As a leader, do you manage conversations which genuinely safeguard space for difference?
Do your diverse teams stay diverse, or do team members collapse into the corporate monoculture they see around them?
What are you doing to take “inclusive leadership” off the policy documents and into the way you manage your meetings?
These questions have emerged from my analysis of the dynamics of power in spoken interactions where my research participants, leaders all, invited me to spend time studying them and their linguistic behaviour in a variety of corporate settings. Their motivation? To better understand themselves and their leadership in order to affect change.
Although the name we give to a different kind of leadership depends on the setting (collaborative…inclusive…balanced…responsible…) we mostly know what we want:
- We need the sort of leaders who can handle difference.
- We need leaders who are flexible, open, and who are able to hear perspectives quite different from their own.
- We need leaders who can connect and collaborate in settings which are marked by difference, and where this difference is seen to be a good thing.
There are two main arguments behind the now commonplace calls for a more inclusive kind of leadership.
The first relates to the times we live in where turbulence has become the new normal. To thrive we need enormously creative and diverse teams who can question the way things are done, who challenge, experiment, innovate. Leadership here doesn’t rely on command and control; it requires a radically new approach.
The second relates to equality and to the moral stance we take. A working culture which genuinely values and promotes groups and individuals who don’t fit the dominant corporate mould is not just a nice to have – it’s the right thing to do.
But how exactly do we do this kind of leadership?
Traditional assumptions about leadership (who gets to do it, how it should get done, who is included and who isn’t) are particularly hard to shift. In part this is because we tend to conflate our notions of “leader” with the way we define “leadership”. But the complexity and diversity I have seen in leadership practice in my research, isn’t adequately captured by theories which assume that leadership is entirely an individual affair. Too frequently, commonplace ideas about leadership have us focus on fixing individuals, attempting to shape their thinking and therefore their behaviour. But does this best serve our purposes? The wave of unconscious bias training that has swept the corporate world provides people with important insights but it has not (yet) created the sort of leadership we yearn for. And part of this is due to the fact that the very phenomena we seek to change is not the sole domain of individuals. Leadership isn’t a person, it’s a relationship. We need more and better theories which help us conceptualise and work with leadership’s more collective aspects.
The dynamics of difference research attempts this by taking language as a point of entry – the complex conversational dynamics where we see, or more frequently sense, the tiny shifts and movements which send a whole conversation veering off course, or where an unexpected interruption closes down the creative space, or where a decision ends up in the hands of the chair because no one spoke up.
If leadership resides in these every day patterns of spoken interaction, we aren’t going to learn enough about shifting them by looking only at what individual leaders do or say.
I have many hours of recordings and transcripts of corporate management meetings and conversations and I will be spending the coming weeks and months carefully analysing these to see what I can learn about leadership from these every day patterns of interaction.
I suspect that the tiniest of conversational moves creates the most surprising changes, but we shall see.
In the meantime you might like to try a few micro-moves yourself. If you usually find yourself having the last word, try letting someone else have it. If you are quick to steer and intervene, slowly count to three before you speak. If you like to summarise proceedings, ask a question instead.
Do something ever so slightly different, and watch what happens.