MML #2 – Beyond Diversity: Understanding and Leveraging Inclusion

MML #2 – Beyond Diversity: Understanding and Leveraging Inclusion

(Crystal A. Proxmire, Nov. 22, 2021)

Grand Rapids, MI- When people think of Diversity and Inclusion efforts in workplaces and local governments, it’s easy to picture people of different colors, ages, and genders working together. But this image is often simply that, an image.  The “Inclusion” part is where there’s a lot of benefit, and a recent Michigan Municipal League Convention presentation helped dozens of local officials from across the state get an inside look at why fostering inclusion helps with productivity, creativity, employee health, attendance, and retention and more.

“Diversity without inclusion is just for optics,” said Dr. Steve Robbins of Steve Robbins and Associates.  “I am not a Diversity and Inclusion guy.  I am an Inclusion and Diversity guy. You gotta do the Inclusion piece before you can leverage the value of diversity.”

Robbins’ presentation didn’t just focus on moral or social drives for Diversity and Inclusion efforts, but on the business benefits.  “Inclusion started out as social justice work.  Now it’s a business need,” he said.  Getting companies big and small to invest time and resources towards inclusion can be an uphill battle. But once those in charge understand the benefits, they’re more likely to make changes.  “You have to send them a message – this is about getting people to perform better.

“This is about productivity.”


The very core of inclusion is ensuring that individuals feel like they are a true part of the team.  Are their ideas heard and considered? Do they have good rapports with others on the team? Do they feel like they can are able to be themselves? Do they feel good about the work they do?  Are people around them supportive?

It’s not just about a pleasing atmosphere, it’s a biological necessity.

For context, Robbins spoke of something everyone should understand whether geared toward workplace inclusion efforts, or just towards life and relationships themselves: how human brains work.

“Human beings need other human beings to survive,” he said.  “Human beings survive longer in a tribe.”

Throughout history humans have banded together for protection, be it against the elements, against wild animals, and even against other humans.  Families, communities, and tribes provide safety, and working together helps meet essential needs.

“I look at what the brain is doing in social settings.  That part of our brain has two needs: to be part of a tribe and to be valued by our tribe.”

Not being valued could mean death in the wild.  “Being valued raises the chances of survival,” Robbins said.  “The brain is hard-wired to belong.”

While being cast out of a tribe may not mean starvation, enemy capture or other peril, it’s still a huge fear and stressor on our brains.  Whether it’s the underlying fear of losing a job, the stress of being yelled at, the frustration of favoritism, or just the psychological pain of feeling left out, exclusion has impacts beyond just emotional.  These things take tolls on people’s health, which can cause missed days and less productive hours on the clock.  Employee turnover doesn’t just impact morale, it costs money.

“Do you know how it feels to be surrounded by a tribe, but to feel alone?”

The question, and the silent pause that followed, tapped into a place of sadness and pain for many in the room, because who hasn’t felt left out before? That is the fundamental pain that comes along with being in an environment where someone feels like they don’t fit in.

Robbins talked about a 2002 UCLA study on the brain.  “When a person feels like an outsider, two areas in the brain light up.  The same areas of the brain light up when you experience physical pain.  Bring left out of a game made the brain light up like physical pain.”

“What’s the purpose of pain,” he said.  “To tell us something is wrong.”

He went on to say that it’s harder to work when in pain, regardless of the cause.  “You’re 20-30% less effective when you feel left out,” he said.  “For every hour you’re in a negative environment, you’re producing less.”

“If the brain is using resources to belong, it’s less resources for working and creativity,” Robbins said.  “Once that belonging need is met, you start to tap into people’s creativity and potential.”


In addition to recognizing the importance of being proactively inclusive, it helps for people with influence to understand how their own brains work.  Robbins explained that brains are lazy and rely on patterns, and it’s easy to stay in comfortable mindsets rather than being open-minded and learning new things.

“Guess why we tend to hang out with people with similar backgrounds and interests?  It’s less stress. It’s less stressful to surround yourself with things we already know.”

This impacts how people hire and promote, as well as who they prefer to talk to in workplace environments.  “We tend to hire and promote people like us,” he said. It takes contentiousness to recognize opportunities to be more open-minded.


So what can people do to help others feel like they belong?  It can be as simple as making time to recognize team members.  “Say ‘Hey, how are you doing today?  Anything I can help you with?”

It can mean team-building exercises, and retreats. Though the challenge is even when groups are educated about inclusion, they aren’t given training and proactive approaches aren’t put into practice.

“We give education but we don’t give training.  There is a difference between info and practice,” Robbins said.  While his presentation didn’t have time to go into techniques, his website has more information, and his book “What If: Short Stories to Spark Diversity Dialogue” is full of examples and ideas for making inclusion an active part of one’s workplace.  He also has online programs available for companies and organizations.

Ultimately changing a culture is about individuals committing to changing day to day practices, because effective diversity and inclusion is about more than just hiring a mix of people and attending a talk every once in a while.

“For the brain, diversity and inclusion is very hard,” he said.  “It requires more energy, and stepping out of our brain’s comfort zone… Are you willing to put in the work to change the environment?”

Learn more about Robbins and his work at

This article is part of a series about the Michigan Municipal League’s 2021 Convention that took place in Grand Rapids Sept. 22-24. We will be sharing articles from the convention over the next few weeks to help readers better understand the issues local governments face. If you aren’t already on our list for Daily Headlines, please sign up HERE so you won’t miss any of this exciting and informative series! Find other MML related articles HERE.

For more on Michigan Municipal League, check out their website at

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