Paradoxes of Inclusion: An Article Summary from a CAF Member Point of View

As part of the culture change efforts in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) and the Department of National Defence (DND), I have appreciated the opportunity to act as host during a series of Inclusive Leadership workshops for our DND/CAF executive cadre. The discussions have been rich and I have been moved by the conviction of our leaders to help enact culture change in our department. Our facilitator, Dr Lise Hebabi, discussed a particularly eye-opening article with us, which was written by Dr. Bernardo Ferdman. The article is called “Paradoxes of Inclusion: Understanding and Managing the Tensions of Diversity and Multiculturalism” (2017). As the paradoxes of inclusion spurred such great discussion in the groups and my own reflections, I share here a summary of the article, along with some CAF context examples to consider.

So, what is inclusion? DND/CAF has used the following definition of an inclusive workplace: “a collective culture in which people feel valued, respected, connected, psychologically safe, involved in decision-making, recognized as having unique characteristics that contribute to organizational success, and empowered to bring their authentic selves to the workplace.” (CPCC, 2021).

According to Ferdman (2017), there are three main paradoxes related to inclusion. He likens a paradox to a tension or challenge between two seemingly contradictory components. Ferdman argues that inclusion is inherently paradoxical. The challenge is not moving from one sole perspective to another, but, instead, managing the tensions that will inevitably arise between two paradoxical perspectives as an organization aims to become more inclusive.

Ferdman’s three paradoxes of inclusion, as I will describe, are: 1) Self-Expression & Identity; 2) Boundaries & Norms; and 3) Safety & Comfort. Note that the images below are taken directly from the Ferdman (2017) article.

The Paradox of Self-Expression & Identity

On the left side of this first paradox, we see the perspective of belonging and absorption, and on the right side, we see distinctiveness and uniqueness. Ferdman states that this paradox is often one of the most salient tensions. On one side, we value assimilation. Members must be absorbed into the greater group and may have to give up or hide some aspects of who they are to be similar to the others and to fit in. The perceived benefit of this is that each member then becomes an equal within the group and receives equal benefits.

On the other side of the coin, everyone can present themselves as unique in their own distinctiveness, without losing any of the benefits of being part of the assimilated whole. Within this perspective, members can present their true authentic selves at work and differing opinions and even dissent should be welcomed.

It is easy, in the CAF context, to identify the left side perspective in how we have historically welcomed our new soldiers during basic military training. An individual walks through the [green] door and exits as part of the collective. This is done through, for example, fresh new short hair cuts, identical uniforms, a new ethos, lingo, and culture learned and integrated. I can recall being told by my military husband, at the outset of my military training, to be “gray”, to keep my head down, and to not become the “lightning rod.” The message was clear: fit in or there would be problems. Being distinct, too different, or *gasp* dissenting (as mentioned in the right box) would surely not have been in my best interest.

The CAF is currently making efforts to create a more inclusive environment. Inclusion, according to Shore et al. (2011), requires a sense of belonging and an ability to show one’s own uniqueness. The tension between these two perspectives will need to continually be managed. Are we a melting pot, where all are assimilated, or are we a mosiac, where we can come together as one while displaying our own uniqueness to the benefit of all? In other words, “To fully belong, I need to be able to keep my separate and distinct identity; for that identity to matter and make a difference to the whole [such as in terms of more diverse perspectives and skills], I need to fully belong” (Ferdman, 2017, p. 248). A great quote to reflect on!

The Paradox of Boundaries & Norms

On the left side of this paradox, related to boundaries and norms, we see that these are stable and well-defined, and on the right side, we see that these as shifting and open. On one side, our norms and boundaries are well-defined, persistent, consistent across contexts, and passed on to newcomers. There is certainly a value in stable and well-defined norms and boundaries as they help us define ourselves as an organization. Such examples in the CAF include the common standards of accepting unlimited liability, respecting the dignity of all persons, submitting to the code of service discipline, and wearing a uniform representing our country.

On the other side, we can see our norms and boundaries as shifting and open to change. What is “normal” (e.g. rules & “the way we’ve always done it”) within the organization can and should change as the population and its requirements change. An example of this in the CAF could be religious accommodations for meals, holidays, and prayer time. In the past, it may not have been the norm to accommodate such things during training. Today, boundaries and norms are shifting in order to meet the religious requirements of members.

Within the CAF, a recent change shows an example of how the organization is working to manage inclusion-related tensions. An update to the CAF Dress Instructions came out in September, 2022 after a re-examination of dress-related norms and boundaries. A FAQ page (GC, 2022) stated that “the appearance of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) has not kept pace with the Canadian society which it serves.” While the CAF is an organization that values stable & well-defined norms and boundaries, this example shows an understanding that as the population of the CAF and of Canada shifts, it is necessary to periodically re-evaluate our norms and boundaries to make sure that they are still representative. New changes allow for more authentic self-expression while in uniform including examples such as allowing for varied hair length, colours, and styles, more freedom with relation to tattoos and jewelry, and providing the options of both male and female uniform pieces to all members or for these to be intermixed.

A common tension arises from opening up the long established boundaries or, one could say, “the way we’ve always done things.” Some may feel that it creates a slippery slope. What will come next? How far will we go? Often, unfortunately, these kinds of fears lead to no changes, no evolution – thus the tension. To summarize the challenge, in terms of norms and boundaries,: “both overboundedness and underboundedness can be a problem for social systems; the challenge is to get it just right” (Ferdman, 2011, p. 253). An enduring and timeless challenge, no doubt!

The Paradox of Safety & Comfort

On the left side of this paradox, related to an environment of safety & comfort, we have comfort & “my way,” and on the right side, we see discomfort & openness to change. On one side, there is the perspective that everyone should be comfortable and accepted exactly as they are, full authenticity should be encouraged, and nobody should ever need to change.

On the other side of this tension, the perspective says that all must accept some discomfort and have an openness to change. Old comfortable patterns of behaviours may need to adjust in order to create an inclusive and safe environment for all.

I can imagine a CAF scenario where a member moves from a certain historical culture where swearing and off-collar jokes have been the norm and where that had become a comfortable way for colleagues to interact. This, of course, may not be comfortable to all. In some situations, one’s “comfort-zone” may offend those around them, potentially in new environments. As Ferdman (2017) points out, our “familiar behaviour and styles may not have the intended results” (p. 257) in other situations or contexts. As we often talk about “bringing your authentic self to the workplace,” in relation to inclusion and psychological safety, we can now see the tension inherent in this paradox. Bringing your “authentic self” to the workplace could have the potential to make others feel unsafe or uneasy. To build inclusion, all members must adapt themselves, as required, and always remember to “incorporate a good dose of mutual responsibility and sensitivity” (p. 257).


According to Ferdman (2017), engaging in inclusion within a diverse population will always involve some level of discomfort. He states that we must learn to be “more comfortable with discomfort” (p. 258) as we open ourselves up to let go of our “certainties” and endeavor to view situations from a new diverse set of vantage points. “When we can recognize, hold, and even welcome the contradictions inherent in inclusion [i.e. the three paradoxes], we should be better equipped to engage and address diversity dynamics” (p. 259).

As an organization, I would suggest, it is not the goal to change perspectives from one side of the paradox to the other. It is to better understand the tensions found in these three paradoxes. We should consider our current state and how we should evolve to better serve and represent our diverse population. We should consider collectively, how far are we willing to evolve and to what end. Do certain contexts, in headquarters versus on operations, affect our responses to these tensions?

I hope I have done justice in reviewing this valuable article on the paradoxes of inclusion. I highly recommend reading this Ferdman (2017) article in full if you are looking to further grow your understanding in this important area.


CPCC Initiating Directive on the Integration of the Measurement of Inclusive Behaviours in the Defence Team, September 2021

Ferdman, B. M. (2017). Paradoxes of Inclusion: Understanding and Managing the Tensions of Diversity and Multiculturalism. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 53(2), 235–263.

Government of Canada. (2022). Changes to the Canadian Forces Dress Instructions: Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Changes to the Canadian Forces Dress Instructions.

Shore, L. M., Randel, A. E., Chung, B. G., Dean, M. A., and Ehrhart, & Singh, G. (2011). Inclusion and diversity in work groups: A review and model for future research. Journal of Management, 37(4), 1262–1289.

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