Inclusive leadership. Psychological safety. Empathy. Diversity. Unconscious bias. Equity. So many buzzwords! It feels like every few months there’s a new slogan in the field of diversity & inclusion touting itself as the ‘missing link’ or the ‘key’ to creating diverse, innovative, and productive teams. It’s almost overwhelming – and that’s where the problem lies. The constant stream of new ideas in the field of diversity, equity and inclusion is too much for any individual to keep up with, let alone implement in their organisations. It’s almost off-putting – which is exactly the opposite of what needs to be achieved.
This is particularly evident in the context of leadership. A quick Google search for ‘Inclusive Leadership’ reveals thousands of articles explaining why inclusive leadership is required to get the most out of your diverse teams and advice on how to be an inclusive leader yourself. We all know that diverse teams perform better than homogenous teams, and there’s a wealth of information available proving that inclusive leadership is required to actually glean the benefits of that diversity.
The problem is that many people see the words ‘inclusive leadership’ and pigeonhole it as a style of leadership dedicated solely to helping minority or oft overlooked employees. This is understandable; the goal of this type of leadership is to ‘include’ those who are often excluded. However, inclusive leadership is about more than just pulling in those individuals on the peripheries of the group; it’s a style of leadership that actively creates an atmosphere that welcomes, inspires and motivates everyone – regardless of gender, culture, sexuality or ethnicity. Inclusive leadership is not good leadership in the context of diversity, it’s good leadership regardless of diversity. Inclusive leadership simply is good leadership – and it is also the future of leadership, especially as the workplace evolves into a multi-generational, internationally connected and hybrid working model.
So, if you’re approaching inclusive leadership as something that is necessary for some people and not others then you’re already approaching it in the wrong way. There’s already significant research detailing how to be an effective leader, and this distinctly overlaps with the behaviours of an inclusive leader. What we need to do is unify the two and realise that they’re truly one and the same.
Essentially, to lead well is inherently to lead inclusively.
Distributed Leadership and Inclusive Leadership
The need for Inclusive leadership has drastically increased since working from home became the norm during the pandemic. Almost overnight, managers were forced into giving a freer rein to their employees as companies scrambled to organise themselves remotely. Leaders were forced to give up some of their power and control as they no longer had oversight of every move made by their team members, and so, at a stroke, more autonomy was placed onto employees to manage themselves as hitherto insurmountable barriers to remote working fell at an astonishing rate around the world.
However, twenty-first century leadership has already been leaning towards this style for a while – the pandemic merely consolidated it. Over the past decade or so, the world has already been gradually moving towards a greater appreciation of employee empowerment and enablement, as Distributed Leadership has emerged. Distributed Leadership promotes a theory of ‘leadership by expertise’ where individuals who are best equipped to lead on certain projects take the lead, rather than those sitting at the top of the hierarchy. For example – if conventional leadership is laid out in hierarchical triangles with the leader at the top, picture distributed leadership as cross-communication across circles. This is where we need to be headed globally.
Inclusive Leadership & Diversity
Covid has certainly accelerated this movement towards Inclusive Leadership, but it was already gaining traction. As the world simultaneously woke up to the pervasiveness of racial inequality brought to our attention by the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, and workplace gender inequality as we saw the effects of the pandemic on working mothers, organisations have realised that becoming more diverse is not only the morally right thing to do – it actually has a significant bearing on performance and profit.
These conversations have resulted in organisations increasing their general consciousness of their employees during the pandemic – their ethnicity, their parental status and their mental health. This has meant that leaders have learnt to appreciate the nuanced, intersectional experience of their employees throughout the pandemic and work out how to balance this with their professional expectations. Thus, leaders have had to discover novel and effective ways to lead to keep up with these changing times – and this type of leadership is effectively inclusive leadership.
However, it’s imperative to bear in mind the difference between equality and equity here; whilst managers should practise inclusive leadership for all, they must also bear in mind their employees’ intersectional experiences and treat them as individuals. We must be careful to be mindful of those employees that still need to be purposefully given the opportunity to shine in the workplace. Minority and marginalised employees still aren’t typically front and centre in the workplace. Proactivity is key when addressing workplace inequalities – you cannot merely present yourself as an inclusive leader and hope that’s enough. It does require significant behavioural change.
Minority employees don’t need remedial help specific to them – they simply need to be a clear focus for investment to make up for where they’ve been overlooked in the past due to ingrained systemic bias. By pigeonholing inclusive leadership into the context of diversity, we sell all our employees short – and we may even be subconsciously ascribing negative connotations to minority employees by singling them out as needing a ‘special’ kind of leadership.
The Importance of Psychological Safety
Inclusive leadership is crucially intertwined with creating a culture of psychological safety for employees. Psychological safety is described as the cultural condition “in which human beings feel included, safe to learn, safe to contribute, and safe to challenge the status quo – all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished in some way” (Clark, 2020). A team led by an inclusive leader will inherently have high levels of psychological safety, and thus each individual is likely to consistently bring their “all” to the table.
For example, a member of a team that has high levels of psychological safety will:
- Feel comfortable asking for clarification around a project
- Happily voice their opinion to improve a process without fear of getting shot down
- Feel comfortable voicing any reservations or concerns about an ongoing project
- Willingly take risks as they know that if they do fail, it is merely a learning opportunity and they will not be criticised
- Be willing to ask for help to streamline their work, increasing overall effectiveness
Notice that this list refers simply to ‘a member of a team’ – because it applies to each and every employee. The impact of poor leadership is clearly significant for everyone. This is because there’s incredibly little variation across humans in their base psychological make-up; every human, in one way or another, is prone to feelings of imposter syndrome, of lacking confidence, of being nervous to speak up, to ask for help or to fail. In fact, 85% of people suffer from low self-esteem and this subsequently will have significant effects in the workplace – both on their personal career progression and on the general output of their work. This effect can be mitigated through inclusive leadership and a culture of psychological safety.
It’s easy to see why this style of leadership is so valuable in the field of DEI, but the most progressive organisations are seeing inclusive leadership as a strategic imperative. It’s becoming widely acknowledged that inclusive leaders are not merely a nice to have, they are a need to have in the complex, diverse, dynamic world we now inhabit. You cannot have a psychologically safe culture without inclusive leadership first setting the tone for it. Without either of these, your team won’t be operating at their optimum and fulfilling their potential. The takeaway message is this – to be an effective leader, you need to lead in an inclusive way.
Being inclusive requires leaders to search within themselves, examine their preferences and habits and ask for feedback on how these might play out in their everyday behaviour. So far, we’ve noticed a disconnect between intention and action. Leaders understand the benefits but might not yet have acquired the self-awareness and some of the skills needed to put it into practice. It’s hard to change behaviour, particularly those behaviours that have served leaders well in their journey to their position of power. It means losing power and control and recognising that the opposite of control is not chaos but trust. I hope to have shown in this article how inclusive leadership is good leadership with both moral and commercial significance. For a guide on how to become an inclusive leader yourself and the particular significance of it as we move into a world of hybrid working, read our next piece here.
Clark, Timothy R (March 2020). The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation. Berrett-Koehler. ISBN 9781523087686.