Dan Robertson on ‘The role of the inclusive leader’

Diversity without inclusion is not enough

The title of this blog was a key theme of a recent talk I was asked to give at the London Business School. The audience on the Executive education programme were a group of about 30 aspiring leaders from a number of global businesses. I started in the usual place, by framing the concept of diversity which clearly (and they all agreed) simply means a range of differences from personal characteristics based on gender and cultural background to individual thinking styles and personality. But of course on its own diversity adds very little value to organizational competitiveness and decision-making. This point has been neatly articulated by Laura Liswood, who has stressed that to date businesses have placed too much emphasis on what she calls the ‘Noah’s Ark’ approach: That is a focus on increasing the numbers of women, gay people, disabled workers and talent from minority cultures without paying attention to the organizational cultures and existing cultural biases that often determine the progression routes of diverse individuals.

What’s needed, I stressed to my audience, if we are to leverage the different skills and talents within our businesses, is an alignment between the principles of managing diversity and organizational inclusivity. For me, the test of inclusivity is simply the extent to which individuals can be their selves at work. That is, to what extent do the often hidden rules of organizational culture promote a code of ‘it’s OK to look different and perhaps even sound difference but if you want to succeed here you need to conform to our existing ways of working’. Or to what extent does the culture promote a message of ‘be yourself’, ‘don’t hide from the many different identities you hold, indeed far from judging you on these, we want you because you are different as we recognize that it is your difference that will help us to be a modern successful business in a globalized market place’.

The need for a new (inclusive) style of leadership

Traditional styles of leadership tend to stress the notion of the individual leader as the ‘superman’ (and traditionally it has been male) figure who surrounds himself with like-minded individuals. Traditionally these individuals come from similar backgrounds and share common cultural values. They see the world from a common cultural lens which results in Groupthink and biases decision-making. As stressed by John Beshears and Francesca Gino in the latest (May 2015) edition of the Harvard Business Review, there are two main causes of poor decision-making: insufficient motivation and cognitive biases. It’s these cognitive (cultural) biases, popularized by psychologists such as Daniel Kahneman and other behaviour economists, that will increasingly have an impact on business performance and competitiveness within a globalised market place.

In contract to the traditional leader stands the inclusive leader. The inclusive leader is someone who actively seeks out different perspectives; she / he owns up to their own biases and works with others to address these. The inclusive leader is one who questions traditional behaviour patterns and decision-making structures. The inclusive leader sees diverse talent as a source of innovation and organizational creativity. They promote diversity and inclusion as sources of competitive advantage. Global businesses such as EY have recognized this fundamental alignment between what they call inclusiveness and business success and are investing in inclusive leadership programmes. In addition, many national and global businesses are increasingly recognizing the value of training their leaders to both understand how biases impact on their individual and collective decisions and also how through inclusive leadership they can begin to mitigate their biases and work toward leveraging their diversity talents.

The principles of Inclusive Leadership

As stressed in a 2012 paper on Inclusive Leadership by the professional services company Deloitte, there is an urgent need to develop business leaders who can let go of the iconic image of leader as hero, and to embrace the principles of inclusive leadership. Catalyst, the global not-for-profit organisation, provides a use framework for leader by identifying four key qualities of an inclusive leader:

  1. Empowerment: Inclusive leaders enable diverse talent and teams to grow by encouraging them to solve problems. Moving away from the leader as hero figure.
  2. Courage: Inclusive leaders stand up for what they believe is right. Thus they challenge existing norms and call out both conscious and unconscious biases when they see or experience them.
  3. Humility: An inclusive leader is someone who creates an organisational environment where it’s OK for them and others to admit their mistakes. They are curious about difference and actively seek out different points of view to increase innovation and leverage diverse skills to meet wider business goals.
  4. Accountability: A key aspect of inclusive leadership is holding oneself and others to account. This involves questioning hiring managers and reviewing differences in performance management scores between different groups and questioning why.

In our work at enei we stress the need for individual and system level actions. From a practical perspective the 5 things that leaders can do to promote inclusivity include:

  1. Schedule meeting at times to ensure maximum participation.
  2. When on a conference call or in a meeting, ensure you invite everyone to contribute to the discussion. Listen for who is dominating.
  3. Watch who attends team social events and look for individuals or groups of individuals who simply don’t attend or make excuses. Ask why.
  4. Take a few risks by allocating a challenging piece of work to someone whose potential you haven’t previously recognised.
  5. Have a coffee with someone who is very different from you (age, seniority, gender, background etc). Ask for their ideas or view on a subject without giving yours first!

At the system or organizational level we would recommend:

  1. Create opportunities for team reflection: it helps to prevent Groupthink and challenges existing biases.
  2. Introduce ‘Blind’ decision-making: In recruitment, remove information such as names and universities from application processes.
  3. Find some good role models in the business. E.g. those working flexible hours. Use these stories as challenges to traditional viewpoints.
  4. Talk to key stakeholders: Challenge your recruitment agencies and head-hunters when they say, ‘the (diverse) talent is just not out there’.
  5. Develop sponsorship programmes and hold individuals to account on their inclusion targets: Holding individuals to account increases vigilance.

Implementing these actions begins to create new thinking processes, leadership behaviour patterns and decision-making processes. As the global village continues to integrate and connect inclusive leadership will become the new norm. In this context we move away from the ‘why?’ to the ‘how and now’.

Dan Robertson is the Diversity & Inclusion Director at the Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion. He is highly respected as a subject matter expert on workplace diversity & inclusion management, unconscious bias and inclusive leadership. Connect on LinkedIn: Dan Robertson or Twitter: @dan_robertson1 or email: Dan.robertson@enei.org.uk