Shared impact is an essential element of a genuinely inclusive organization.
“Diversity is being invited to the party, and inclusion is being asked to dance.” This statement, commonly heard in DEI circles, unwittingly reveals a key shortcoming in how many companies understand inclusion. The party belongs to an “owner” who decides who’s on the guest list and who gets to dance. Even when a diverse group is invited, the power still rests within a certain group or individual. But there is an alternative: a company where all employees have a say in whether to throw a party and who can attend, and where everyone can show off their moves without having to wait for someone else’s extended hand to head to the dance floor.
Ensuring that different perspectives from members of different groups are truly leveraged in organizational decision-making is critical for any company that is serious about promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion and, by extension, driving innovation and organizational performance. Specifically, based on our consulting and research on DEI for organizations across a variety of industries around the world, we believe that companies need to look critically at how and by whom decisions are made and to investigate whether ideas generated and expressed by employees who are part of different demographic groups all have an equal chance to affect organizational decision-making.
Many companies emphasize the importance of increasing diversity and inclusion in decision-making teams and promoting processes that encourage employees to express their differences in opinion. It is naive, however, to expect that once diversity is present and expressed, equity in decision-making will necessarily follow.
In other words, having a seat at the table does not mean that one’s expressed views and contributions will, in fact, be integrated into decision outcomes or crystallized in company actions. When such viewpoints have little or no real impact on decisions, diversity benefits for team and organizational decision outcomes may be lost, and underrepresented groups may struggle to feel included within their organizations.
Take, for example, this workplace experience that one woman of color shared:
I was at the monthly strategic management team meeting of my company. Managers once again encouraged everyone in the team to express their thoughts about a recent plan being pushed by top management to bring in external consultants. I felt supported by their inclusive approach and expressed some of my concerns and suggested an alternative plan. The manager turned to me to say how much he appreciated my input. Then he turned to the room and announced that we were moving forward as planned. Was I hurt? Maybe. But mostly, I felt played and kept asking myself, “Do I still want to be part of this company?”
How differences in opinion, perspectives, and inputs influence decision-making outcomes is inherently tied with power and politics. Members of underrepresented groups, such as women and racial minorities, are at a disadvantage because their inputs may often go unnoticed, be overlooked, or be undervalued. Achieving a more equitable workplace requires a critical understanding of these intersections between diversity and power.
Shared Impact in Decision-Making
What is necessary beyond a seat at the table is the opportunity for employee voices to truly impact team and organizational decisions, also known as shared impact. In an organization characterized by shared impact, employees of all backgrounds — including traditionally underrepresented groups — have comparable levels of influence on the decisions that determine organizational culture, structures, strategy, and vision.
In our research, we consistently see that the effect of shared impact trumps that of more traditional inclusion practices — such as offering a seat at the table, a sense of belonging and insidership, and the chance to be heard — in higher-performing and more sustainably diverse workplaces. For example, in one study of 158 nationwide fitness clubs, employee experiences of equitable impact across demographic groups were found to positively predict club financial revenues for the year — an effect above and beyond that of traditional inclusion measures.
What is necessary beyond a seat at the table is the opportunity for employee voices to truly impact team and organizational decisions, also known as shared impact.
Improving equitable impact can be challenging since many companies tend to be stuck in commitment to DEI, approaching it as a box to tick rather than something that requires intricate change. Promoting diversity in decision-making teams without considering shared impact runs the risk of creating an inclusion facade, a form of corporate hypocrisy where “a firm claims to be something it is not.”1 In the context of DEI, this means that even when the company attracts talent from diverse backgrounds, it does too little to truly integrate the differences in perspective into its core structures and processes, rendering its practice of DEI to mere window dressing. Here, diversity is invited into the company but gets folded into the existing perspectives and becomes invisible again.
In a 2020 report from McKinsey, one HR director stated, “A disconnect between what the company says and the progress it is making on the ground can seriously erode credibility both inside and outside of the organization, and further contribute to a lack of experienced inclusion.” Indeed, we observed this dynamic at an engineering firm. The company offered shares to underrepresented groups, effectively making them co-owners of the company — without actually granting them power over organizational decisions. Receiving shares in the absence of power left the employees feeling underappreciated, held the company back from fully leveraging their varied views, and led to difficulties in retaining diverse talent.
Promoting Shared Impact
Shared impact will not naturally emerge without effort. Creating environments where employees from all backgrounds have the power to affect organizational decisions requires awareness, continued monitoring, and active support over time from leaders and across multiple organizational structures. This begins with the recognition that conventional indicators of DEI, such as numeric representation, employees’ sense of belonging, and opportunities to express opinions, are important but don’t guarantee equitable levels of impact. As a prerequisite for understanding whether and when DEI goals are being met, it is critical for leaders to recognize the degree to which company decisions integrate and truly apply input from diverse voices. With this understanding, leaders can take the following actions to promote shared impact.
1. Measure shared impact. While the importance of measuring and tracking DEI indicators such as racial or gender heterogeneity of the workforce is becoming more broadly recognized, we find that shared impact is rarely measured.2 Most standard employee engagement surveys and DEI assessments focus on employees’ satisfaction with their interpersonal networks in the workplace (that is, their relationships with coworkers) but do not consider whether and how these networks connect to power.3
To illustrate, a large financial firm had difficulty attracting and retaining talent from underrepresented backgrounds. We analyzed the results of the annual employee survey used to track its diversity goals and to shape policy. Based on the included measures of sense of belonging and general task satisfaction, there were no clear differences between groups of employees to explain either the lack of entry-level talent or the leaky pipeline of employees with underrepresented backgrounds. None of the survey questions measured the dynamics of shared impact, but exit interviews with departing personnel revealed that members of underrepresented groups felt confined in their ability to have long-term influence. Had the annual survey included questions directly assessing decision-making outcomes, the company would have been able to anticipate and respond to brewing issues before some employees left.
It is important for organizations to develop a measurement strategy for shared impact that fits their particular context and needs. Exit interviews can be helpful to retroactively rethink the company approach, but timely measurement via employee surveys, whether annual or more frequent, can more effectively inform companies in their efforts to repair a leaky pipeline of diverse talent.
2. Use decision-making tools and meeting practices to maximize shared impact. Systematic procedures that prioritize expertise over employee characteristics or hierarchical position can help reduce the decision-making biases that hinder shared impact, such as disproportionably prioritizing “masculine” voices or other superficial characteristics. Using a strategic decision-making framework such as a RACI (responsible, accountable, consulted, and informed) matrix can help ensure that decision ownership resides at all levels of the organization, allowing individual employees the opportunity to impact decision-making from different positions and perspectives.
Similarly, consider how meeting settings, structures, and behaviors shape equitable decision-making. Strive to create conditions where the power dynamics are reduced, such as choosing meeting locations that don’t “belong” to a particular person (for example, a conference room rather than a manager’s office) or seating people from different hierarchical levels at the head of the table to avoid reinforcing hierarchy, if round tables are unavailable. Distribute meeting materials in advance so all attendees share baseline background knowledge, and use agendas and timekeepers to support equitable speaking time. Give and receive feedback with your team members on how they contribute to an equitable and inclusive environment, during and outside of meetings.
3. Track shared impact over longer periods of time, periodically reassess progress, and take proactive steps to keep improving. Try tracking who made the last five decisions within your team. Whose voices were included in the discussion of the decision? Whose input determined the final call?
Over time, map whether certain employees or members of particular groups have a larger say in decision-making outcomes, and analyze why this is occurring. For instance, does the team converge on ideas put forward by certain employee groups too quickly or disregard inputs from other groups? Identify who on the team can formally or informally play a role in reducing potential barriers to equitable impact. Think about asking individuals with formal or informal leadership roles to take on an observer role and identify and redirect conversations that risk disregarding some team members’ opinions. Also, periodically check your organization’s decision-making processes and outcomes to identify ongoing and new obstacles in achieving shared impact, and address them where needed.
Companies that wish to capitalize on the benefits of diversity need to move beyond symbolic acts and simplistic policies that pose the risk of performative acts presenting a facade of inclusion. Organizations characterized by shared impact allow the voices of all their employees — including those from underrepresented groups — to drive decisions equitably and to shape core structures, vision, mission, strategy, and culture. A focus on shared impact can create genuine change, realize the benefits of diversity, and actualize a commitment to DEI.