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25 Min Read

HR Superstars Podcast: The Measurable Value of Inclusion with 15Five’s Cara Pelletier

Shane Metcalf, CPO of 15Five

There are no standard ways of enacting or measuring effective strategies to create truly diverse and equitable organizations where the human beings in them feel a deeper sense of inclusion and belonging. It’s still the wild west. 



Now, there are a lot of perspectives on the topic, and that’s actually what makes this whole field so rich. If there was one, homogeneous approach to DEI then it would be counter the concepts of diversity and inclusion.

This is a particularly special episode of HR Superstars because we’ve been making strides at 15Five toward DEIB over the years, but things have really picked up since we brought Cara Pelletier, M.A. on to the team. In the day-to-day challenges and opportunities we have as an organization here at 15Five, Cara is one of the rare leaders in the field who is able to practice “perceptual flexibility.”

She’s not only helping to improve some of the ways we acquire talent, or improve some of the programs and policies we have in place—she really walks the talk. When it comes to practicing inclusion, it can often be a practice of only including people who think the same way that you do. But how do you create space for opposing perspectives on ideas and thoughts? It’s here where inclusion becomes much more complex and nuanced. 

Cara is a leader who embodies true empathy, true listening, and has a deep desire to have human beings feel seen, respected, and celebrated for who they are, both the visible aspects of our diversity , as well as the interior aspects of what makes us unique. Below you’ll experience some of her journey and how her story informs the way she approaches this rich, rewarding, and demanding work.


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The following transcript has been edited for clarity and concision:

Shane: Really excited to have you on the podcast today so that we can a have a really good conversation and get to know each other at deeper levels, but also to share some of that perspective, right?

One of my linguistics professor in high school, Larry taught as you used to say, “multiple perspectives equals multiple realities and that we aren’t actually all living in the same shared reality. There may be commonalities, but life is vastly different for each human.”

Cara: It is. And what I hope that drives with people is two things, a sense of curiosity, to be able to learn more about what other people experience, and then also a sense of humility, right?

That what we think we know, perhaps there’s more to the picture than that. And so by listening and learning from other people, we can experience all of the vast number of realities that are existing around us at any given moment.

Shane: So I call that ‘perceptual flexibility’ and it’s something I think a lot about, because I think that perceptual flexibility is often something that I don’t think as a very valued and prized aspect in our current political, social environment of extremes of I’m right and you’re wrong.

And maybe the people that are on my side. I appreciate and respect those varied perspectives, but anybody that doesn’t agree with my general worldview, I’m not gonna be curious about their worldview and about their perspectives. And it’s something that we talk a lot about. How complex it is running a company with hundreds of human beings who are coming from such varied reality.

And how do you actually build a cohesive culture that honors and respects every person while also still having some sense of truth and grounding into our own moral compass and making decisions about who we are going to be as a company, since it’s actually impossible to cater to every single person.

In a way, how do we do this? And I know this is the question that we need to live into and why really want a good question with an answer, but what’s your vision around how companies get better at holding the multitude of realities of different experiences that exist within a single organism?

Cara: It is a great question.

I am going to ruin it with an answer, maybe two answers. So one is this, I think a lot about polarization and the fact that more and more, it seems that people retreat into their ideological corners and just sort of put their fingers in their ears and yell at each other from those opposite corners. I think a lot of that is related to just how uncertain and complex the world is.

And it was before the pandemic. It’s even more so now. People just feel like everything they once held true has been pulled out from under them. And everybody’s having to readjust. The more upheaval people feel, the more people are drawn to want to hold on to what they believe to be true.

Right? Some of it plays into cognitive bias and sort of confirmation bias where we look for information that confirms what we already think we know, but some of it is just a very natural human need for safety and security in a world that feels like it’s just going off the rails in so many directions.

And so I think we find that not just within the world, outside of our companies, but inside of our companies too, because none of us check who we are at the door, whereas the business world, as well as experiencing a tremendous amount of disruption.

Shane: By the way, I think that is the idea. That we can’t actually check who we are at the door is one of the great revelations of modern business.

All of my wounds, all of my childhood traumas, all of my repressed identities actually come out sideways, if I don’t do some of that inner work, we just can’t separate who we are from how we lead and how we manage.

Cara: Yeah, you are who you are all over the place, right?

You squeeze an orange, you get orange juice. It doesn’t matter if you’re squeezing it at home, at work, or anywhere else. And so when you’re trying to build better leaders, it really starts by helping people heal and building better people. One of the greatest joys that I experienced in my career previous to 15 five, we had built a leadership development program.

And after going through it, one of the very first leaders to complete the year long program said to me, this leadership program has actually made me a better dad. It’s made me a better husband. And I was pleased, because that means it also is going to make you a better leader. And so that’s what we’re going for is thinking about what we do at work as an extension of us as whole people.

I think the second part of that question. About organizations and holding space for the fact that people living different realities have different values is, you have to be really clear as an organization on what behavior crosses the line for you. Right?

As somebody who’s working in diversity and inclusion, I’m not as interested about changing people’s minds, as I am about helping them display behavior that welcomes and includes other people. I’m not here to convince everybody that one way of thinking is the right way. What I’m here to do is help leaders understand what are the behaviors that are going to help them build the best high performing teams they can.

"What I'm here to do is help leaders understand what are the behaviors that are going to help them build the best high performing teams they can." Cara Pelletier on the HR Superstars Podcast by @15Five Click To Tweet

And those are the behaviors that encourage disagreement and that see creative conflict as a means to innovation and not as a means to personality clashes on teams, but really embrace the whole potential of all of this cognitive diversity that people bring to the table.

Shane: And I think that is actually a rather different perspective around DEI than is often shared.

And I think, and maybe it’s misperception, but I think that there’s some actors in this world that do leave a flavor of being thought police. I can’t say things that are unpopular or if I go against the grain, I’m going to get canceled. And so I need to actually censor myself and always cater to the lowest common denominator and try to play it as safe as possible.

And I think that is a real misunderstanding of the real potential of this. Which is like you said, how do we have behaviors that truly foster high-performing teams? And it’s almost a more ruthlessly capitalistic perspective in a good way, because it’s saying if people feel respected, if people can bring their authentic selves to the table, you’re actually going to get greater performance and returns out of their participation in your org.

Cara: Shane, you know me well, and my take on DEI, which is that, especially in a for-profit organization, no departments should get a financial pass, right? If we’re working on diversity and inclusion and we can’t demonstrate that it actually adds value to the business, then we shouldn’t be doing it at work because work is about creating value for shareholders, for the company, and also for the employee.

And I, I do think that gets lost in the organization. It just so happens that we’ve got 30 years of data, an overwhelming mountain of data that shows that when companies value diversity, when they’ve worked hard to practice inclusion, when they build environments where people feel psychologically safe, then people can do better, more innovative work.

They do more work and they take less time off because of mental health and other wellness challenges, creating an environment of psychological safety and trust where people can bring their authentic selves to work is a way that you help to develop high performing teams. The two go directly together.

And I do want to backtrack and say that doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t be mindful of the words that they say at work about how they treat people with the unchecked biases that they have, because those words become culture, right? They become what we think is possible for people. Words are not just descriptive they’re generative.

And so I’m not saying that people should not worry about using inclusive language. I think using inclusive language is one of those sort of baseline expectations of leaders, and being a people leader in an organization is an incredibly important role. You have an outsized impact, not just on people’s job satisfaction, but their life satisfaction.

So when companies are thinking about who do we want to promote into leadership roles, making sure that the baseline level of competency encourages people to value people, to get the most out of people and to make the most of the diversity they have on their team should be one of the very baseline qualifications for that.

Shane: Especially in a mostly virtual work world. Language is 90% of our behavior. What else is there other than language? It’s not like we get on zoom calls and are doing just gestures, right? Language is the architecture of culture and of whether somebody actually feels, oh, I do belong. I can connect. I can see myself and others.

And language as a skill, as a competent inclusive language as a competence of high-performing teams and high performance management seems again, one of the, and I think that what I really like about what you’re saying is it’s really connecting the deeper. Why does it matter that I use inclusive language?

Oh, it’s because that helps create a condition where somebody can have more psychological safety where there’s less friction. I’d love to ask you, would you mind sharing a little bit of what your journey has been around navigating the professional world as an autistic person who is experiencing probably a more different reality than the average professional in the business?

Cara: I found out that I was autistic later in life. And that’s really true of many women. When I ask you to think about somebody who’s autistic, most people think about a ten year old boy having a meltdown on the floor of a grocery store, right? That’s sort of what people see in their minds. Women often fly under the radar, especially women who are gifted and talented at an early age.

My parents say they have a recollection of me. I think I was four years old and I was teaching our six year old neighbor child, how to read. I taught myself how to read when I was four years old. I’ve always done really well in most subjects in school with the exception of math, that’s a story for another day, a record of academic excellence and as is true with a lot of autistic women, didn’t have some of the non-verbal challenges that some people with autism have.

So if you see a kid who’s sort of bright, gifted does relatively well in school and you think she’s fine.



Shane: Yeah, in a way it’s like that almost creates this bias of, oh, she’s totally like, everything’s fine. And we stop paying attention and attuning and actually really connecting to the actual person because all of what that society values, the most checks the box.

And so why even look deeper?

Cara: Totally. Plus most of the research on autism has been done on boys and men. I think masking is actually part of it because if you think about how girls are socialized in most societies, I’m going to generalize here and say that girls are taught to be very conscious of how the people around us see us. We’re taught not to ruffle any feathers, we’re taught to fit in and conform in ways that are similar to what boys experienced, but very distinct for women. So women, it’s all about don’t draw too much attention to yourself.

And so women, especially girls, become very, very good at sort of masking and adapting to their environment. I feel a lot of times, like sort of an alien in an environment, trying to figure out how do I say the right things, act the right way, dress the right way in such a way that people will think I’m one of them.

And we’re pretty good at it until we get to the point where we have spent so much of our lives masking that we burn out, drop out, quit our jobs, have a meltdown, have a divorce, something traumatic happens in our lives where you just get to the point where you can no longer sort of mask or hide yourselves.

And I don’t think it’s any surprise that that happens for a lot of women in their thirties and forties and fifties as they get older, because as you get older, you tend to care less and less about what people think. And so that means you’re spending less and less time masking. And suddenly your family’s wondering who is this person, right. I’ve never met them before. They’re behaving in ways that I don’t understand for me.

My journey started a few years ago when I was 41, I had an intern that was going to be working with me over the summer, working on software accessibility and helping me build a diversity and inclusion program. And in our first 1-on-1, she told me, I want you to know I’m autistic.

And I thought, Great! I have no idea what to do with that. So I said, Hey, you know, I really want to understand what does this mean for you? How does it show up? How can I be the most kick-ass intern boss that you’ve ever had? So I asked her if she would send me some things to read about autism and how it shows up for her.

A week passed and I realized I had to get ready for our 1-on-1. So I started reading all the things that she’d sent me, and it was like looking in the mirror in this really profound and disorienting way. When I started reading about how autism shows up in women and you know, what their childhoods are like, what their school experiences…I even have goosebumps now talking about it.

I was sort of looking over my shoulder to see if somebody’s watching me react to this, because this feels really, really resonant. And then I dismissed it and said, it’s probably like a horoscope. Anybody reads it and they can read whatever they want to. And then it’s no big deal, but I couldn’t let it go.

It’s one of those things where it just sort of hits you in your gut and immediately it’s true, but it also sort of threw my whole world into…Wait a minute! I don’t know what this means and how could I possibly be over 40 and not know this thing about myself.

Luckily, one of the reasons that I love my wife is she is a straight shooter. I’ve known her since I was in high school. She knows who I am at my core. And she knows when I’m not being who I am at my core. So I printed out all of the stuff on autism that I could find, and I shared it with her and I fully expected her to say to me, It’s nothing, you’re fine. Let’s make dinner.

And instead she sort of looked at it and looked at me like, Yeah, I can see that. And so again, knocked me over. I was just in shock. So very long story short, I was lucky here in central Maine, that there’s a neuropsychology center that actually has experience working with adults with autism and ADHD.

Shane: Talk about a kind of midlife revelation about something that’s always been there, but just out of your conscious mind’s visibility,

Cara: it took me almost a year to really figure out what that meant for me, because you immediately start looking back on your life and things that sort of never made sense before to see how this fits into the story of who I was and who I’m becoming in the same way that when I was in my thirties and I came out of the closet as a queer woman looking back at like, Why was I always in these sort of weird relationships with my boyfriends in high school?

Oh, right. That’s why. Right. So you start connecting the dots in this really interesting way, but overall for me, having a diagnosis has been incredibly powerful because not only does it help me find a community of like-minded people who I can learn from, it also helps me give myself grace about things that I’m not good at. That I’m never going to be good at because that’s not how my brain is wired.

And so it’s not that I give myself an excuse, not to try things. It’s just, I know if they don’t go well for the first time, Hey, this thing is going to be harder for you. And it’s okay that it’s harder and it’s okay that you chip away at it and work at it, but just know it’s always going to be hard. So it’s, it’s been really powerful.

You think in your thirties, you’re done figuring out who you are and what I’ve learned through this as I’m probably never going to be done, figuring out who I am and every time you think you’ve got it, the book’s finished, you get to start at Page 1 and just rewrite it again.

Shane: One of my favorite poems goes, If you aren’t amazed at how naive you were yesterday, you’re standing still. If you’re not terrified of the next step, your eyes are closed. If you’re standing still and your eyes are closed, then you’re only dreaming that you’re awake a caged bird and an open sky.

What made me think of that is how all of us have so much more to our make-up than we get, right?

That, your diagnosis of a neurological “disability” gave you such greater access to compassion. Which is actually how I also experienced you showing up is with compassion for the multitude of human experiences that are happening at any given time. And how do we help leaders actually access more of that compassion?

Cara: One of the beliefs that I hold true is that everybody is doing the best they can with the information they have in the moment. And so when you start believing that with people, it gives you a different perspective on how can you help them versus judge them. And what are ways that you can help people overcome where they are and become something.

So a lot of times, if I see something on social media that makes me want to roll my eyes or retreat into my own corner, with my fingers in my ears, I have to ask myself, do I still believe this about this person? Are they doing the very best they can in this moment? And if I still can say the answer is yes, then the answer has to be compassion because I have no idea what their story is.

You know, I only see what’s on the surface. I don’t see the suck’s feet peddling underneath. And so can I be radically open to expanding my own perspective and suspending my own judgment.

Shane: Do you know the term semantic noise? It’s the idea that when we think something is the full hundred percent of what we’re trying to communicate, we really understand what we’re thinking and then we speak something and it’s maybe 80% of that original.

That gets communicated and then what’s actually received goes through all the different filters—all of the conditioning, language, frameworks, and past experiences and belief systems. And then it goes through the air and then it has to enter your belief systems, your language frameworks, your past experiences.

And what ultimately gets communicated is a tiny fraction of what was originally said, and it’s distorted and just not the original envelope that was delivered. There’s semantic noise happening everywhere. George Bernard Shaw said the greatest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.

Cara: That’s true. It’s like a, a big game of telephone all the time.

You know, one of the things that’s happening in autistic communities now is a push towards something called the neurodiversity movement. And it’s really about how do we see the things like autism and ADHD and dyslexia and dyspraxia and Tourette’s syndrome? Do we see them as diseases to be cured or do we see them as sort of a natural manifestation of all of the different ways that human beings can be?

So the medical model of disability is how disability has sort of traditionally been seen throughout human history, which is that there is one human standard of perfection and disability is a deviation from that standard. And deviation is bad. Absolutely disability is there for negative because it means that there’s a standard and you haven’t met it, whether that’s physical or developmental disability.

And so what that does is two things; a) it says that disability is kind of the fault and responsibility of the disabled person and b) that the way to fix it is to fix the individual.

Another way of seeing disability is via a social model. And the social model of disability says that what makes people disabled is not a physical or mental difference. It’s the fact that society is really built around valuing only one human experience. And so places sort of the responsibility on the greater society to adjust physical environments, digital environments and experiences so that everybody has a chance to participate.

And it sees that disability is just diversity. It’s not broken humanity in the same way that an orange is not just a broken apple, right. An orange is something different and it has different strengths and it has different uses.

So if we think about a building that has stairs for an entrance, but no ramp. The medical model of disability would say, well, we should just fix the person who can’t get up the stairs. Whereas the social model of disability says this building is inaccessible. Let’s make it accessible to everybody. And let’s build a ramp. And by the way, not only are we then helping wheelchair users, we’re also helping women who are pushing baby strollers and all sorts of people can benefit from what’s called universal design, which is adapting built and virtual environments for people who are disabled.

Shane: When we first met and started talking about you joining 15Five, this wasn’t as much on my radar as a part of true diversity, equity, and inclusion inside of a company. There is a, a level of awareness, attention, passion you bring to the table around disability inclusion. It’s actually been a revelation for me of you sharing some of the things that are disabilities and been a really beautiful contemplation of my own disabilities, or it’s a contemplation of like, oh yeah, I have all these things that I’ve actually really struggled with.

Some known, some unknown only to me that have really actually been these very difficult things in my life. And it’s just like, oh wait, I I’m disabled. Oh, that’s really interesting. And so now we’re, we’re doing the self ID campaign and there’s a lot more people raising their hand and sharing that they have a disability. It’s really beautiful watching the permission to come out of hiding.

Cara: There was some study that Harvard Business Review published a few years ago that said that 90% of companies were working on diversity and inclusion, but only 4% of them said that disability was an active part of the conversation, which is mind boggling to me.

Because if you think about the CDC statistics around disability, first of all, globally, a billion people have disappeared. Over a billion people, right. And just in the United States. So if we’re talking about adults, 25% of adults in the United States have a disability. So what that means, if you’re an HR practitioner, is you already have disabled people in your organization today, but 75% of disabilities are non apparent.

Meaning you’re not going to know someone has a disability, unless they tell you. So things like autism, or somebody who had survived a cancer diagnosis even now, today, if they’re in remission, even if they’ve been in remission for 20 years, the Americans with Disabilities Act still considers them to be a disabled person.

And that number, as your employees age, is likely to grow. So if you’re not thinking about disability inclusion, now’s a great time to start. What I think is challenging for people is we’ve all sort of learned through this medical model of disability. That disability is a dirty word. And so people are afraid to say the word disabled and disability advocates today are saying, “Say the damn word, right!?”

Because we see disability as just different. We get a lot of people sort of talking around disability because they’re generally uncomfortable with it. And that discomfort comes from us as a society, seeing disability as something negative that we’re supposed to be trying to fix instead of human difference, that we should be embracing.

There are lots of far more eloquent people saying great things on this topic than me, but just suffice it to say that disability is not a bad word and disabled people don’t have special needs. We have the same needs as everyone else. We need to communicate. We need to be gainfully employed. We need to have people value and appreciate us the way we go about it. Maybe different, but it’s not special needs. It’s not extra needs. It’s the same as everyone.

Shane: I think a lot about culture is fundamentally about human needs, really understanding human needs and creating, stacking the odds in favor of our core human needs being met.

That’s a very difficult task to meet a lot of different humans needs. But I think there are some of the universal ones of being seen, being listened to, being cared for that do permeate across all of our cultural variants.

Cara: They do, and those needs follow us into work. That’s one of the reasons that I’m so excited to be at 15Five, because we are solely focused on helping companies build great manager and employee relationships, where people can be seen and valued and supported and appreciated. That is diversity and inclusion and equity and belonging being enhanced.

They are a part of that conversation just by the very nature of what we’re trying to accomplish. So it was really exciting for me to come here and consider, how do we scale that? How do we help every company be able to beat each other with this level of honesty and vulnerability?