Posted: 2/7/18

The Art of Inclusion: 3 Inclusive Culture Tips Inspired by Vincent van Gogh

Benjamin Antoniou

When visiting the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, which through Vincent’s art and letters is an experiential journey of his life, I found inspiration for my own work in diversity and inclusion. Here are the key moments where the artist's life and works moved and motivated me, which I hope can do the same for you.
Your most engaged people might need you most

Beyond changing the history of art forever, Vincent is perhaps best known for two things. First, he experienced several periods of challenging mental health, ultimately leading to his life being cut short at only 37 years old. Second, he was an extraordinarily productive painter. The two are closely connected. Vincent didn’t decide to become an artist or even begin to explore his craft until he was 27. Within 10 short years he produced several thousand artworks, including near to a thousand oil paintings. Vincent was at his most productive in his final years, when his mental health became most troubled. In 1889, he was admitted to a mental hospital, where over the course of a year he produced more than 150 paintings.

A person’s dedication to their work is therefore sometimes not an indication that they are fine; sometimes it's the opposite. Without mindful attention, we can miss when our most engaged people might need us most. Masked by prolific output, their mental health continuum dips too low and is unable to recover. Workplace wellbeing, contrary to a lot of current practice, has little to do with yoga mats. It is about taking a genuine, attentive interest in our people and understanding their individual needs. That is inclusion in its simplest form.

Inclusive leaders make wellbeing part of day-to-day conversation with their teams.

Everybody needs a chance and a champion

During his life-time Vincent was not successful. By some he was even considered a failure. His younger brother Theo, however, always maintained a fervent belief in him as an artist. Theo, a successful art dealer, praised and encouraged Vincent in the frequent letters he wrote him and organised exhibitions of his work. In the short time between Vincent’s untimely death and his own early departure from the world, Theo set out to bring his brother’s work to public attention. After Theo’s passing, his widow Johanna took on the mission of making Vincent’s work known to the world. She succeeded.

Without Theo and Johanna, the magnificent collection of art that Vincent produced during his 37 years on planet earth would still be unknown to us. It is a poignant reminder that everybody needs both a chance and a champion to achieve their potential. Without a champion, without clear sponsorship, talent and potential commonly gets missed. Unconscious bias means diverse talent and potential is even more frequently overlooked. By developing and encouraging sponsors in our organisations we stand a better chance of ensuring all our people achieve what they are capable of.

Mentors talk to you, sponsors talk about you.

Change demands the attention of hearts and minds

Vincent's raison d'être was to capture a more vivid, emotive feeling in his work. He hoped his colourful paintings would contribute to the modernisation of art. Though he didn't live to see it happen, today his artworks are among the most prized in the world, worth tens of millions of dollars. His work transformed modern art in an explosive way, within a timeframe as brief as his own life.

The pace of progress for diversity and inclusion remains frustrating. This is despite the plethora of evidence-based research on the business case for it, and despite the earnest efforts of us in the profession to communicate its well documented benefits. This should send a clear message that something is missing in our narrative. Vincent changed history because his work moved people. The larger than life emotion he captured in his art made people feel. The business case for inclusion and diversity is important but rarely has a person changed their mind, let alone their behaviour, because a research report told them to. We must capture the attention of hearts, as well as minds, if we are to accelerate the game.

Research reports don't create lightbulb moments; people do.


Benjamin Antoniou is Global Inclusion & Diversity Manager at GSK, a science-led global healthcare company with 99,000+ employees in more than 100 countries, on a mission to help people to do more, feel better, live longer. In his spare time you are most likely to find him in the garden. Follow him on Twitter for cool diversity and inclusion stuff @benjaminclusion.



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