So what is inclusive leadership, exactly?
Increasingly we’re seeing traditional notions of leadership being turned on their head. Gone is the command-and-control culture of leaders and followers. Today’s successful companies have developed ever more compelling and sophisticated narratives on why diversity and inclusion are business-critical. But these statements mean nothing unless leaders can walk the talk. Inclusive leaders bring that vision to life and by doing so, they create inclusive working cultures.
The best companies are spearheaded by people who can adapt their leadership style according to what is needed. This means they can weather the change and uncertainty caused by political, social and economic factors. Like Brexit, workforce skills shortages or recession.
To adapt your response according to the situation means you have to be able to understand the experiences of different groups (whether they are stakeholders, customers or staff teams). Only by fully understanding the diversity in your business can you take informed decisions. But adaptability alone does not make you inclusive.
Inclusive leaders live by their company narrative on diversity and inclusion. They have an innate understanding of the barriers and challenges that different groups in the company may experience. They can (and do) articulate their belief in the proven business benefits of inclusion at work. In our experience, it’s only by adopting an inclusive approach to their own everyday working practices that leaders can achieve the buy-in and momentum needed to drive real, measurable culture change.
What does inclusive leadership look like in practice?
Inclusive leaders are brilliant communicators. They are experts at engaging with the various cultures and groups that make up the modern-day workplace. Leading inclusively requires a concentrated effort as a leader to work with what we call cultural intelligence. This means displaying cultural awareness and sensitivity in everything you do, effectively adapting your leadership style to social and cultural differences. These might stem from any aspect of workplace diversity, including the protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010 but also other factors like class, education or socio-economic status.
What are the business benefits that come from inclusive leadership?
Developing this higher level of cultural intelligence gives senior leaders the confidence to act as a diversity ‘ally’, and to visibly champion difference across their organisations. A 2012 report from the Centre for Talent Innovation, for example, showed that culturally intelligent leaders are 3.5 times more likely to get the full potential out of their staff. This equates to a number of tangible benefits right throughout the talent pipeline: from boosting engagement in existing staff groups to appealing to a wider range of candidates during recruitment.
Inclusive leaders can also bring about reduced instances of bullying, harassment, grievance and long-term sickness among their staff. And by successfully managing the impact of unconscious bias – in themselves and others – they are able to retain and unlock the best diverse talent, and use it as a base to build high-performing teams. To give one example, in 2014 the Financial Times reported that organisations could be 10-30% more productive if all their LGBT employees felt comfortable being out at work.
Inclusive leadership creates the right conditions for staff to contribute their best work and ideas. It is inextricably linked to improved staff engagement and performance. It contributes to innovation and creativity. All of which positions you as a leading-edge company, better able to respond to customer and client needs.