Inclusion is not just a theoretical concept; it’s about what we do and say on a day-to-day basis to build our inclusive awareness and practice.
Being inclusive is one of four behaviours we see as essential for transformational leaders.
Inclusion has a role to play in everything we do as leaders. It’s about being open, approachable and able to build trust with others. It’s about making sure that everyone feels able to speak up and offer an opinion, whatever their background, world view or approach, even if we sometimes find that uncomfortable or challenging. It’s not always straightforward or easy, but we also know that recruiting, enabling and harnessing a diverse range of voices is not just the right thing to do; it also makes good business sense.
But even when we know the theory, it can sometimes be hard to make inclusion a reality on the ground. We need to be mindful that inclusion doesn’t just happen; it needs to be actively cultivated and nurtured. Equality legislation has given us a clear steer when it comes to more obvious forms of discrimination and exclusion, and (thankfully) deliberately hostile behaviours intended to offend are increasingly rare. But that still leaves plenty of grey areas where we need to use our judgement about what to do for the best, when to intervene, how to be as inclusive as possible. It’s not always easy to make the right call.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do everything we can to try. Like so much we face as leaders, inclusion is about practice, developing and honing what we do through continuous learning and development. And – as with so many things - it starts with awareness. That’s why we’ve created some golden rules we can follow as we develop as inclusive leaders. We’re also sharing and exploring some common scenarios that might help to develop that practice.
Inclusive leadership: six golden rules
We know that there are no silver bullets when it comes to workplaces where everyone can bring their whole selves to work and we can benefit fully from those diverse voices. But there are some key principles we can bear in mind to be more conscious about leading inclusively.
1. Curiosity and dialogue are the key
We can do nothing to change our own background and experience as a leader, but we don’t have to limit our perspective to what we already know. We need to stay curious, to want to expand our worldview, to find out more about other people and how their own unique perspectives can add value.
That means being open and open-minded and understanding the crucial role dialogue can play in broadening our horizons and embracing new thinking and ideas. Dialogue is also an essential tool when we need to address and explore those grey areas of behaviour in others.
Curiosity and dialogue start with asking the right questions. This questioning might be more strategic or wide-ranging. In its first inclusion report, for example, the inclusion team at media giant, Netflix, exhorts each and every one of its employees to deploy what it calls an inclusion lens, asking questions like: whose voice is missing, or who is being excluded?
It also means learning to listen actively, and without judgment, and using our empathy to understand the people around us. This kind of dialogue with colleagues is a fertile ground for more inclusive practice, and it’s crucial to learn from our colleagues about their (different) experiences. One simple practical way to do this is to have one-to-one meetings with each member of our teams and ask them what specific kind of situations at work they find particularly difficult, where do they tend to ‘cover’ or mute themselves and what could you do, as the team leader, to make it easier for them in those situations to feel more at ease.
It’s hard to lead inclusively if we’re not prepared to be open-minded and curious about people who are not the same as us. Curiosity and dialogue help us to challenge the biases and assumptions we may – unconsciously or not – bring to work. And that is a fundamental building block for inclusion.
2. Psychological safety is an inclusion driver
Harvard professor Amy Edmondson has pioneered the use of the term psychological safety as a shorthand for cultures and behaviours that encourage “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes”. In inclusion terms, psychological safety is a key enabler. It’s difficult for any of us to feel a sense of inclusion or belonging when we feel psychologically unsafe. Equally, it’s much harder to have that dialogue we need if people feel they cannot speak up openly.
Edmondson herself believes that learning is at the heart of feeling safe at work. The more people are prepared to take risks and be vulnerable at work, to be prepared to speak out, to learn from both success and failure, the more everyone will feel able to bring their whole selves to work and to contribute fully. She’s also clear that it’s not just about making people feel better about themselves (although that might be a positive outcome too). It’s also about performance, creativity and innovation. In 2012, Google set out to identify what makes a successful team. Their #1 factor (by a mile)? Psychological safety. Interestingly, in terms of how psychological safety manifested itself, this typically involved the more psychologically safe teams opening team meetings with a few minutes of free ranging social conversation where they got to know each other and shared stories on a more personal level.
3. Immersive experience
We all have a whole host of cognitive biases, those thinking shortcuts or errors that affect how we interpret the world around us and the decisions and judgements that we make. They’re simply part of the human condition.
Inclusive leadership requires us to become more aware of the biases we have and to look to manage and mitigate them as best we can. But that doesn’t mean that much-used unconscious bias training, on its own, is the answer; it can actually lead to more anxiety and division. Alongside curiosity and dialogue, immersive experience, simply spending time with people who are not like us, is one of the best ways to foster a more inclusive culture. Creating project teams with as a wide a mix of people as possible is one great way to do this.
4. Context matters
Even the most self-aware leaders do not operate in isolation. Like leadership itself, inclusion – or, more particularly, exclusion – is situational. We need to understand the particular inclusion challenges our own organisations, industries or sectors face. Do we tend to prioritise people with particular accents, for example, or extroverts, or physically attractive people (as happens quite a bit in many creative agencies)?
Context-specific barriers to inclusion might not always be obvious, but they can be a serious impediment to more diverse and inclusive workplaces. Gender and ethnically diverse organisations may still share a narrow set of traits or characteristics in terms of education or class for example.
As inclusive leaders, we need to take time to understand our own contexts and cultures and how these might either facilitate or hinder inclusion. Armed with that knowledge, we can take an honest look at ourselves and start to build strategies and practices to do better.
5. Be a role model
It’s hard to hold others accountable if we can’t be held accountable ourselves. Inclusion is a matter for everyone in organisations, but leaders have a special responsibility to make inclusion a personal priority.
It’s important not just to make a theoretical commitment to inclusion; we also need to walk the walk, to take every opportunity to evidence that commitment, whether that’s encouraging everyone at a meeting to take part, giving those who need it the time to frame a response or reminding Dave in Accounts (again) that his universal “Hi, guys” greeting might grate with some of his female colleagues.
This can be tough. It might involve challenging the status quo, making a tricky call about the line between banter and offence or being humble enough to admit our mistakes and course correct when we’ve got something wrong. It also means being aware that how we behave, what we say and how we say it has an amplified impact because of the positional authority we have. We need to stop and think before we speak and act; be sensitive and aware; to understand and demonstrate that language matters.
When British tennis player, Andy Murray, was congratulated on being the first tennis player to win two Olympic gold medals at the Rio games in 2016, he was quick to respond that his fellow tennis players, Venus and Serena Williams, had already garnered four, reminding his interviewer politely but firmly that women play tennis too. That’s being a role model for inclusion.
6. Get comfortable with healthy debate and dissent
The thing about being part of a team that looks and feels the same as we do is that it can feel, well, nice and comfortable. And nobody wants to be part of a team that’s constantly bickering and conflict-ridden.
But there’s a world of different between destructive conflict and healthy debate and dissent that helps us to interrogate, refine and improve what we do at work and how we do it. Journalist and author Matthew Syed champion of cognitive diversity in organisations, is eloquent about the limitations, even dangers, of cosy, insular teams of people who look and think the same. But he is also clear that cognitively diverse teams can also be challenging. For Syed, proper inclusion often means the polar opposite of those nice, self-validating groups where debate is minimal and decisions arrived at quickly and unanimously. Inviting a diverse range of views and opinions can be awkward, challenging and difficult to manage.
True inclusion, then, brings with it the potential for greater levels of dissent. As leaders, we need to guard against reverting to a dissent-avoiding comfort zone or closing down discussion just because that discussion is inconvenient or doesn’t align with our own views. Instead, we need to remain open and open-minded and to remember that, to create an oyster, we need some grit. That can mean treading a fine line between that healthy debate and destructive conflict, and there will be times when we need simply to get on with things and act. But, if we are to lead inclusively, simply having a diverse range of voices at the table is not enough; we also need to encourage those people to use their voices, and to make sure they are heard.
Help! Some common inclusion scenarios
So, we know the theory, and have taken on board some key inclusion principles. But what can we practically do when confronted with some common inclusion challenges? Here are some tips for navigating some tricky waters and building our inclusive practice.
When we need to fill a vacancy, we tend to start with who we might already know. How might we cast the net wider?
We won’t get very far with inclusion if we’re not getting the D in diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI) right. Yet traditional “culture fit” approaches to recruitment, where we’re looking to add more of the same to the mix, are remarkably resilient. Instead, we need to think about recruitment in terms of “culture add”, asking ourselves how we can use recruitment to bring in experience and expertise that’s different, new and fresh.
That, of course, starts with the right underpinning. Policies and procedures that outline things like equality of opportunity, equitable pay or inclusive benefits clearly and transparently can act as a real statement of intent if they’re crafted imaginatively and shared widely.
There are also some very practical things we can do to recruit more inclusively:
- Make “culture add” a deliberate part of the business case for any recruitment.
- Have a clear and transparent process and selection criteria. Don’t rely on gut instinct, which will tend to reinforce our biases.
- Be up front about commitment to inclusion and open about inclusive benefits like flexible working or care/childcare policies.
- Consider carefully the language used in job descriptions, job specs and job ads.
- Avoid unnecessary or unclear requirements (do we really need an Oxbridge graduate?); take out language or references that could be narrowing; focus on “must haves” rather than criteria that create barriers for people who don’t meet exacting and specific criteria.
- Adopt inclusive interviewing, being as clear as possible about when, where and how interviews will take place, and offering reasonable adjustments for candidates who might need more support.
- Don’t go it alone: one sure-fire way to tackle recruitment bias is to involve others in the process, especially people who have different approaches and perspectives.
At the start of a new project or initiative, Tania is always first in line when it comes to lobbying for the best tasks or roles. She’s good, but, if I’m honest, I sometimes tend to go with her because it’s the easy option. How can I get others involved too?
There are a whole host of inclusion traps around the simplest of decisions about task allocation, promotion and remuneration. Not everyone who deserves that choice project or role will want, or feel able, to approach us proactively to make a case. Women, for example are traditionally much less inclined to ask for a pay rise. Any form of “inside track” for training and progression is inclusion death.
Be proactive about drawing that inclusion circle as wide as possible:
- Be open and transparent about opportunities – no back or side doors, even if that might save time. Think about how best to communicate those opportunities within and beyond your team.
- Think outside the box: rather than simply considering the usual suspects, are there other, less likely candidates who might bring new and different perspectives?
- Actively encourage people to contribute and step up. Get to know your colleagues and think about ways in which you can build confidence in people less likely to put themselves forward.
- Be fair and clear about how tasks, roles and promotions are distributed. If you were challenged about your decision, how would you defend it?
One of my team members, Imran, is very quiet in meetings, although the rest of his work is exemplary. We have a big brainstorming session coming up. How might I encourage him to contribute more?
For some people, attending a meeting might feel akin to entering a gladiatorial arena. Not everyone feels comfortable jostling for position, responding on the fly or saying the first thing that occurs to them. That doesn’t mean they have nothing to say. Inclusive leaders must make sure everyone has the opportunity, and feels able, to contribute.
Much of the groundwork for inclusive meetings relates to wider culture and behaviours. Prioritising psychological safety will do much to encourage full participation. So will taking the time to build trust between colleagues and boosting confidence where necessary. Being aware of the continuum between introversion and extroversion will also offer helpful insights into the challenge a room full of noisy extroverts might represent for those who derive their energy in different ways. Learning to chair meetings well and inclusively is an important inclusive leadership skill.
Writing in Harvard Business Review, Kathryn Heath and Brenda F. Wensil suggest that inclusive meetings are an essential starting point for inclusive cultures more generally. They also offer a handy checklist for leading inclusive meetings:
- Review the list of attendees: is anyone missing, especially people who represent diverse or dissenting points of view?
- Send out a clear agenda well ahead of time.
- Greet each meeting participant warmly, by name, so everyone feels welcome (and visible).
- State ground rules up front and make sure they explicitly foster inclusion.
- Mediate and facilitate: keep track of who’s talking — and who’s not.
- Prevent anyone from dominating, derailing or interrupting the discussion.
- Remain engaged in the conversation from beginning to end. Listen actively and summarise the discussion where necessary.
- Follow up after the meeting. Thank participants for attending and ask for their feedback.
Setting clear expectations about contributions and outcomes, in advance and on the day, is crucial. Explaining why people have been invited and what and how they should contribute will allow everyone to prepare, encourage participation and prevent situations where people stay silent or feel put on the spot or ‘bulldozed’ when called upon.
During the meeting, it’s also important to give everyone enough space and time to think.
Another inclusive meeting technique is brainwriting where, instead of (or as well as) everyone pitching ideas verbally, participants write down their ideas instead. It has the advantage of encouraging introverts to open up and extroverts to slow down and listen, acknowledging that some people simply need longer than others to come up with ideas. Brainwriting gives everyone extra time to think about and develop their suggestions more fully – and is another way to make sure everyone participates.
The best meetings are those where the discussion is not monopolised by the usual over-contributors, and where decisions are made without proper input and debate; we need to encourage and enable everyone to have their say.
I’ve noticed that my boss often seems uneasy when she has to deal with members of my team who do not share her own background and experience. How can I encourage her to open up and find out more about what they bring to the organisation?
The philosopher John Stuart Mill has an interesting take on the value of difference: “It is hardly possible to overrate the value… of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar”. Mill would undoubtedly approve of the idea of immersive experience, when we challenge our biases about people simply by spending time with them.
Reverse mentoring, for example, can be a relatively simple way of expanding our horizons. In most cases, reverse mentoring inverts the more usual senior-junior mentoring relationship. Originally used a means of senior leaders learning about tech from their digital native colleagues, it’s increasingly being used as a way of supporting inclusion by providing a framework for leaders to learn from and about the different experiences of more junior or diverse colleagues in organisations.
Pairing that boss with a team member who is different offers a real opportunity to open that boss’s eyes to other experiences and potential she might not otherwise recognise.
Just before an important pitch to a potential new client, Sarah seemed upset when Dave told her (in front of those clients) ‘you’re looking great, you’ll do really well’. Some of my colleagues have said they feel uncomfortable with him regularly commenting on people’s appearance. What should I do about it?
Deciding whether or not a comment, remark or action, often made with the best of intentions, should be challenged is one the trickiest grey areas we’ll face as leaders.
For some, we’re in danger of being overly “woke” when it comes to calling out what might be considered off-the-cuff, innocent, even positive comments. Cultural contrarian, Slavoj Žižek, has even gone as far as to suggest that political correctness represents a form of “modern totalitarianism”, a philosophy of “I know better than you what you really want” that masks an oppressive power relationship. Language and viewpoints that will be offensive to many might create positive social bonds in other groups. So, who draws the line on what’s acceptable?
At work, that acceptable line can be very clear in the more extreme instance, where it’s defined by legislation and practice. Obvious racist or sexist name calling, unwanted physical contact or mocking someone with a disability all represent clear grounds for discrimination. But that still leaves Dave and his tendency to compliment his colleagues on how they look, perhaps because he thinks it’s a positive thing to do, or perhaps because he doesn’t know what else to say.
What Dave might not understand is that drawing attention to someone’s appearance can be perceived as signalling that how they look is as – or more – important as what they say or do.
While none of us wants to create victims where none exist, equally, we need to acknowledge and respect a range of tolerances when it comes to being on the receiving end of seemingly innocent comments, misplaced “banter” or worse. Some of Dave’s colleagues may feel neutral about Dave’s compliments. Others (both women and men) may respond positively towards them, For others (people witnessing the comments as well as the recipient), it might be unwelcome, especially in front of clients. His less happy colleagues’ willingness to bring it up may also vary depending on how safe they feel or if Dave has any positional (or other) authority over them.
Dialogue is the answer. It could be that no-one has ever explained to Dave that it may not always be appropriate to comment on how people look, and that some of his colleagues might find it offensive or upsetting. Giving him the right feedback about his impact on Sarah in this instance, or example, might well be a positive learning experience, encouraging him to take into account that not everyone will find the same things acceptable.
Agreeing team or organisation-specific language can also help. In the light of the #MeToo scandal at the Old Vic theatre in London, the organisation developed a particular shared language of “OK” and “Not OK” to use in difficult situations or when negotiating what might be fine for some, but an absolute no-go for others: whether it’s OK, or Not OK to give a particular colleague a hug, for example. It means everyone has a non-controversial way to let others know what’s acceptable or not, in their own particular case. Other organisations use a traffic light system in a similar way.
As leaders, we need to find ways to manage a range of behaviours, tolerances and responses in open, non-threatening ways. Creating safe environments where these conversations can happen is a key starting point.
Inclusion is a matter for everyone at work; we all have a role to play. But leaders have a particular responsibility to be alert to the opportunities and challenges of making it a reality. The scenarios we’ve included here are an indication that the road to inclusion is not always easy or straightforward. But the rewards are many and significant. Cultures, behaviours and actions that facilitate inclusion are worth the time they take to cultivate. Another inclusion icon, American political activist the Reverend Jesse L Jackson reminded us that “When everyone is included, everyone wins”. We couldn’t agree more.
Test your understanding
- Explain why Amy Edmondson considers psychological safety at work to be about learning.
- Describe the difference between recruitment based on “culture fit” or “culture add”.
- Outline the role brainwriting might play in inclusion practice.
What does this mean for you?
- Reflect on the ways in which you might open up dialogue about inclusion with your colleagues. What more could you do to make inclusion a regular part of your team discussions? What protocols might you adopt to support it?
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