Let’s take off our masks. Normal doesn’t exist, we’re all different

It’s still at the top of the list in the workplace, perhaps now more than ever. We’re talking about diversity and inclusion. So many companies are too young, too old, from too many ethnic backgrounds, too feminist, too new, too *insert difference here* for the system to be able to treat as ‘normal’.

We’re loosing too many, as an army commander would say – or perhaps even a HR director. In reality, we’re loosing too many people because we’re not able to see them for all they really are. We’re trying to transform them into a ‘normal’ that no longer exists. By even trying to normalize people they’re failing one by one: starting with courses to teach women how to look less different, and more similar to traditional power models. It’s how they’ve lost thousands of people. We’ve lost talent because they’ve never had the opportunity to talk with us. We’ve lost those who couldn’t pretend to be the same any longer. It’s as though they’ve had to pretend to be “less” than their whole complexity, when it’s that very diversity that makes our stories and talent unique.

Hiding the broken pieces

Nobody knew how to say it better than Bozoma Saint John, Chief Marketing Officer at Netflix:

“We hide those broken pieces. Is as if we like to pretend as though they don’t exist. We like to wear the mask, which then is created by somebody somewhere. Somebody said “this is the perfect way to be a leader”. But it’s not true. The ways that we are are important. I’ve lost count of the amount of times in meetings, to benefit this mass idea, we make everything vanilla, losing what is really important”.


Every person’s story counts, says Bozoma in a video filmed for a Harvard Business School course “Anatomy of a badass”: our stories are the only things that really count.

I’m a better executive because I’m an immigrant. And I’m a better executive because I’m a single mother to an 11 year old. I’m a better executive because I’m a widow and because I know how to dance. And I’m always going to say that loud.

It’s always the truth, even when we don’t feel immediately different. We all carry a unique story, we’re always too rich to be boxed off into someone else’s definition. Everybody’s story is cut out when we try to be what other people expect us to be, or rather what we think other people expect.

The natural pull towards stereotypes


It’s not an illusion. Stereotypes exist and govern our social and professional lives. It’s natural and instinctive to want to feel like others. Belonging to a collective ground is a precondition to our existence. Being a “badass”, as the famous Harvard course explained, doesn’t mean doing what you want without respecting others. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. It’s the intention to be completely ourselves and that social norms can help us to avoid the chaos: creating shared spaces of expression that make space for authenticity, inclusion and harmony.

Are we pushing beyond the rules that already exist? Not really, because a lot of the definitions that we observe today don’t really reflect us any more, and adapting to them is tiring. This Harvard course highlights that the ability to show our true selves improves our performance and engagement at work. It’s even more true if we can show that we’re different when we feel victims to stereotypes: a type of “anti-fragile” effect where showing our vulnerabilities makes us stronger.

How we can focus on diversity and inclusion

So, what do we need to do? How can we increase inclusion? How can we bring together our individual intensions to strengthen our companies’ efforts to make space for diversity? It’s a hot topic, so much so that I recently took part in a Horasis conference about “We are who we are”, talking to a Greek member of parliament, three American executives and a Bloomberg journalist.

The first step is always the hardest: it’s about our ability to see ourselves for who we really are. What’s remains if we remove other people’s expectations from the mix? It’s not an easy question to answer: it’s a way of looking at ourselves bit by bit, keeping watch on our circumstances and what we do and say, observing what belongs to us and what belongs to the “mask”.

We don’t need to criticize ourselves – we don’t need more guilt! – but we need to see those things, give them a name, be grateful for the security they’ve given us and try to look behind those things. Knowing how to think it natural, and looking behind the mask is a reflective process. So as Harvard teaches us about inclusion, we need to add an organizational component into the mix. The intentional awareness to advance those parts of ourselves, to make them visible in our day to day lives.

Diversity and inclusion in companies or in life touches all of us, not those who are “different”. If a “normal” person did exist in the world, they’d be surrounded by people with rich and expansive stories that couldn’t be contained in other people’s definitions. It would be a representation or a minority, and those special projects would be perfect for them.

This article was originally written by Riccarda Zezza and published on the Il Sole 24 Ore blog, Alley Oop. To read the original article (in Italian), please click here