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broken ladderAmong the causes for why we still do not have gender diversity at the top of U.S. business (women are still not proportionately represented in leadership) are what McKinsey & Co. calls invisible “mind-sets.” They are tough to uproot because they operate at the unconscious level. If we become conscious of these mind-sets, we can compensate for them. We can lower the obstacles for women reaching the top.

One unconscious mind-set is what I call the “comfort principal.” This is the normal, understandable preference that we all have for being around people with whom we are comfortable. Often that means people with similar backgrounds, ways of thinking, politics and even gender or skin color. The typical man prefers having a beer, playing golf or poker or riding Harleys with other guys over hanging out with the average female co-worker. I personally would rather go shopping or have a glass of wine with a woman colleague! So I do not judge the comfort principle. I do not even want to change it. I simply want to bring it to the conscious level so it does not create obstacles for women and other groups.

Access to informal and formal networks, and having mentors and sponsors, are keys to a successful climb to the top. Good work assignments provide opportunities for development, experience and exposure. If leaders and managers are unconscious of the comfort principle, they may naturally think first of people with whom they have developed comfortable relationships. If access, mentoring or getting a great assignment depends to a large degree on “comfort,” those people most like those at the top gain an advantage. The result may be a disadvantage for women and people of color, perpetuating the current demographics of leadership.

Conscious awareness of the comfort principle is its cure. If I acknowledge that I am subject to this natural phenomenon, I can make conscious, deliberate choices. I can stop and consider whether it is influencing my decision about mentoring or assigning work. I can think about what skill sets are needed on a project or who needs an opportunity to gain experience or exposure.

Women will be more engaged, will do better work and are more likely to stay in a workplace where they feel included. Bringing the comfort principle to conscious awareness can contribute to inclusiveness – and increase an organization’s chances of achieving gender diversity at the top. (That is a good thing for the bottom line!)

Where have you seen the comfort principal at work? Do you have success stories of leaders who over-rode this natural tendency?