WOW Sophia Kristjansson | Diversity Inclusion And Belonging


What’s the secret ingredient to growing your business? This episode shares the secret formula for you! Today, Sophia Kristjansson, the founder of Lexicon Lens, discusses the value of diversity, inclusion, and belonging in business profit. She believes that business has a responsibility to include everybody and pay attention to how they grow their business. The ability of leadership to define promotable qualities is essential in shaping culture and sticking by its culture. Sanctioning poor behaviors and celebrating good ones from a senior position is helpful. Tune in to this insightful conversation today!

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Diversity, Inclusion, And Belonging With Sophia Kristjansson

We’re going to be talking about one of our favorite conversations. We’re going to be exploring Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, or DEI. We’re lucky to have a great guest. We’ve got Sophia Kristjansson joining us from the US. She has a company called Lexicon Lens. She’s based in Boulder in Colorado. She has also written a chapter for the book, The Secret Sauce for Leading Transformational Change. I’m sure we’ve spoken to a few of the different authors on some other topics. Before we jump in and I start asking some questions about the DEI space, Sophia, could you introduce yourself and say a bit more about yourself and your background?

I’m Sophia. I consult, coach, research, and teach in the area of inclusion and belonging. I help organizational leaders and their teams adopt those healthy behaviors to create cultures that are inclusive for all people. This includes aligning DEI practices with business and people strategies, change management, people development, and executive coaching. My research is in inclusion and belonging, which especially centers on behaviors that we want to see from leaders that we believe are inclusive.

Thank you. It’s great to hear some of the words you’re bringing up there. You’re talking about culture, belonging practices, and coaching. You’re bringing together a lot of that change toolkit that affects the experiences people have in the workplace. I’m going to probably come onto belonging later because it’s a phrase that isn’t as much in the public eye, at least where I work, when we’re talking about the experience of work.

It crosses over so well with inclusion that I’d like to jump into it a little bit more. When we talk about things like diversity and inclusion, I’d like to start by exploring a little bit about why this matters. We hear about diversity and inclusion a lot, but I’d like to kick us off by asking you, what is it about DEI that you think is important? What’s the business case for it and the hard bottom line type stuff? How does that help organizations? Also, is there another case for it? Is there a bit more of a moral case or a triple bottom-line case for changing this? I guess just everything on this.

It’s very simple. I believe that DEI means business profit. If an organization, from the board all the way down, is not embracing females and people of color in their organization, then they’re leaving this potential profit aside. They are turning away business. I believe that every business has a responsibility for profit’s sake to include everybody, and to pay attention to how they are growing their business, capturing the interest and the support of people of all kinds.


WOW Sophia Kristjansson | Diversity Inclusion And Belonging


I believe also from a moral perspective that organizations live in communities. Organizations are living things and they need to give back to their communities. They need to be developing people in their communities. They could be potential employees at some point. Maybe not, but they have a responsibility to give back to the communities in which they live. From an ally standpoint, it is one of those big topics that at least we talk about in the United States that’s part and parcel of DEI.

I believe that as an ally and as a White person working in this space, my responsibility is to uplift people who might not have had the same opportunities that I have by virtue of the fact that they don’t have the same skin color that I have. We all thrive together. That’s what I believe. That’s the thing that I expect from my clients. It’s an all-in.

I love that phrase all in. We all thrive together. I thought that was nice. That struck me in the sense that we are joined up and connected and that we thrived together. Something that popped into my mind when you were speaking there is the story about Ford Motor Company when it started, the raising of employee salaries, the reduction of employee hours, and the belief that to some extent, if you do that and include and share that across your population, you’ll create more people to buy into your product. That’s what you’re driving there. The more people we include in our employment practices, the more people can be part of a business from a business perspective. That fits in with that profit and bottom line piece.

You talked about helping others thrive and that connection to our communities. It feels like as organizations, we’re part of an ecosystem. Organizations have a role to influence the ecosystem they’re in, as well as to be influenced by it. That’s interesting but there’s much complexity in that space. It’s great to get both that business case and moral case down there. If we talk about diversity and inclusion, those terms are fairly understood by people, but I wanted to jump up on that belonging phrase now. Could you say a little bit more about belonging and how that fits within this? What is the relation between belonging, inclusion, and diversity?

Some people refer to DEI as DEIB, diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. Belonging is the sense of belonging to a community, a team, or a group. It is something that is created or a feeling that is created after you have inclusion. The big concept is developing leaders to be inclusive, and honing in on the real behaviors and the language that supports inclusion. As a benefit to that, you create a sense of ownership and belonging to a group or a team.

I would then add in there something else that I touched upon in the article that I wrote. It’s that leaders accepting a person’s uniqueness is also very important. From a behavioral standpoint, there is a web or a fabric that is woven together between belonging and uniqueness. The sense of belonging or that you belong to a team and a value of human uniqueness. I am valued for who I am and what I bring to the table, and my perspective and my value.

WOW Sophia Kristjansson | Diversity Inclusion And Belonging

Diversity Inclusion And Belonging: There is a fabric that weaves between belonging and uniqueness, the sense of belonging to a team, and the value of human uniqueness.


When you have those two together, then you create an atmosphere of inclusion. The behaviors of inclusion are separated out into this idea of how to make someone feel like they belong and how to make someone feel that they’re unique, and that is valued on the team. It’s not always easy to strike that balance. That’s where people are constantly weighing which way to go in because, at some point in time, you need to make a decision and move forward.

That might not make everybody happy, but you have to move versus taking the time during a collaborative process and perhaps you come across as someone who’s more introverted, for example. How would you like to contribute and value your introversion because you have something important to bring to the team? There’s a little bit of nuance there.

That will be helpful for our audience to understand how some of this fits together. Let’s say I’m a manager in a team and I’m wondering where I am as a starting point. How do I know as a leader or manager if I need to explore this work? What are some of the signs that maybe I’ve got an organization or a team that doesn’t provide a sense of belonging or doesn’t provide an opportunity for inclusion or isn’t diverse in its representation? What’s the starting point for me to decide that I want to do more of it?

That’s a big question. That’s the core of it. There is a tendency for organizations to operationalize behavior, and rightly so. When I go into companies, the big question is, “How do we operationalize this across our entire population? What’s going to be the population that we go after first to make this change or to be this spirit or whatever it is that we’re trying to accomplish?” I say to them that there is a role that the individual plays in operationalizing this behavior.

There is a cultural value to making a change or showing that inclusion is important, defining it, and dealing with the core issues around diversity and inclusion. There is also something very important to say about how the individual plays a role in the everyday experience, not only for that person but for everybody around them. People managers are the core of that. They are the focal point for me because they have so much influence on how they interpret the culture of the organization, how they embody that, embrace it, and behave with their people.

If you are lucky enough to serve on a team where you have a leader who makes you feel like you belong and does that with everybody around them, then you’re very fortunate. There could be other people who are not trained in that area, who do not value and have not considered the importance of DEI as a business imperative, as the bottom line, and as part of their business strategy. What I’m trying to say to you is there’s a blend between the two. As an individual, if you are managing a team, one thing that you can do is a very clear boundary about acceptable behavior.

If you are managing a team, you need to set clear boundaries about acceptable behavior.

If you are leading a meeting with your team and you find that there are two people maybe that are saying more than others in the room, or a female employee is being interrupted, or maybe you get the hint that one of your diverse employees mentioned an idea, but all of a sudden, that’s mentioned by another person, then that person takes ownership for the idea, you then have a sense of what’s going on.

Awareness and having that insight that this stuff is going on or this behavior is going on is important, and then setting the boundaries, setting the ground rules, or setting a team charter for, “We’re going to listen to everybody. We’re going to bring in diverse opinions. We are going to make sure that everyone is contributing. We’re going to make sure that the person that provides the idea gets credit for that idea,” then showing people that interrupting is not acceptable.

I see this all the time. I’ve even had someone say to me, “There are all kinds of reasons for interrupting.” There might be an infinite number of reasons for interrupting, however, it cuts somebody off and the effect of being cut is that it makes it more difficult to share, especially for people who have been interrupted and cut off most of their lives. Those are some of the things that I talk to people managers about doing first off.

The other thing that we haven’t talked about and haven’t mentioned yet is the impact that culture has. A manager could provide a pocket of hope for inclusion and belonging on his or her team. In the larger culture though in organizations, it’s not valued or understood. No matter what, you could create a pocket of positivity for that. If the individuals in that team want to grow, they have to go to other places within the company perhaps if they want to stay there. It behooves the organizations to take a look at what their culture is. It’s the difference between what they say they do and what they actually do, and what’s written down and how work actually gets done.

The relationship between the espoused values and ways of working in an organization, and the genuine practices are often not lined up. That’s interesting. You said that a lot of people have not considered and are not aware of a lot of these factors. What’s your experience of that? Many people who work in this space are fairly immersed in this. People become attuned to looking out for some signals and signs and knowledge about things like inclusion and belonging in the workplace. What’s your sense more broadly of middle managers that you work with? Do you get a sense that there’s a lack of general awareness about this? They’ve not stepped back and thought about this or they’re running too fast to pay attention to it. Have you got any reflections on that?

My interpretation is that people who are sandwiched in the middle of a company, from manager to director level, get squeezed. They have so many things on their plates and so much to accomplish. Business profits are landing on how they work and how they motivate their people to work. What I find at times is that those people who could have the most impact on a day-to-day level might not completely understand what it is or they might see it as separate. They think of it as just another thing that they have to do.

That’s why it becomes important for leadership to embody it, and to repeat all the time in every public setting that they have that DEI is a business imperative. It is just the way we do business. We don’t leave any stone unturned. When you hear that over and over again from your leadership, and then you watch for those behaviors, you start to adopt them. If they are valued at the top, they will be adopted farther down.

DEI best practices need to be incorporated in every aspect of the talent experience from the interviewing to the hiring and onboarding, to the talent development and promotion, and even to the offboarding. If an individual leaves an organization, what questions are being asked to understand why they are going, not glossing over reasons for their departure?

Thinking about that employee, colleague, or talent journey, process, or experience that people go through is a helpful way to find points of influence that we can change into a little bit of best practice within our organization to be more aligned with some of these value-based principles that we come up with.

Your point about leader attention, role modeling, and sponsorship of this type of work strike me as important. That stands out for me. I also wanted to reflect back on your point about the fact that organizations are not culturally homogenous. We do get these pockets of hope, as you say. Trying to get an understanding and put a definition on an organization’s culture is so hard because we get all these micro-cultures and micro-experiences that people have. Trying to identify and foster those productive positive cultures is a real challenge.

I don’t mean to interrupt you, but there’s something important to be said about culture and the difference between what is expected and how work gets done. That is that a person’s experience of a culture is based on their manager. That’s their interpretation of what that culture means. They look to their higher levels to give them an example of what good behavior looks like in that company.

Culture is extremely difficult to change because there is an unspoken reality to it. As Ian Ziskin said, who is the lead writer for the book The Secret Sauce for Leading Transformational Change, people don’t like to change, but they don’t like to fail more. I believe that’s the case. You can be motivated for very positive reasons and you can be motivated because you don’t want to fail.

Culture is difficult to change because there is an unspoken reality to it.

That’s a great and helpful framing. We’re talking about the pressures that middle managers and leaders of teams face. There’s so much pressure and so much competition for their own leadership and management attention. There are so many factors influencing them. There are so many time pressures. They’ve got the underlying beliefs that they bring to each situation and those underlying beliefs of those around them.

It feels to me like a lot of the work that we do on culture, inclusion and belonging, and ways of working more broadly, in which we are trying to modify the underlying beliefs that people have about what good behaviors look like or what good impacts look like. A lot of those efforts to modify that aspect of work are investments for the future. There aren’t immediate payoffs or very seldom there are very quick payoffs for that type of work.

It tends to be a longer-term investment for the future of your team and your organization. Whereas, doing something else on my to-do list quickly, or getting somebody in the door if I need to do that as fast as I can so I can hand over tasks, or tackling a tactical objective now has a more immediate payoff. How do you think leaders feel about balancing those? Do you think they perceive cultural work as more of an investment?

I wish that leaders saw investment in culture as being something that was more important than it can fall on the list of priorities. The bottom line is that what is important now is going to be solved. Culture can take a backseat to all of that. I do think and what I’ve observed is that if the leader instills the value of culture within their team and talks about it in a business sense to promote those behaviors that are more inclusive, and that are going to build a sense of belonging for members of their team, it will start to take hold.

That’s one side of it, but the other side of it is this idea of focusing on inclusive leadership as a core leadership skill, and diving into what the behaviors are that someone needs to show in order to be inclusive. That can have a very positive effect on a team or a division, depending on where you sit in the company. It can have a very important effect on culture.

Part of that echoes back to the underlying beliefs of the managers and leaders that we have. If we can help those managers and leaders develop underlying beliefs while having an inclusive approach to managing their teams, creating a sense of belonging, creating equity, and being inclusive, it will help them in their progression through an organization. That’s a helpful thing.

Sometimes we talk about those things being positive for our organizations but quite often, the reality is that individuals see one of their peers progressing despite bad behaviors or despite all of those things. What’s a fulcrum or leverage point we can use to try and think about or address some of that in an organization? Have you got any thoughts?

It’s important to have those feedback mechanisms in place that let you know when a leader is ready, able, and valued to progress in the organization. I have a specific example. An individual that I worked with who still is with this Fortune 500 organization was valued for his results. He was very keen on progressing in the organization. His HR partner and his manager both said, “If you can’t make a change to behave differently in the way that you work with people, then you’re not going to progress any further in the company,” because he had a tendency to be a bully.

WOW Sophia Kristjansson | Diversity Inclusion And Belonging

Diversity Inclusion And Belonging: It’s essential to have feedback mechanisms that let you know when a leader is ready, able, valued, or to progress in the organization.


There was a deliberate decision that leadership made to say, “We value you. You do a great job. You are creating incredible results for us and we cannot promote you anymore because your behavior takes such a toll on the people that you manage. The churn that happens there does eat into profits, and it’s hard to replace people on the team.” In that case, that company bit the bullet and said, “No, we have to take a look at this. What is acceptable behavior at the top? What are we aiming for? What is the message that we’re sending if we do promote this individual to a higher level? What’s going to happen to the progression of our business?” We were successful at turning that around, but it took a lot of hard work. It took very thoughtful introspection that continues.

That personal development, self-awareness, and personal growth that go with that can be a bit of a shock to people. You talked about people not being aware of its importance. They’ve not even considered this stuff. Some people who are running at a million miles an hour, are achievement-driven, and are results-oriented to an extreme wouldn’t have even thought about themselves or their impact in such a way or place value on some of those. It does feel like the ability of the leadership to define promotable qualities is important in shaping that culture. Sticking by theirs, sanctioning poor behaviors, and celebrating good ones from a senior position are very helpful.

One more thing that I think is important to mention is that in the talent review process, inclusive behavior needs to be measured. What we focus on and what we measure tends to become a focal point and that becomes important. That is a very critical part of the equation.

I was going to ask a little bit about that. You talked about feedback being an important piece of this. How do you go about measuring inclusive behavior for a leader within their organization? Leaders present a certain way. We’re all desirous of managing impressions of us and doing a little bit of impression management. People sometimes lean a little bit more toward that semi-toxic type of leader. In my experience, many of them present up very well and present down less well. How do we find the truth and get an objective measure of that inclusivity for some of those leaders?

Organizations in their review process have an upward review component most likely. Those need to be taken seriously. There is a critical value to hearing from people, not from your supporters but might not be your supporters. An organization needs to value what they hear from those people being maybe managed by someone who’s semi-toxic or toxic.

That’s one part of it. There needs to be an inclusion score. Just like any other measurable point that we have on a review, inclusion needs to sit there as, is this person inclusive in their behavior? Give some examples of how this person is inclusive. Does this individual listen to me when I speak? Does this person promote collaborative behavior? Does this person ask questions? These are the value of humility, for example. Does this leader show humility? Does this leader value cognitive complexity across the board? These are indicators of inclusion and how a manager behaves with their people. Those pieces of feedback are extremely important in building that inclusive leadership muscle if you will.

It does sound like a lot of good aspects to seek to measure in our various review processes and to be aware of, particularly in larger organizations. Smaller organizations would’ve complexity around the sheer number of people, the ability to get data, anonymity of data, and all those things. I think it probably makes it a little bit more difficult in organizations under 100 people, for example. If we think about culture change within organizations, which leads to inclusion, do you think it’s possible to have a bottom-up grassroots approach to culture change? Do you think culture change of this nature needs to come from the top? What do you think about the relation? Is it somewhere in the middle?

Who are the people who are making the decisions in the organization? The answer is yes to all of the above. What I’ve seen to work is that senior-level leaders are embodying, embracing, and showing what it means to be inclusive, not only in a soft skill sense but in a business sense and a profit sense. People who are more at the ground level of that organization or individual contributors or new managers can also have an impact on that. They can also embody that, but I have not personally experienced the rise of cultural change only based on a grassroots approach.

I’ve not either. I was just wondering if you had. I’ve seen instances where maybe senior leaders are influenced by other individuals in the organization or their peers in such a way that they then change some of their thinking or approach to inclusion. A lot of my experiences is that senior leaders do cast long shadows, and they need to be desirous of these changes and informed themselves.

Think about your organization and how it’s structured. You have a board probably or some advisory group, and then you have senior leadership and on down. Ultimate decisions are made by senior leadership. The board is very engaged in aspects of that decision-making and the financial happenings of the company. I believe that from the board all the way down, you need to be seeing and hearing diversity, hearing inclusion, and experiencing the behaviors that go along with that. That’s how we’re all structured. We’re always going to look to someone who has a higher level of status and a higher level of importance in an organization to give us an indication as to how we should behave. It’s just the way it works.

Getting into those boardrooms is so important for making a difference or influencing the leaders in those rooms. We were talking a little bit about some of the behaviors and you’ve touched on a lot of them. You referenced the theoretical model of inclusive leadership by Randall and others, and in what you’ve written. Could you say a little bit more about inclusive behaviors and expand a little bit on that?

Randall and colleagues developed a theoretical model of inclusive leadership, which I find to be useful. They stipulated that leaders need to create an environment that on the one hand is creating this sense of belonging, and on the other hand is valuing personal uniqueness. I found this to be a useful way to start with leaders and organizations who have not traditionally examined inclusion as a leadership value.

Inclusive leaders value diversity, cognitive complexity, and humility. Inclusive leaders exercise clear boundaries. They listen more than they speak. They ask questions. They talk about DEI in a way that brings it home from a business strategy perspective. Every piece of what you do in an organization is about making profits or the bottom line.

A leader’s capacity to make that real and to link DEI to business profit is going to create a sense of urgency around understanding those communities and potential customers that a company has not attracted or perhaps overlooked without even knowing. Randall and colleagues bring forward a very simple formula for looking at inclusive behaviors, which I found helpful. That links to the research that I do on inclusion and belonging as well because I am specifically focused on what those behaviors are and how leaders speak. That’s part of it as well that promotes inclusion and belonging on their teams and in their organizations.

Could you say a little bit more about your research and the way leaders speak? Could you elaborate on that a little bit?

Think about communication. How do we take in information? A very small part of that is verbal. We are looking at and listening to how people comfort themselves, that unspoken communication, as well as listening for the words that mean something to the individual that’s hearing them. I am focused on honing in on the specific behaviors, techniques, and unspoken behaviors that leaders show to prove that they are inclusive.

That sounds interesting. It’s trying to separate it out from the spoken language, and the confinement and boxing in words or what we say to broaden it to our broader behaviors, and in the presentation around that. That sounds interesting. I’ve got a couple of more questions. One, I’d like to touch on psychological safety as a factor. It’s something that you mentioned in your paper. For a lot of the things that we’ve spoken about, it seems like there’s a bit of an overlap with psychological safety. Would you explore that a little bit? Is psychological safety a good foundation or starting point with some actionable things that leaders could do to lay some of the groundwork for inclusion? What are your thoughts on that?

Let’s start with the definition. Psychological safety is something that happens at a group or team level. It is the belief that I will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, and mistakes. I often think about psychological safety as being part and parcel of a learning culture. If you think about what a learning culture looks like, working collaboratively is an expectation, but it can be interpersonally challenged.

WOW Sophia Kristjansson | Diversity Inclusion And Belonging

Diversity Inclusion And Belonging: If you think about what a learning culture looks like, working collaboratively is an expectation, but it can be interpersonally challenging.


Let’s say a manager values a team culture that is founded on learning. He wants everyone to feel like they can express their ideas, ask questions, address concerns, admit mistakes, or even admit ignorance on a topic. However, it’s very possible that team members will express interpersonal threats or dissatisfying behaviors that an individual is either ignorant about a topic or uncertain about a topic.

That could look like laughing at a person who’s unsure, rolling one’s eyes, snickering, or gossiping about that person. Those are tough behaviors to deal with, but the risk is real for someone who’s not quite making the decision yet about whether or not they’re going to buy into something or they understand something. The threats are subtle but very powerful, and they inhibit organizational learning.

I talk about organizational learning because open-mindedness and having a sense of safety in exploration need to be valued in a company. That does connect to creating a foundation of helping us all feel very safe in the environment in which we’re working, and then helping us become more inclusive. You’re touching on so many topics that are all blended together.

Open-mindedness and a sense of safety in exploration needs to be valued in a company.

Psychological safety is a foundational piece of DEI. If a person doesn’t feel safe in their environment, just from a chemical level, the cortisol rises. They can’t think and they’re not producing. I don’t like this statement at all, but for the lack of better terminology, they’re not able to bring their best selves to work. Everybody loses out, especially the individual who’s been affected. Psychological safety is foundational.

I struggle with the best phrase as well but I don’t know of a better one so I use it too, as well as being at my best and things like that. One last question before I go on to wrapping things up. I’ve been reading and listening to some things and working with clients who are very culturally diverse. We’ve been working with clients in various regions of Africa and Asia who come from very different cultures.

We’ve been doing work on things like psychological safety, emotions in the workplace, and emotional intelligence. A lot of the work that I’ve been reading around the edges of this is about perhaps the difficulty in translating some of our concepts and understanding promotions and culture cross-nationally or cross-culturally. Have you got any thoughts or experience on this? I could tell from your background that you’ve studied through organizations and learning institutions in different parts of the world. Have you got any sense of the applicability of some of these concepts more broadly as we go across cultures?

That’s another big topic. I like to think globally but act regionally. One has to be aware that there are going to be cultural differences across regions of the world. There are also going to be laws that differ. There are certain questions we can ask in the United States that are not acceptable to ask in other countries. There are considerations in each country that need to be brought to the fore in terms of thinking about DEI best practices.

Having foundational programming like employee resource groups is very useful in terms of valuing and showing value for that global sense of what the organization values of their people across the globe. Also, the regional values that each community brings to a company. Having that voice is very important. A leader needs to be aware of the way that inclusion and belonging are spoken about across the globe. Those considerations come also down to cultural protocol. What is acceptable? How do we present ourselves? Do we shake hands? How do we present? How do we sit at the table and have a meal? What do we use for that?

Those elements play a strong role in what a person sees and values that either warms up or is repelled by the individual that they’re working with. It’s a cultural value within an organization. It’s also a business value that has to be explored based on where the company is located and who’s working for the company, and so on and so forth. It’s a vast topic in and of itself.

There are no simple answers. These things are messy and complicated. There’s no one answer. There’s no explanation.

The bottom line is this. All human beings want to be heard. All human beings want to be valued. If you start from maybe that premise of recognizing that we are all equal, and that we want to treat one another with respect, then that sets you up for curiosity, doesn’t it? When you go visit a foreign country, maybe you’re engaging with the people that you work with who are native to that land in a more sensitive manner, which does then open the door to something more understanding.

All human beings want to be heard or valued. It sets you up for curiosity if you recognize that we are all equal and treat one another with respect.

I was going to ask another question because I like that framing so much, but I’m not going to do that. We can treat that as a final thought. How could people find out more about you and the work that you do?

The best way to reach me is on LinkedIn at Sophia Kristjansson. On the top right corner of my feed, there’s a QR code that can be scanned that gives all of my contact information. I am in the process of redoing my website, which is It will be up and running soon, which will make me a very happy woman because there is always a project. I will announce on social media.

Sophia, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure speaking to you.

Thank you very much.


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About Sophia Kristjansson

WOW Sophia Kristjansson | Diversity Inclusion And BelongingPassionate about helping individuals and organizations establish strong foundations to lead dynamic, sustainable teams and drive transformative, positive, and actionable results.

People Strategy | Change Management | Inclusion & Belonging | Learning & Development