2017 Volume 20 Issue 2

The Garden: An Organismic Metaphor for Distinguishing Inclusion from Diversity

The Garden: An Organismic Metaphor for Distinguishing Inclusion from Diversity

Diversity and Inclusion Are Not Synonyms

The classic management article, “On the Folly of Rewarding A While Hoping for B,”[1] observed that organizations regularly reward the very behaviors they seek to eliminate. For example, in higher education educators are encouraged to use more technology in their classrooms (A). However, instructors are retained, rewarded, and punished based upon student evaluations (B). As a result, some educators avoid integrating unfamiliar technology into their classrooms because if the implementation fails, it may result in lower student evaluations (which is what is actually being rewarded). Leaders’ workplace inclusion efforts may fall into this trap if, in hopes for inclusion (A), they primarily expend (and reward) efforts to diversify (B)—and this can result in wasted resources. When organizational inclusion efforts are successful, they are keenly focused and systematically supported by organization design efforts such as strategic planning, resource allocation, intentional communication, and reward systems.[2]


Scholarship and best practices in workplace diversity and inclusion (D&I) have burgeoned recently. Unlike other topics in which scholarship lags practice, organizational “D&I” practices often lag scholarly research. While scholars are increasingly keen on distinguishing these terms, many organizational leaders erroneously interchange the terms diversity and inclusion in their conversations,[3] which obscures the focus, and, therefore, the effectiveness of well-intentioned and well-designed interventions.

Despite their different meanings, many leaders swap the terms diversity and inclusion—often in the same sentence or while trying to define them. An Internet search for the term “inclusion” bears this out. For example, in “The 50 Best Workplaces for Diversity 2016,” the first sentence reads “Fortune’s annual list of companies in the U.S. doing the most to create inclusive cultures for minorities, LGBT employees, and women.”[4] Similarly, Offices of “Diversity and Inclusion” and “Diversity Equity and Inclusion” councils exist in many organizations. The acronyms “D&I” and “DEIC” have come to describe the research, practices, and professionals who engage in both areas: diversity and inclusion.[5] Definitions of inclusion that include diversity, and vice versa, signal that the two concepts cannot be considered exclusively of each other.[6] Scholars seeking to define these terms acknowledge word usage is “slippery” at best.

Two premises undergird this article. The first premise is that diversity and inclusion are not synonyms and, therefore, should be languaged, operationalized, and assessed independently. While practitioners trying to impact one are wise to consider the other, they must resist—at all costs—the internal urge and external pressure to obfuscate the distinction between these two important issues. The second premise is that clarifying how workplace inclusion is experienced by employees will help those leaders who want to create inclusive organizations achieve their goal. After a discussion of the use of metaphor in organizational research, this article offers for consideration the metaphor of “Organizations as Gardens,” to clarify the distinction between diversity and inclusion. The piece ends with practical evidence-based advice grounded in the author’s decades long research on inclusion, whose penultimate goal is to empower leaders with a set of useful concrete behaviors that create inclusive work environments.

Metaphors and Organizational Theory

Reflecting upon his classic book Images of Organization,[7] renowned management scholar Gareth Morgan[8] asserted that his earlier work’s “core thesis…was that all theories of organization (and all social theory in general) have implicit core assumptions about the nature of the social world,” (p. 459). By utilizing metaphors, “we generate partial ‘truths’—insights that may resonate and produce genuine understanding but if taken literally or to an extreme, are patently distorting and false,” (p. 463).

In sum, metaphors help organizational scholars develop theory and practice, but, they are not meant to be taken literally. One of the organizational metaphors that Morgan utilized in his classic book was “Organizations as Organisms,” “living system[s], existing in a wider environment on which they depend for the satisfaction of various needs.”[9] Scholars using this organismic metaphor commonly assert that the:

…distinctions and relations among molecules, cells, complex organisms, species, and ecology (sic) are paralleled in those between individuals, groups, organizations, populations (species) of organizations, and their social ecology (sic). In pursuing this line of inquiry, organization theorists have generated many new ideas for understanding how organizations function and the factors that influence their well being (p. 34).

In this same vein, with a purpose of helping readers memorably distinguish diversity from inclusion, the author extends Morgan’s popular metaphor of “Organizations as Organisms,” offering readers the metaphor of “Organizations as Gardens.”

Operating Metaphor: “The organization as garden.”

The elements of Morgan’s aforementioned organismic metaphor that the present “Organization as Garden” metaphor uses are:

  • individuals (intrapersonal and leader behavior aspects)
  • groups (interpersonal interactions)
  • organizations (as in the culture)
  • social ecology (as the organization’s external environment of vendors, suppliers, the community, et cetera).

The metaphor of a garden is a tool to aid clear thought and, as a consequence, clear speech regarding diversity and inclusion. Imagine a garden containing various vegetation: fruits, vegetables, flowers, foliage, and trees. All vegetation needs a conducive environment to flourish: a suitable pH, a healthy level of aeration, and sound nutrients. Flourishing gardens are free of parasites and toxic chemicals because these elements are harmful to the garden, its inhabitants, and—in the case of toxic chemicals—the environmental ecology. While all plants need sun, shade, nutrients, soil, water, and care, different plants require different mixtures of these elements to thrive. Some need shade while others need more sun; some need moist soil, others thrive in drier soil. This is the same for people in organizations; while one subset of inclusive behaviors will work with one person, another may most positively respond to another set. Various elements of this metaphor of “Organization as Garden,” are applicable to organizational life.

Gardens: These are organized and preconceived places into which vegetation is deliberately planted. Organizations are preconceived places into which employees are hired.

Gardeners: These are humans who design and care for the growing space, plant the seeds and sprouts, prune branches, and monitor, nourish, and reinforce the plants regularly trying to help them thrive and bear fruit. These are formal and informal leaders who design the team environment, and hire, discipline, evaluate, and develop employees, with a goal of eliciting strong performance in service of the organization’s goals.

Garden Tools: Gardeners do not ply their trade with their bare hands; they utilize tools such as hoses, rakes, wheelbarrows, and shovels. Leaders in organizations also utilize tools to ply their trade. Organizational design guru, Jay Galbraith[10] recommends that leaders seeking to make forward progress ensure alignment of five organizational design elements: Strategy, Structure, Processes and Lateral Capability, Reward Systems, and People Practices. When leaders align these organizational design tools to create, nurture, and sustain an inclusive environment the garden starts to thrive.

Diversity: This refers to the different vegetation that gardeners plant into the garden. For example, suppose that Garden 1 is primarily a rose garden while Garden 2 contains roses, daffodils, and tulips. Garden 2 is more diverse. Leaders employ individuals who represent a wide variety of identities, genders, experiences, types of expertise, and ways of thinking.[11] (Note: “Diverse” is an adjective that describes a collective, not an individual. Thus, we do not plant a “diverse flower;” rather, we create a diverse garden.)

Organizational Culture: The soil into which gardeners plant vegetation. Some soil is too sandy to allow vegetation to thrive. Other soil is too riddled with fungus to grow. Soil needs certain generic characteristics for any plant to thrive. The sum of organizational processes, strategies, and cultures is robust, with all employees thriving and complementing each other in their collective focus on achieving the organization’s goals.

The Ecological Environment: The ecological environment outside of the garden is complex. It includes elements that the gardener cannot control, such as wind, rain, and clouds. The external ecological environment of an organization is similarly complex. It includes various external stakeholder groups (e.g., vendors, suppliers, competitors, and community members), industry regulations, laws, and market forces whose demands must be balanced by leaders.[12] For purposes of the present article, the focus will be on human stakeholders.

Fertilizer: Fertilizer helps to provide nutrients that help plants in a garden grow to their maximum size, life span, and fruitfulness. Inclusive internal and external organizational processes, leadership behaviors, interpersonal interactions, and positive intrapersonal beliefs and assumptions about inclusion serve to fertilize the garden.

“Diversity” is akin to the number of types of vegetation planted. “Organizational culture” is akin to the soil into which the vegetation is planted. “Inclusion” is akin to the fertilizer intentionally applied to the soil to nurture the vegetation. There are four combinations of “diversity” and “inclusion,” which are depicted in the 2×2 matrix below.

Table 1:

The “Organization as Garden” Metaphor Applied to Diversity and Inclusion

The “Organization as Garden” metaphor shows that diversity and inclusion can exist independently or together in organizations. Now, the discussion shifts to “fertilizer analysis.” What exactly is inclusion? Leaders know that it is something to which they should aspire, but few are confident explaining what it means in a concrete and behavioral sense.

What comprises the “fertilizer?” What is “inclusion?”

This question was the impetus behind the author’s recently published organizationally-based research with organizational development consultant Josie Lindsay.[13] After amassing roughly 7000 responses from employees and managers in multiple organizations, on multiple continents, in multiple industries, and of virtually every identity group combination possible, Smith and Lindsay attempted to answer one question: What makes people feel included at work?

Their research found that when people experience the manifestation of Ubuntu—a Bantu word that labels a central tenet of African philosophy[14] whose premise is that all human beings are interconnected and interdependent—they feel included. Ubuntu precedes and goes far beyond Western, more instrumental, individualistic, and organizationally-contained, notions of inclusion. In an individualistic society, the goal is often self-centered: become individually healthier, earn a promotion, make more money, receive individual acclaim. In an Ubuntic society, the goal is always other-centered: promote the collective’s reputation, success, health, and sustainability.

For example, Ubuntu represented the value system that guided former South African President Nelson Mandela as he managed the Truth and Reconciliation Councils. His goal was not to “punish” White South Africans for their practice of apartheid, but, rather to heal the whole nation.[15] This simply could not have been done in a culture for whom Ubuntu was a non-culturally-supported norm. While we cannot change our wider society, we can change the cultures of our organizations to be more Ubuntic. The authors label their model Ubuntic Inclusion[16] because its successful manifestation hinges upon accepting Ubuntu as a worthy organizational ideal, which distinguishes it from other more instrumental models of inclusion.

Research Overview

Over a 13-year period the authors[17] were individually and collaboratively engaged in three consulting projects, during which they each sought and received permission from organizational sponsors to anonymously use data they collected during the projects. While in the organizations between 1996 and 2013, they conducted critical incident interviews, focus groups, and electronic open-ended surveys (with the critical incident interview prompt) with a diverse set of organizational stakeholders in three work contexts:

  • U.S. and European employees in a U.S.-based global financial conglomerate
  • U.S., Canadian, Mexican, and Caribbean employees in a U.S.-based global retailer
  • Students, faculty, staff members, and administrators from various identity groups at a medium-sized internationally diverse public university in the U.S.

Using Thematic Analysis to analyze the data and identify themes within the content of stakeholders’ recollections of their peak moments of inclusion (and, unfortunately, exclusion) in organizations, the authors’ sought and achieved 100 percent Interrater Reliability (IRR). This high level of reliability was sought because of the highly qualitative nature of the analyses. Their analyses elicited eight themes that described organizational stakeholders’ stories of peak inclusive moments. These themes, which repeatedly manifested themselves internally (i.e., leaders and employees) and externally (i.e., suppliers, vendors, customers, community) are listed and defined below.

Dimensions of Ubuntic Inclusion

The resulting model of Ubuntic Inclusion[18] contains eight themes. Each theme is comprised of several behaviors—enacted by respondents, their peers, and leaders—that impacted how included respondents felt. Those dimensions and behaviors are listed below.

  • Connection—When individuals experience a sense of bondedness and a sense of community with employees, leaders, peers, and external stakeholders they feel included. Specific behaviors included being connected to a larger purpose, feeling a sense of community, eating together, feeling proud of the organization, feeling connections with leaders and peers, being networked throughout the organization, being connected to one’s team, and feeling connected through fun activities.
  • Care—When stakeholders perceive that other stakeholders value, acknowledge, help, and want the best for them, they feel included. Specific behaviors that made people feel cared about were receiving personal or professional help, leaders taking the time to get to know them, leaders and peers caring what they thought and felt, receiving a “thank you” now and then, and being spoken to.
  • Intrapersonal Inclusion—This dimension refers to stakeholders’ thoughts, self-talk, assumptions, and beliefs about inclusion, whether or not they are included, and whether or not to include others. Some of the behaviors that made people feel most included were expecting inclusion, initiating inclusion themselves, being told that they belong, being flexible, belonging to affinity groups, and being open to inclusion.
  • Communication—When people participate in and feel in the communication “loop” they feel included. This includes being up to date on formal and informal communication, having open communication channels (upward, downward, and laterally), perceiving transparent communication (especially about career opportunities), receiving feedback, having a “safe space” for communication, and when communication exists in multiple languages.
  • Mentoring and Coaching—When people have mentors and when people become mentors, it makes them feel included. This involves having a diverse set of mentors in one’s corner to support, sponsor, and assist one’s professional success—and serving formally or informally in this capacity for others with whom one identifies. This also includes getting support for skill development, career development—either formally or informally.
  • Fairness—When people perceive fairness, they are more likely to feel a sense of inclusion. Fairness refers to organizational stakeholders’ experience of equitable treatment by leaders and peers, regarding policy enforcement, opportunities, staffing, compensation, work-life balance, and career development
  • Trust— This dimension is foundational for creating sustainable inclusion. When stakeholders’ trust processes, Human Resources, leaders, leadership decisions, and peers—and, in turn feel trusted by them, they feel included. (Note: Mistreating one employee metastasizes distrust throughout an organization—negatively impacting the trust of mere observers.)
  • Visibility and Reward— When stakeholders are seen and accurately valued by their peers and leaders, and rewarded for dedication and success they feel included. They feel most included when they are recognized among peers, when they can celebrate stellar performance with peers, when they have conquered challenges, are promoted, and when they receive recognition (internally and externally) for their good work.

What can leaders do to increase organizational inclusion?

Sometimes organizational leaders such as managers, Diversity and Inclusion chairpersons, and even Chief Diversity Officers, are overwhelmed by how to foster meaningful and sustainable inclusion in their organizations. The issues facing organizations are complex. The eight dimensions of inclusion that were explained earlier, along with their accompanying behavioral definitions serve to inform leaders who endeavor to start the ongoing process of making their organizations more inclusive…starting tomorrow.

To instill a sense of Connection, consider:

  • setting or maintaining rituals of fun with the team (e.g., a NCAA tournament pool).
  • finding an opportunity to eat with your team, regularly (e.g., brown bag sessions at lunch).
  • reminding employees of the larger team and organizational purpose, and how their contributions help achieve it (e.g., once a month share how the team’s work translated in sales, or increased safety, or customer satisfaction).
  • bonding with clients, suppliers, customers, and/or vendors through food, fun, and quality time (e.g., expose employees to customer interactions occasionally).

To instill a sense of Care, consider:

  • taking advantage of each interaction with employees and clients to learn about their thoughts and feelings (e.g., look at the individual and focus only on what he or she is saying, even if you only have 2 minutes).
  • speaking to vendors and people in the organization…even strangers (e.g., make it a habit to say hello to your coworkers, even those whom you do not know).
  • helping employees and peers whenever you can.
  • sending birthday and family event cards and celebrating major work anniversaries with employees (e.g., get a box of cards and sign them all. Write employee’s names on the envelopes. File them by month and celebrate birthdays either at the end of the month (for large organizations) or on the day (for smaller organizations)).
  • participating in efforts that benefit the surrounding community (e.g., participate in a clean-up day, or local building project)

To instill a sense of Intrapersonal Inclusion, consider:

  • telling employees individually and in a team meeting that you are glad to have them on your team
  • telling employees (at different times) why they are valued members of the team. (Note: Your comments must be honest to be effective.)
  • introducing new team members for the first time and including what they bring to the group

To instill a sense of inclusive Communication, consider:

  • creating a weekly communication “to do” list to ensure that you interact with everyone.
  • designating an informal communication spot at work…and periodically interacting with employees there.
  • listening non-defensively to what internal and external stakeholders’ input—and then closing the loop by informing employees if you act on their feedback and what ensued.
  • seeking the opinions of your direct reports (and external stakeholders).

To instill a sense of inclusive Mentoring and Coaching, consider:

  • meeting with employees regularly to determine their learning and development goals and, later, assess their progress; “leaders do not create followers, they create more leaders.”[19]
  • developing employees and offering them opportunities to shine at internal meetings, expose top performers to outside people at trade shows or take them on site visits.
  • encouraging two-way peer coaching between newer and more seasoned employees—both having and being a mentor creates inclusion.

To instill a sense of Fairness, consider:

  • going beyond following fair recruiting, hiring, compensation, and evaluation processes, to being transparent in your adherence to fair standards. Often fairness is not perceived when leadership communication dimension is sparse.
  • using transparent evaluation standards for hiring, termination, and promotion.
  • making transparent hiring criteria for prospective employees before applicant materials are solicited
  • telling your team explicitly how newly hired employees’ qualifications (particularly younger or those from underrepresented groups) complement and improve the team.
  • insisting upon fair marketing, sales, and procurement tactics.

To instill a sense of Trust, consider:

  • being wary of making promises. Spend your words like money; be impeccable with your word.[20]
  • keeping confidences, and do not betray trust unless mandatory reporting demands it. If that is the case, disclose this to those confiding in you.
  • following documented rules and procedures.
  • being honest even when it is difficult. When people are uncertain, they quell their discomfort by creating information.

To instill a sense of inclusive Visibility and Reward, consider:

  • acknowledging employees’ strong performance and unique contributions briefly, but publicly.
  • rewarding employees when they conquer and overcome significant challenges or go beyond the call of duty.
  • writing a formal to the individual’s senior leadership when vendors or suppliers do a superb job.

It bears mentioning that some of the considerations above addressed multiple dimensions of Ubuntic Inclusion; this is good. Creating an inclusive environment is not a reductionist effort, it is a holistic one. For example, the suggestion to go beyond merely implementing fair hiring practices to communicating effectively about one’s efforts crosses two dimensions: Fairness and Communication. This is a positive thing. When this happens, synergies are experienced across the dimensions and the effectiveness of inclusion efforts increases.

Determining a Diversity vs. an Inclusion Problem

When engaging in organizational interventions, the author uses the following method for distinguishing diversity problems from inclusion problems. First is the assessment of multiple stakeholders’ perceived frequencies of experiencing Ubuntic Inclusion.[21] Next, a comparison is run between leaders’ self-assessments of inclusive behavior and employees’ perceptions to identify significant discrepancies between their views. Third, since the measurement collects demographic information, the scores of the inclusion measures are disaggregated by the identity groups present in the organization. Fourth, these results are statistically analyzed to identify any significant discrepancies between groups’ (i.e., leaders vs. individual contributors, and comparative analyses of identity groups) perceptions.

A “diversity problem” is diagnosed if all but certain identity groups feel a high level of inclusion. An “inclusion problem” is diagnosed if all stakeholders (regardless of identity group) report low levels of perceived inclusion. By synthesizing these data, it is possible to determine where an organization is on the 2×2 “Diversity vs. Inclusion” table above. This ability to accurately identify diversity versus inclusion problems supports the goal to educate, empower, and support leaders to focus upon the right thing—diversity, inclusion, or both.

Remember the Garden!

The issue of inclusion is a universal one. As pioneering psychologist Abraham Maslow theorized, all of us have a need for belonging,[22] for feeling included. The author’s research in the U.S., Europe, and Central America showed common themes. The need to experience some level of inclusion transcends gender, religion, racioethnicity, socioeconomic status, nationality, and culture. The goal of this article was to inform leaders on how to identify, analyze, and improve workplace diversity and inclusion, enabling leaders to be more well-informed, confident, and decisive in their organizational “gardening.”

Each organizational stakeholder is a “gardener” for a particular patch of organizational “land.” By better understanding the differences between diversity and inclusion, leaders can more confidently and accurately diagnose organizational issues, engage in dialogue, lead strategic planning efforts, and develop implementation plans.


[1] Kerr, S. (1975). “On the folly of rewarding A, while hoping for B.” Academy of Management journal 18, no. 4: 769-783.

[2] Galbraith, J. R. (1995). Designing organizations: An executive briefing on strategy, structure, and process. San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass.

[3] Roberson, Q. M. (2006). “Disentangling the meanings of diversity and inclusion in organizations.” Group & Organization Management, 31, no. 2: 212-236.

[4] Fortune. (2017). The 50 Best Workplaces for Diversity. Accessed March 15, 2017. http://fortune.com/best-workplaces-for-diversity/.

[5] Ferdman, B. M. (2014). “The practice of inclusion in diverse organizations.” Diversity at Work: The Practice of Inclusion. San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass, p. 3-54.

[6] Jordan, T. H. (n.d.) “Moving From Diversity to Inclusion.” Accessed June 1, 2017. http://www.diversityjournal.com/1471-moving-from-diversity-to-inclusion/.

[7] Morgan, G. (1997). Images of organization. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications.

[8] Morgan, G. (2011). “Reflections on images of organization and its implications for organization and environment.” Organization & Environment, 24, no. 4: 459-478.

[9] Morgan, (1997, p. 33).

[10] Galbraith, (1995).

[11] Loden Associates, Inc. (2017). “Primary & Secondary dimensions of Diversity.” Accessed August 22, 2017 http://www.loden.com/Web_Stuff/Dimensions.html.

[12] Cameron, K. S., & Quinn, R. E. (2005). Diagnosing and changing organizational culture: Based on the competing values framework. John Wiley & Sons.

[13] Smith, J. G., & Lindsay, J. B. (2014). Beyond inclusion: Worklife interconnectedness, energy, and resilience in organizations. Springer.

[14] Ramose, M. B. (2003). “Globalization and Ubuntu,in P.H. Coetzee & A.P. J. Roux (Eds.), The African Philosophy Reader, Second Edition (626-649), New York: Routledge, p. 643.

[15] Mandela, N. (1998). “Statement by Nelson Mandela on receiving Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report.” Accessed August 22, 2017. http://www.mandela.gov.za/mandela_speeches/1998/981029_trcreport.htm.

[16] Smith & Lindsay, 2014.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Walter, E. (2013). “5 Myths of Leadership,” in Forbes Magazine. Accessed May 15, 2017. https://www.forbes.com/sites/ekaterinawalter/2013/10/08/5-myths-of-leadership/#365063d5314e.

[20] Ruiz, D. M., and Mills, J. (2010). The four agreements: A practical guide to personal freedom. Vol. 1. San Rafael, California: Amber-Allen Publishing.

[21] Smith & Lindsay, 2014.

[22] Maslow, Abraham H. (1943). “A theory of human motivation.” Psychological Review, 50, no. 4: 370.


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Author of the article
J. Goosby Smith, PhD, MBA
J. Goosby Smith, PhD, MBA, is an Associate Professor of Management and Director of Graduate Programs in Leadership at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. Formerly a full-time faculty member at Pepperdine, California State (Channel Islands), and Butler Universities, Smith holds a PhD and MBA in Organizational Behavior from Case Western Reserve University, and a BS in Computer Science from Spelman College. Smith’s research interests include workplace inclusion, with special emphases on classroom inclusion for veterans and diversity and inclusion for active duty service members. Smith is co-author of Beyond Inclusion (2014, Palgrave Macmillan) and several journal articles. Her professional activity within the Academy of Management includes serving as a past chair of Management Spirituality and Religion (MSR), Newsletter Editor of Gender and Diversity in Organizations (GDO), and current Executive Committee of the Diversity and Inclusion Theme Committee (D&ITC).
Her community service work has included being an active member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., American Mensa, United Way, and the United Negro College Fund’s Inter-Alumni Council of Los Angeles. Smith is also a nationally known organizational consultant, author, and speaker regarding workplace inclusion in corporate, not-for-profit, educational and military work spaces.
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