What does inclusive leadership actually mean?
There are so many unwritten rules about being at work, it can be hard to navigate them: the team norms, the different preferences for working practices, the prevailing management style. Even harder if you’ve joined a team remotely and not yet met colleagues in person, or seen your on-campus work space.
Added to which, many of us have disclosed more of who we are to our work colleagues than we probably ever wanted to. Our homes, our routines, our children, even our pets, have opened up our worlds to one another. It has raised questions about how others perceive us and how we share and celebrate the glorious and complex intersection of personality traits, ethnicity, sexuality, beliefs, values, gender, abilities, disabilities and neuro-diversities that make us who we are.
Our brains are hardwired to motivate us toward connection and belonging, it’s how we survive and thrive. So I’ve been reflecting on how we can lead inclusively so all colleagues feel it’s okay to bring their authentic selves to work. My ambition is for every team member not only to feel ‘I matter’ but also to feel ‘I am remarkable’; to know they are valued and their talents and strengths recognised. I also appreciate how idealistic that sounds and know there are people who feel they don’t fit or belong in their team, or in our workplace; they keep some aspects of themselves hidden or downplayed so that they can conform to the dominant culture in an attempt to ‘fit in’ better. Or they simply withdraw; having to mask aspects of your authentic identity is stressful, exhausting and emotionally draining. It stops us reaching out for support, it silences us when we need to speak up, it keeps us isolated instead of involved.
We need to create safe spaces for inclusivity to flourish, not just physically safe but also psychologically safe. The series of horrific events in our wider society during the past year have reinforced for me the criticality of the two core leadership qualities that I consider all others flow from: Self-awareness and Curiosity. These are an essential foundation for inclusive leadership as they are fundamental to behaviour change. Self-awareness encourages a clear-eyed acknowledgement of our social positions, entitlements and power. Curiosity energises our efforts to understand the inequalities that reinforce privilege and compel people to mask their authentic identity.
Like others, I have written pledges and sent supportive messages, acknowledging that the system we inhabit is a long way from being fair for all. But if inclusive leadership is to mean anything we have to model the way. Standing united against racism, against hate crimes, against discrimination and harassment, in all their insidious micro-aggressive forms, needs to move beyond statements of solidarity. I remain optimistic that there are enough colleagues who want to use their qualities of self-awareness and curiosity to catalyse change, to move from positive words to positive actions. Colleagues who are listening to the feedback, reflecting on their approaches to leadership and realising where they are falling short. And not becoming so paralysed by guilt, or fear of saying the wrong thing, that they fail to learn.
This isn’t about blame for past mistakes, and I have definitely made many. It’s about how we change a culture with every conversation we have and every action we take, however seemingly insignificant. Inclusive leadership starts from wherever you find yourself, right now, when you apply the insights of self-awareness and the energy of wanting to understand more, learn more, do more. And you don’t need to be in a leadership or management position to practice inclusive leadership. Think of it as a verb not a position, and start by expanding your self-awareness and igniting your curiosity.
I’ve found this 5 minute psychological safety audit offers a helpful first step:
- If you make a mistake in this team, will it be held against you?
- Are the members of this team able to bring up problems and tough issues?
- Do people on this team sometimes reject others for being different?
- Is it safe to take a risk in this team?
- How easy is it to ask other team members for help?
- Would anyone in the team deliberately act in a way that undermines a colleague?
- Are team members’ unique skills and talents valued and utilised?
I appreciate this takes effort and fully recognise structural changes are also needed if we are to achieve a truly inclusive workplace, but there is still much we can do as part of our everyday interactions with our colleagues. We can challenge micro-incivilities, (calling out the eye-rolling and the ‘talking over’ others); we can use inclusive language (switch from ‘you guys’ to ‘you all’ or ‘you folk’); we can draw in the under-represented voices in the room; we can check-in with people and ask how they are really doing, letting them know they matter. Perhaps most important of all: be honest about what we want to do differently, understand why it’s important, and then commit to one practical action that supports inclusive leadership for you and your team.
If you are looking for support in taking the first step towards inclusive leadership, we have recently launched a 3-module Inclusive Leadership e-learning package on our E-Learning Portal. Other e-learning modules on the Portal you may find useful: Understanding Race Bias; Inclusive Language and Communication; Supporting Trans and Non-Binary People at Work.
And if you are a leader or manager, at any level, join our Leadership Support Circles to keep expanding your self-awareness and encourage you to stay curious. The next Leading Inclusively Circles take place on 28th April and 3rd June and there are further leadership themes to explore – check out the full Leadership Rewired programme. You can come along to as many, (or as few), sessions as you’d like.
Amanda Maclean, Head of People, Culture and Inclusion
 Amy Edmonson (1999 – Psychological safety and learning behaviour in work teams, Administrative Science Quarterly, 44)