What Does Inclusive Organization Mean?


One of the buzzwords I’ve been hearing around the office lately is “inclusive organization.”  “How do we create an inclusive organization?” ” What are the benefits of an inclusive organization? “What the heck do you guys mean when you say inclusive organization?”  (That last question was mine.)

As it turned out, no one could really give me a good definition of what it means.  “You know, it’s a, um, organization, right?  That is, um, inclusive, and stuff.”  Intrinsically they know, as I’m sure we all do, that we want our organizations to be inclusive and welcoming and diverse, but what does this buzzword actually mean?

Since my coworkers were at a loss for a succinct definition just as I was, I turned to the interwebs.  I started with trying to define “inclusive organization.”  According to dictionary.com, the words “inclusive” and “organization” are defined as:

  • inclusive – taking a great deal or everything within its scope; comprehensive
  • organization – a group of persons organized for a particular purpose; an association

If I put those two together, an inclusive organization is a group of persons organized for a purpose that takes everything within it’s scope, or a comprehensive association.  But that can’t be exactly right, we can’t be creating organizations whose scope is everything, they’d never get anything done.  And “comprehensive association” is just as confusing as “inclusive organization.”

My next attempt sent me to Google Images.  If I don’t know what a word means in another language and translating it doesn’t help, I’ll type it into Google Images and see what pictures pop-up.  This usually gives me a basic idea of what the word means with less effort because it’s easier to look at a picture than read a thousand words.  But it isn’t perfect.  For example, if you type in “pantalones” (the Spanish word for “pants”), this is one of the first images.


If you didn’t know that “pantalones” just meant any type of pants, you might think the word meant these pants specifically, which I can’t even find the words to describe.

But we’re trying to learn about inclusive organizations, not pants, so that’s what I put into Google Images, and the first 3 images for me were:

inclusive organizations according to google images

The first image is 4 black and white silhouettes in various positions, the second is a crew team, and the third is children on a playground.  So an inclusive organization may be one that is diverse (or mysterious), works together, and has fun.  Now we’re getting somewhere, but I still don’t know if that captures everything.  So my final attempt for clarity is to do a regular Google search and see if I can find a good blog post or article about this mystery group.

Turns out there’s actually been a lot of research regarding inclusive organizations and why they are valuable in the workplace.  After 45-minutes of browsing and reading, I found this description from an article titled The Path from Exclusive Club to Inclusive Organization (link goes to pdf).

An organization is inclusive when everyone has a sense of belonging; feels respected, valued and seen for who they are as individuals; and feels a level of supportive energy and commitment from leaders, colleagues and others so that all people–individually and collectively–can do their best work.

Ah, so an inclusive organization values all individuals and enables them to do their best work, got it.  Finally, I understand now; all it took was a couple of definitions, a discussion on pantalones, and some reading to get there.

Got your own idea of what an inclusive organization is? Share it in the comments.

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{ 3 comments… add one }
  • lakesha malone November 10, 2012, 12:34 pm

    I run an All-Inclusive organization that includes everyone and every problem that the world faces. My company helps everyone work together to implement the solutions that will solve all the problems that are faced individually and collectively.

  • Drew October 22, 2010, 7:12 am

    Joe–Excellent point that organizations have to be exclusive in some sense–you can’t let everyone work at a company. And I think you’re right that any exclusivity should be deliberate not unintentional. It’s easy to say “of course we want to be inclusive” but hard to execute in some ways. Thanks for sharing.

  • joe gerstandt October 21, 2010, 2:53 pm

    Great series on organizational inclusion, you touch on something that I think is a huge hurdle for this body of work…lack of clarity regarding the foundational logic and language. Unfortunately when we talk about diversity and inclusion, we are using the same words but each of us is talking about something different.

    I personally define inclusion as our ability to include difference. Keeping in mind that difference takes many forms. There is no such things as an inclusive organization, all organizations (and all social groups) have rules about who gets in and who does not get in. What is important for organizations is to be very aware, deliberate and intentional about those decisions and also to work ruthlessly to make sure that there are not any unintentional or implicit barriers that people face entering the workforce or fully participating in the workforce. Some organizations are explicitly and intentionally more or less inclusive than others (the United States Marine Corps, Bank of America and Google have different rules and policies for who gets in and who does not get in). What most organizations struggle to recognize and deal with is that there are also implicit and often unintentional barriers that face employees and potential employees.

    So, I view inclusion as our capacity to include difference and it is a key variable in our ability to utilize the resources that we have access to (especially human resources and intangible assets).

    Thanks for the posts, good stuff.

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