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Linking Theory + Practice: Smart Collaboration

Heidi Gardner, a distinguished fellow at Harvard Law School and former professor at Harvard Business School, joins Brad Winn to discuss the biggest &traps& that inhibit smart collaboration, plus ideas for building truly inclusive team cultures.

Silhouettes of people in different colors on a colorful background.

The Illusion of Inclusion:
Four Traps That Undermine Authentic Diversity​

In recent years, many boards and executive teams have made notable progress diversifying. Both before and after George Floyd's death and the subsequent racial reckoning, these groups have brought in more women, people of color and individuals from other underrepresented groups.

For example, in 2022 women held 28 percent of the Russell 3000 company board seats, up from 26 percent in 2021 and 23 percent in 2020. Also promising is the fact that in 2022, 140 companies in the S&P 500 had a combination of women and people of color who made up more than half of the directors in the boardroom. Additionally, many European countries have mandated that at least 40 percent of directors of publicly listed companies be women.

Clearly, much work remains to be done in diversifying the top layers of leadership in today's companies. But just as important is the task of ensuring that these individuals are included in decision-making. When organizations do not practice true inclusion, diversity efforts can actually backfire. This article looks at the various ways that mismanaged diversity undermines inclusive collaboration, and we will provide research-backed approaches for senior leaders and board members to overcome the illusion of inclusion.

Mismanaged Diversification

The threat of mismanaged diversity efforts is alive and well in corporations around the world. While numerous studies show a correlation between companies with diverse leadership and business success, an even greater number of studies show that a nonstrategic or poorly managed approach to diversity can negatively affect performance. 

One possible dysfunctional team outcome is that employees become fearful of conflict, so they stop communicating or only talk with others similar to them. As a result, the group fractures instead of collaborating. This phenomenon is documented in "What Differences Make a Difference? The Promise and Reality of Diverse Teams in Organizations," an article in Psychological Science in the Public Interest by Elizabeth Mannix and Margaret Neale.  

Appointing people from underrepresented groups will not result in expected positive outcomes if they encounter hostile or noncollaborative team cultures. Real inclusivity requires leaders to engage in the skillful art and science of smart collaboration. Exclusionary cultures often go unnoticed by the majority but can be painfully apparent to certain team members who may withdraw or forego sharing their knowledge and perspectives. 

Traps That Inhibit True Collaboration

In the following section we dig deeper into the top collaboration "traps" that inhibit smart collaboration, and we suggest ideas for building truly inclusive team cultures.

Collaboration Trap 1: Tokenism

Women, people of color and individuals from other underrepresented groups are increasingly pulled into projects and onto teams. But this doesn't mean they are meaningfully contributing to the team's work. We often find that these individuals are assigned small pieces of work that don't allow them to develop skills or forge strong relationships with clients and more senior colleagues. These "token" teammates are leveraged for busy work and excluded from being part of the "room where it happens." 

This was reflected in the research of MIT scientist Ben Waber, who examined a combination of email, calendar and chat data across a well-regarded corporation in which about half of the employees were women. He found that in many divisions, both genders were equally likely to be "in the room" for important meetings. But in one unit with more than 1,000 employees, women were only invited to 5 percent of these critical meetings. One female leader we spoke with succinctly summed up the feeling of being a token collaborator: "I felt like I was warming up to be on the sidelines but was never put in the game." 

Collaboration Trap 2: Mini-Me-ism

Homophily is the basic human tendency to form connections with people who are like you—those with the same age, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, personal beliefs, and so on—which leads people to exclude others. So even if you are surrounded by people who are different, you gravitate toward those who are like you, prefer those who are like you and offer the best opportunities to those like you.

Within professional services firms, homophily is often at play in succession planning. A recent study by researchers at Simon Fraser University ("Passing on Power in Professional Partnerships," 2019) has revealed that men are far more likely to be selected as the lead partner for the firm's existing clients, essentially handing them a book of business. Women, on the other hand, must build their revenue by attracting new clients (see chart below).

Professionals often think they're handing off business to the most deserving candidate—the one inspiring the most trust in the client. But what often happens is they are creating opportunities for their "mini-me," who is often a white male of a certain age with a particular manner of dressing and comportment.chart.png

Collaboration Trap 3: Fear of Conflict

Poorly managed diversity often makes people afraid of conflict, causing them to stop communicating with a larger group and instead only talk with those who are like them. One common scenario is managers who stifle conflict when it presents itself, as opposed to allowing it to shape a fruitful dialogue. 

One manager told us, "I'm open to challenge. But do it with me one-on-one, not in the team meetings." While there is a time and place for one-on-one meetings, removing conflict from larger discussions discourages inclusive participation and the many benefits it brings, including more comprehensive solutions from having viewed a problem from many angles. 

Lack of conflict in larger groups may also risk creating a back-room culture in which side deals get cut. That's the opposite of inclusivity. Members of a dominant group might band together to determine the course of a project, for instance, or new hires commiserate and plan their next career move. 

Collaboration Trap 4: Drowning Out

Drowning out means people interrupt others or keep them from participating, either on purpose or inadvertently. This phenomenon was studied in the national parliaments of Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada, where women members of Parliament were interrupted more frequently than their male participants. This led many women—both those who had been interrupted and their peers who were afraid of being shut down—to stop participating in floor debate and discussion. 

Silence in a governmental context has dire consequences: Members who don't participate are less effective at representing their constituents' interest. And in a business environment, it also means that fewer voices are heard and integrated into decision-making.

When drowning out and associated behaviors are not called out, discussed and resolved, they tend to become culturally acceptable, causing long-term organizational dysfunction that negatively affects employees, constituents, customers, partners and other stakeholder groups.

Promoting Inclusive Team Cultures

Taking DE&I efforts to the next level requires senior leaders to move from focusing on diverse composition to diverse contribution. This occurs as organizations promote inclusion and collaboration from junior levels through middle management, executive leadership teams and boards. They do this best by addressing two overarching categories: 1) measuring and monitoring effects across the organization and 2) building an inclusive learning culture. 

Measure and Monitor Effects Across the Organization

To succeed at inclusion, leaders must measure results. For example, beyond tracking the representation of various groups in the workforce, it's important to measure whether the people in those groups are actively engaged in the core work of the organization. Some key questions to ask include:

  • What types of work are different kinds of people spending time on? 
  • How many people are included in core work, and are thereby in a position to make real contributions? 
  • Who is reaching out to the broader organization, and how extensively do their peers respond? (Digital workplace platforms, email and calendars contain extensive data on who is communicating or meeting with whom, and how often. Other sources for information include timesheet records, project rosters and project management databases.)

It's also important to set goals around inclusive collaboration and contribution—and then track those goals. For example, if it's apparent that only a small minority are assigned significant work that results in real contributions, a new metric may be required for that area. Then scorecards and dashboards can be leveraged to measure progress against your goals, create a healthy sense of competition among peers and make critical information accessible. A good rule of thumb is to err on the side of oversharing inclusion-related data to make the process more transparent.

Organizations also need to assess people's subjective experiences of inclusion: Do they feel they are valued, respected and listened to? For this effort, they can use tools like Gartner's Inclusion Index, pulse surveys and sentiment analysis, which uses technology to identify and characterize opinions expressed in text or phone calls to pinpoint individuals' attitude about a particular topic. From this data they can develop and implement strategies that are likely to have the most impact.

Build and Nurture an Inclusive Learning Culture

An inclusive learning culture encourages curiosity, explorations and a genuine interest in other points of view. An organization with this approach seeks out diverse viewpoints, avoiding the collaboration traps discussed earlier. This has been confirmed by Harvard professors Robin Ely and David Thomas, whose groundbreaking research shows that a learning culture directly promotes inclusivity.

Yet, many leaders don't seem to value this kind of culture, and those preferences trickle down to middle managers and employees. Research by Francesco Gino at Harvard Business School found that only one-quarter of people reported feeling curious about their work, and 70 percent said they faced barriers to asking more questions at work.

Here are three important questions to ask about leaders:

  • Are your leaders encouraging the curiosity that underpins an inclusive learning culture?
  • Do they give and receive constructive feedback?
  • Are they open and approachable?

The last question is key: When leaders open up about their experiences—including those involving race, disability or gender identity—they are encouraging others to do the same. This helps foster an environment of psychological safety in which people feel they can share their unique perspectives, admit mistakes and challenge others. 

Think about a particular life experience that might be considered a weakness, such as living in poverty during your early adulthood. Is your work environment such that people would be accepted for sharing this story?

Curiosity can also be extended to mentorships. One analysis suggested that women and people of color viewed their mentors more as providing monitoring or another unhelpful intervention. This indicates that mentors need to know how to mentor across differences and understanding the specific issues faced by underrepresented minorities.

For instance, organizations could hold discussions on a smaller community level, followed by focused discussions at multiple levels of the organization to promote inclusivity. Learning, growth and inclusion can also be nurtured through reverse mentoring programs, where junior people are invited to offer advice to senior leaders in the company.


Many people are now reflecting on how far society has come since the death of George Floyd and ensuing efforts to promote greater racial equality. 

One place in which racist practices still manifest themselves is in workplaces, where people of underrepresented races aren't given a real platform for meaningfully contributing to important work. 

Leaders that overcome the illusion of inclusivity move from a focus on diverse composition to diverse contribution. And they do this through smart collaboration. 

Organizational cultures that are grounded on real inclusivity—a form of smart collaboration—are more likely to call on the right people at the right time (regardless of their place in the formal hierarchy), to value unorthodox contributions and to give employees from diverse backgrounds more opportunities to engage in higher-value work.

Dr. Heidi K. Gardner is a Distinguished Fellow at Harvard Law School and former professor at Harvard Business School. She is currently the faculty chair and instructor in multiple executive education programs at both institutions. She is a sought-after advisor, keynote speaker and facilitator for organizations globally.

Brad Winn, Ph.D., is a Leadership Practice Professor at the Covey Leadership Center and the Executive MBA Director in the Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University. He serves as a Senior Editor for People + Strategy and is the Principal of Winn Consulting Solutions. He can be reached at


  • Gender Diversity Index: Third Quarter 2022 Key Findings, report by 50/50 Women on Boards, September 2022.
  • 2022 Proxy Season Digest, ISS Corporate Solutions, August 2022. 
  • Mannix, E. and M. Neale, “What Differences Make a Difference? The Promise and Reality of Diverse Teams in Organizations,” Psychological Science in the Public Interest, October 2005.  
  • Turban, S., L. Freeman and B. Waber, “A Study Used Sensors to Show That Men and Women Are Treated Differently at Work,”, October 23, 2017.
  • Gardner, H., F. Briscoe and A. von Nordenflycht, “Passing on power in professional partnerships: Do discrimination and homophily help explain internal transfers to client relationships?” Simon Fraser University, 2019.
  • Collier, C.N. and T. Raney, “Understanding Sexism and Sexual Harassment in Politics: A Comparison of Westminster Parliaments in Australia, the United Kingdom, and Canada,” Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State and Society, No. 3 (2018): 432–455.
  • Baker, M. “3 Steps to Sustainable Diversity and Inclusion Strategies,” Gartner report, October 30, 2019. 
  • Ely, R.J., and D.A. Thomas, “Cultural Diversity at Work: The Effects of Diversity Perspectives on Work Group Processes and Outcomes,” Administrative Science Quarterly 46, no. 2 (2001): 229–273.
  • Ignatius, A., “Cultivate Curiosity,” Harvard Business Review, September–October 2018.


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