We’ve all experienced walking into a room and feeling like we don’t belong. Maybe it’s because we’re a different race, gender, or age than everyone else or because we don’t share the same beliefs, personality traits, or interests. And maybe nobody bothered to reach out to make us feel welcome and included. Whatever the reason, exclusion never feels good. Now imagine feeling that way every day at work — would you be able to perform at your best? Or would the anxiety of feeling like you don’t belong influence your thinking and behavior?

Research indicates the latter. Feeling excluded causes a strong threat response in our brain, moving control from the prefrontal cortex (responsible for thoughtful processing) to the more primitive, emotional amygdala. Social exclusion reduces cognitive performance and our

willingness to collaborate with others. When we feel excluded, it affects not only our own performance but also that of the entire team and organization.

One organization that’s showing what inclusion looks like at scale is CVS Health. The world’s largest healthcare company by revenue, CVS Health includes a leading retail pharmacy chain, a pharmacy benefits manager, and a health insurance provider, among other brands. Recently, NLI’s Christy Pruitt-Haynes, distinguished faculty in performance and leadership, discussed the journey to companywide inclusion with Erneshia Pinder, vice president of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging for CVS Health.

“When we’re thinking about harnessing the power of our collective 300,000 colleagues,” Pinder says, “the best way to do that is to make sure that all of them — all experiences, perspectives, backgrounds, and identities — are welcome at the table, and that we’re harnessing inclusion to make great decisions on behalf of the customers, communities, and patients we serve.”

A customized path

In 2022, CVS Health partnered with NLI to roll out a customized version of INCLUDE: The Neuroscience of Smarter Teams. INCLUDE is designed to create a more inclusive organizational culture by building three habits: find common ground, lift people up, and create clarity. Practicing these three habits helps create a culture of belonging, where all employees feel engaged, included, and committed to a shared cause. The learning is divided into 5-minute videos, practice tools, and research summaries, all based on the science of what happens in the brain when someone feels included versus excluded.

A sense of inclusion matters at every level of seniority and job function. And given that CVS Health employees span retail and corporate positions, Pinder and her colleagues knew that any DEI initiative they pursued needed to integrate the learning material into employees’ everyday work lives.

“Even though the time commitment is minimal, we still needed to customize the learning to meet colleagues where they’re at,” Pinder says. Corporate colleagues, for example, may already be seated in front of a computer most of the day, whereas retail salespeople may have limited opportunities to sit down for even a few minutes to concentrate on a lesson. NLI worked with CVS Health to create customized tools that could be leveraged across these diverse divisions.

Early impacts

CVS Health began by introducing INCLUDE to corporate colleagues, about 35,000 of whom have completed the program. Now, the company is working on customization and scaling to all 300,000 CVS Health employees. Although the training is voluntary, several retail divisions boast 100% completion rates. “If anyone out there knows what it’s like to work in a retail environment,” Pinder says, “that completion rate is tremendous.”

Among other early results:

  • 94% of employees who’ve completed the training are moderately, very, or extremely motivated to take action in practicing the habits of INCLUDE.
  • 97% feel more effective in their role.
  • 72.3% of participants sent inclusion signals to their colleagues in the past week — some more than 10 times.
  • In testimonials, employees report they now feel more seen, heard, valued, and included than they did before the initiative.

“You don’t have to be a formal leader to demonstrate the leadership behaviors of INCLUDE,” says Pinder. “Anyone can practice these behaviors to bring people together and foster a sense of inclusion.”

The role of leaders

According to Pinder, company leaders played a critical role in making the INCLUDE rollout a success. “We framed INCLUDE as something that would help leaders in their leadership journey, not just from an employee engagement perspective, but in continuing to drive better business results,” she says.

Seeing what was in it for them led leaders to make INCLUDE a priority, taking time out of their busy schedules to complete the learning. They also brought the habits of INCLUDE into their day-to-day work. In team meetings, for example, leaders frequently spoke with colleagues about how the principles of INCLUDE could be used in interactions with customers and each other.

In addition, leaders who completed the training offered advice on how to customize the journey for employees in their divisions. They provided valuable input on what would make the learning experience the most meaningful and attainable for members of their teams.

Maintaining momentum

Pinder says CVS Health is working on sustainment tools to reinforce habits of inclusion long after the training has ended and new hires have joined the company. With NLI’s help, they’ve developed a customized sustainment toolkit, in addition to a dedicated intranet site with INCLUDE refreshers. CVS Health also established a reward program that encourages employees to publicly recognize their colleagues for inclusive behaviors. Recognized employees earn points that can be redeemed for gifts from a catalog.

The organization finds practical ways to encourage the common language learned in INCLUDE, as well as issuing calls to action and continuous reminders to leaders. “Our leaders are asking what’s next, and we’re working to find other unique and creative ways to ensure the conversation continues,” Pinder says.

Beyond DEI

Pruitt-Haynes notes that the value of INCLUDE goes far beyond what people think of as a typical DEI initiative — that is, a niche program that only benefits select individuals without a focus on decision-making or business results. “The reality is, INCLUDE affects everyone, it benefits everyone, and it’s about everyone,” she says.

Pinder adds that every individual is a collection of identities — some you can see and others that are invisible — and we often form an opinion about someone based only on superficial characteristics. “INCLUDE allows us to strip away that initial superficial coding our brains do. It takes us back to the human element of how it feels good to be included and bad to be excluded, so let’s not engage in behaviors that make others feel excluded.” If you missed this important discussion, you can watch the recording here.