Behaviors determine culture because culture lives in the details of how we do things. Yet although organizations have been exalting inclusion in mission statements and rolling out inclusion initiatives for the last twenty-five years, they’ve rarely put the focus on behaviors. 

Instead, they routinely conflate inclusion with diversity, and so limit the scope of its application. Or they imagine that simply using the right words will brand them as an inclusive place to work. 

I happen to know something about these efforts because The Web of Inclusion, which I’ve quoted several times in earlier chapters, was the first book to use the word inclusion in a business context. I settled upon the image of a web because its structure mirrored the networked architecture of technology that was then evolving and would soon reconfigure how work is done. 

As an organizational structure, a web seemed more suitable than the traditional hierarchies that had long dominated the workplace, which reflected a very different technological model. And because webs are organic, taking their shape from the natural world, I believed they had the potential to return work to a more human scale. But a web of inclusion is not simply a structure. It is also a way of operating. As such, webs depend upon, enable, and reward the practice of inclusive behaviors and habits. This sets webs in opposition to the top-down style that previously prevailed in organizations. Instead of chains of command and communication channels determined by pecking order, webs spin tendrils of connection that enable people to communicate and across levels and silos. The Web of Inclusion had a fair amount of influence. Nearly thirty years later, I still get invited to speak on the subject, almost always as part of a diversity and inclusion initiative. This in itself says something about how the notion of inclusion has been absorbed into the fabric of organizations. Instead of permeating the culture, inclusion has gotten siloed, often viewed primarily as a tool for engaging women and others from outside the dominant leadership group, rather than a leadership skill that needs to be practiced at every level. I had no thought of inclusion becoming yoked to diversity when The Web of Inclusion was published, although in the decades since the words diversity and inclusion (D&I) have become reflexively joined. The pairing makes sense given that individuals who have been underrepresented are more likely to perceive themselves as excluded, struggle to attract support and be underrecognized for their potential. 

The global spread of D&I initiatives and departments over the last twenty-five years has sought to rectify this situation. Yet the relationship between diversity and inclusion is often misunderstood. 

For example, I frequently hear leaders describe diversity as their “goal.” This makes little sense. Diversity is not an aspiration or an objective; it is a reality: it defines the nature of the global talent pool from which organizations large and small must draw. Inclusion by contrast is the only sustainably useful method for leading people who have historically stood outside the mainstream.

So diversity describes the nature of the situation, while inclusion describes the means by which the situation can most effectively be managed and led. These are so often confused that I’m going to repeat this: Diversity describes the nature of the situation, while inclusion describes the means by which the can most effectively be managed and led.


Despite having been frequently siloed, D&I initiatives often provide outsize value to organizations, especially those that tie them to mentoring circles, sponsorship, and coaching. Their primary weakness, in my experience and as I mentioned briefly in the introduction, has been their frequent reliance on unconscious bias training. These trainings often start with employee surveys designed to reveal patterns of bias. 

The results are then used to design workshops or retreats where participants are coached to acknowledge and name their own unconscious assumptions and prejudices, often in a group setting. The idea is that, through the simple process of recognition, people will begin to shift their behavior. It’s basically a cathartic model, similar to those popularized by encounter groups, group therapy, and 12-step programs, in which we are presumed to benefit by telling on ourselves. 

Rolling out unconscious bias training helps leaders feel they are doing something to help address often painful issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Yet the results are often disappointing. Over the years, I’ve spoken with too many clients who’ve undertaken costly initiatives, often on a global scale, which evaluations later showed had made little difference. Author and NYU professor of journalism Pamela Newkirk has extensively documented the ineffectiveness of much unconscious bias training in her groundbreaking book Diversity Inc.

When I ask clients why they believe such efforts have failed to “move the needle” (a common observation), they usually cite smallbore specifics. The trainers weren’t very good. Participants didn’t dig down deep enough. Leadership didn’t get behind the effort. There were too many introverts in the session. 

By contrast, my experience, as well as Newkirk’s research, suggests the issue is more fundamental. 

For starters, let’s look at the term unconscious bias. What do the words tell us?

  • They tell us that we are dealing with our unconscious, those random thoughts and impressions that float through our minds and exist outside our conscious control.
  • They tell us that we are focusing on what is negative about ourselves: narrow, reactive, judgmental, limited, self-serving, embarrassing, potentially unkind—that is, our biases.

By definition, then, unconscious bias training asks participants to deal with negative material that lies outside their conscious control. These trainings also, again by definition, focus on talk rather than action. The guiding idea seems to be that having conversations will change us, uncomfortable conversations above all. But this is rarely true. 

As humans, we are more likely to change as the result of taking different actions that result in our having different experiences. These experiences then organically begin to shift our thoughts and perceptions. 

In other words, changing our actions is more likely to change our thoughts than changing our thoughts is to change our actions. Every one of us has probably experienced this. 

For example, we think we don’t like someone, but we make an effort to treat them well, and they respond positively to our effort. We are then more likely to start liking them based on their response to our positive efforts than by arbitrarily deciding that we should be more open to that person. Simply recognizing our biases does not give us an intuitive path forward, whereas taking action does. 

Also, it doesn’t really matter to someone else if negative thoughts about them occasionally float through our minds. What matters is that we treat them with appreciation and respect. Our behaviors are what make the difference, not our random unstated thoughts. Which are, let’s be honest, nobody’s business. 

The unconscious bias approach can also stir up defenses and activate triggers, as we saw with Alex, the engineer, in Chapter 6. That’s in part because unconscious bias training privileges certain kinds of bias over others. Women can more easily get away with making negative generalizations about men, while people of color may get a pass for observing that “white people always . . . (fill in the dots).” This hierarchy of resentment and perception is historically understandable. Yet encouraging people to be honest about their negative perceptions in a group setting can result in increased division and stir backlash — which is exactly what happened with Alex. 

Certainly, these programs do some good. The surveys provide useful information. Individuals may have aha moments or epiphanies as they recognize how an attitude formed early in life undermines their ability to form positive relationships with certain colleagues. Yet unconscious bias is often a scattershot, unsure, and potentially counterproductive method for organizations, teams, units, or divisions seeking to create a culture in which the greatest possible number of people feel as if they belong.

Excerpted from RISING TOGETHER: How We Can Bridge Divides and Create a More Inclusivity Workplace by Sally Helgesen. Copyright © 2023. Available from Hachette Go, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc. 


  • Sally Helgesen, cited in Forbes as the world’s premier expert on women’s leadership, is an internationally best-selling author, speaker and leadership coach. She has been inducted into the Thinkers 50 Hall of Fame, which honors those whose ideas have shaped the field of leadership worldwide. She is also ranked number 5 among the world’s thought leaders by Global Gurus. Sally’s most recent book, How Women Rise, co-authored with Marshall Goldsmith, examines the behaviors most likely to get in the way of successful women. Rights have been sold in 22 languages.

    Previous books include The Female Advantage: Women’s Ways of Leadership, hailed as the classic in its field and continuously in print since 1990, and The Female Vision: Women’s Real Power at Work, which explores how women’s strategic insights can strengthen their careers. The Web of Inclusion: A New Architecture for Building Great Organizations, was cited in The Wall Street Journal as one of the best books on leadership of all time and is credited with bringing the language of inclusion into business. Sally’s next book, Rising Together: How We Can Bridge Divides and Create a More Inclusive Workplace, will be published in February 2023.