.

It’s also important to ask questions to get to new solutions rather than make statements about what we see and what we think someone is doing.

This helps create what’s called psychological safety. “Psychological safety is ‘We will debate ideas, but my position in the organization is safe,'” she explained. “‘If I disagree with you, it doesn’t mean that there are some career repercussions.’”

2. Practice “Small” Wins

It is very tempting to say, “Let’s overhaul everything. Let’s come down with these new directives. Let’s jump right into it,” Mackenzie said. But small wins help people catch up and change their behaviors.

“Sometimes we’re dismissive of those small, everyday interactions,” she said. “Those small, everyday interactions can be the 10,000 reasons why someone eventually decides to leave. Or they could be the small, everyday wins we’re enacting that has someone say, ‘Yes, I see you. I value you. I’m going to make sure your contribution is recognized in our organization.’”

Think small. Is there one little action you can take each day to recognize the contributions of someone who might be overlooked? Or highlight an action or behavior everyone appreciates and make sure it’s recognized as part of your culture?

3. Foster Curiosity

Curiosity is an important skill to develop.

“What you see about someone is only the tip of the iceberg,” Mackenzie said. Being curious about others and understanding who is in your workplace, what makes them tick, and what you can do to help them thrive contributes to an inclusive environment.

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Bias often gets in the way.

Mackenzie said people ask her whether inclusion means everyone feels a certain way in a workplace.

But inclusion isn’t about feeling.

“At the heart of what most people want is to be recognized for what they’re doing at work,” Mackenzie said. “Valuing people fairly, informally valuing their contributions in team meetings, and formally hiring, promotion, performance management” — that is what contributes to inclusion.

How do you value people fairly?

“Like an optical illusion, bias colors your evaluation of talent before you even know it,” she said.

She gave a simple example: If you hear the word “academy” coming from a male-sounding voice, you’re likely to think about higher education. If it emanates from a female-sounding voice, however, you may be more inclined to think it refers to the Academy Awards.

No one is gender or race blind and bias is an error in decision making. “In a millisecond,” Mackenzie said, “gender colors what we see about somebody.”

Beware Meritocracy

Mackenzie also warned of the perils of meritocracy, which she defined as “an ideal where all ideas and individuals are hired, recognized and rewarded, and promoted on their accomplishments” — in other words, that every person is truly valued for exactly what they contribute to a workplace.

She said cognitive science shows that we make all sorts of mistakes in our judgments.

Given that these mistakes are subconscious, she doubts whether a meritocracy is achievable. Moreover, believing in meritocracy creates greater potential for bias.

“If you believe your organization is meritocratic, you as an individual leader will open the door to being more biased because you’re no longer self scrutinizing your own decision making,” she explained.

The result is what she called the paradox of meritocracy: “When managers work for meritocratic organizations, they believe they are more impartial, and thus (unknowingly) give themselves permission to act on their biases.”

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Words Matter

Culture is transmitted and maintained largely through language. The words we use reflect what the culture values, according to Mackenzie.

“The word choices we make are what maintain and replicate your culture every day,” she explained. “Saying what you value, saying why someone’s a great contributor, saying what you like about your CEO — all those things tell people what your culture really values.”

And words come in two categories, Mackenzie said: communal and agentic.

Imagine you’re up for a promotion. You did an amazing job this year in a client-facing role. You can describe your contribution to your boss in one of two ways to get the promotion: You can say either, “I collaborated with the top customer,” or “I drove top sales.” Which do you choose?

“I collaborated with the top customer,” is communal language, or the language of “we.” It’s a language of collaboration.

“I drove top sales,” on the other hand, is agentic. It says, “I have agency to act independently.” It’s a language of “I.”

“The stereotypes about leadership overlap with agency,” Mackenzie said. “When we think promotion, we think agency. Even though we value all, the stereotype predicts that agentic words will get you a promotion. It’s how we’ve been raised in our culture.”

Here’s the rub for women: “The stereotype of women overlaps with communal. The stereotype of men overlaps with agentic,” she said. “When we’re making snap judgments about people’s qualifications, it’s easy to see men as leaders. Women often go through increased scrutiny.”

That’s why it’s important to “rewrite” your organization’s success narrative to value both agentic and communal language.

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All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.

Image courtesy of Nicola Laing

About the Author(s)
Lauren Foster

Lauren Foster was a content director on the professional learning team at CFA Institute and host of the Take 15 Podcast. She is the former managing editor of Enterprising Investor and co-lead of CFA Institute’s Women in Investment Management initiative. Lauren spent nearly a decade on staff at the Financial Times as a reporter and editor based in the New York bureau, followed by freelance writing for Barron’s and the FT. Lauren holds a BA in political science from the University of Cape Town, and an MS in journalism from Columbia University.

1 thought on “Building an Inclusive Work Culture”

  1. James Ware says:

    Lauren, really nice piece on an important subject. You might want to check out our website ( ) as there are a number of white papers about culture in the investment world. again, nicely done. best, Jim Ware, CFA

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