Part IV of the series The Illusion of Inclusion

By Helen Turnbull, PhD

In my last article, I talked about the affinity bias conundrum and our propensity to surround ourselves with people who make us comfortable. Yet another piece of the inclusion puzzle is hidden in plain sight: Assimilation.

Assimilation is defined as the need to adjust our style to fit within the dominant organizational and/or cultural norms. There are a myriad of ways in which this appears, but three of the most common are feedback, distancing,
and collusion.

First, a disclaimer: The need to fit in to society, organizations, and groups is not all bad and, in fact, is necessary to avoid anarchy and chaos. However, for the purposes of this topic, I am scratching beneath the surface, peeking under the covers, and lifting the ends of the carpet to see how much dust is really there.


Have you ever been told that you need to tone it down? Can you use your inside voice? Be less aggressive? Demonstrate more presence? Have more gravitas? Don’t be so pushy? Be more assertive? You are too shy, speak up more, etc.? It is not always easy to digest performance feedback, but the raison d’etre is pretty straightforward and self-explanatory. Or is it? Let’s dig a little deeper.

Somewhere between home and work we put on our “work face”—we don’t think about it, we just do it. When we first join an organization, we quickly learn to read the norms of our organizational culture and, if we are going to survive and thrive, there are many ways in which we seamlessly adjust our style to fit in. All of us have to adjust our personal style to fit in at work. But as one of my client colleagues said, “I don’t want to have to turn myself into a pretzel every day in order to be accepted.”

Throughout our career, we get our share of performance feedback, both directly and indirectly, formally and informally, solicited and unsolicited. Our human tendency is to ignore the positives and focus on the “development opportunities” that fundamentally tell us that we need to change something about who we are in order to fit in. Developmental feedback can often make us feel defensive, insecure, and dejected, and we usually have to work hard to rationalize the story by convincing ourselves that it really is for our own good.

However, there is feedback and there is feedback. From the stories I have heard through the years, there is a pattern around feedback that makes it more than the sum of its parts. There is feedback that is helpful and developmental, and then there is feedback that appears to have a stickiness quality and hints of confirmation bias.

For example, my research results show that men are more likely to be described as exhibiting leadership qualities, and being assertive and career driven. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to be described as lacking gravitas or being too pushy. When I think about feedback through the lens of diversity and inclusion, I often ponder:

  • Is it possible that some of the feedback is a product of unconscious bias? Is it possible that well-intentioned purveyors of feedback are not consciously aware that their preference for affinity bias influences their judgment about differences?
  • Is it possible that the mental models and stereotypes we carry about a group influence our thinking in the direction of confirmation bias (i.e., looking to confirm what I already believe)?
  • Is it possible that, when you receive this kind of feedback, that you view it through the lens of your gender, culture, or race and not just as a development opportunity? And that it is the same feedback many of your social identity group colleagues receive? When do you know if it is real, valid, or an unconscious gender bias?


Another piece of the puzzle, distancing, pulls us away from our own social identity group.
For example, a number of years ago I had a conversation with a senior leader who told me that every morning he walked the floor of his research lab and made a point to say good morning to all of his employees. Then, he paused and added, “Except for one group—I never say good morning to the people from my own culture as I am fearful of being accused of favoritism.”

In another conversation, a colleague shared that she never feels comfortable talking about her own group. She sometimes feels ashamed to admit her country of origin, she said, because she didn’t want to be associated with the poverty it represents. A gay colleague once told me that he judges people in his group on whether they are out, out in a limited way, or fully out. He aligns himself only with people who are fully out.

Can you relate to this? Do you have attitudes and beliefs that live inside your head and manifest in you judging or distancing yourself from your own group?


Have you ever adjusted what you were about to say because you sensed the listener was not going to be receptive? When we sense that we are in precarious situations, we become adept at scanning our environment and reading the nuances and the subtle shifts in facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. We listen for certain phrases that raise red flags, and then we imperceptibly shift our style and adjust what we are saying in order to accommodate the other person and keep ourselves politically safe. We do not necessarily agree with the speaker, but we recognize the warning signals and realize that, if we want to live to fight another day, then we need to smooth over the situation.

Collusion in the context of assimilation is the process of adjusting our style to ensure that we keep ourselves politically safe and that we keep members of the dominant culture comfortable. Over the years I have witnessed many instances where people have accommodated others in the conversation, while all the time knowing that they held a different view, but felt the person was not ready to hear it.

A few years ago, Roosevelt Thomas used the parable of the elephant and a giraffe: If you build a house suitable for an elephant, a giraffe will have a hard time fitting in. I would offer an added dimension: If a giraffe had to turn itself into a pretzel to fit into the elephant’s house, I think we would notice, but if the giraffe were shrinking just a little bit every time we interacted with it, we might not spot it happening.

The question is, how much energy, creativity, and passion do we lose when the giraffe has shrunk its boundaries to fit in? Could we be more productive, more innovative, and more creative if we made the box we play in bigger and allowed more space for differences?

Helen Turnbull, PhD

Helen Turnbull, PhD

Dr. Helen Turnbull is the CEO of Human Facets LLC and a world recognized thought leader in global inclusion and diversity. She is a member of the Academy of Management, American Psychological Association, American Sociological Association and American Society for Phenomenology; The Neuro-Science Institute for Leaders and the OD Network. Her latest book is “Blind spots: A conversation with Dr. Turnbull about Unconscious Bias”. In May 2013, she spoke at TEDx on “The Illusion of Inclusion” and has recently developed a new model on the complexity of embedding an inclusive workplace culture.