Doing inclusive leadership

What is inclusive leadership? What do you actually need to do?

It is becoming commonplace to see “Inclusive Leadership” among the behaviours and values expected of corporate leaders and managers. But what does it mean exactly?

Recently I have started to ask.

In my research and my work I frequently ask groups what they think makes a good manager. It’s a question that usually sparks a lively debate; and if people are stuck for ideas, I just ask what a bad manager does. That’s a conversation that’s hard to bring to a close.

But if I ask about what an inclusive leader does, people get tongue tied. The buzz dies down and more often than not they just look at each other, nonplussed.

Companies (and the people in them of course) are struggling to translate the idea of “inclusive leadership” into everyday behaviour. It promises something positive, open and inclusive but it seems that no one knows what you actually need to do.

Findings of the Dynamics of Difference research project suggest that being an “inclusive leader” has more to do with being aware of habits that exclude than it has to do with adding “inclusion” to a repertoire of skills. Far more influential is the ability to raise awareness of behaviours and habits which unwittingly cause exclusion: habits of thinking, habits of language and habits of interaction.

Let’s look briefly at each, before I describe a conversation tool to try out at your next inclusive leadership opportunity.

Habits of thinking: These are the subconscious preferences and the unconscious bias which draw us towards people like us and makes us wary, or even suspicious of difference. Many companies have implemented or are in the process of rolling out comprehensive programmes aimed at raising awareness of the unconscious bias in our thinking.

You might for example, raise the question of bias in a meeting where you are leading a discussion with your team about possible hires. Are you failing to employ people who are not like you? Are you sure the team is open to difference? Of course, a leader who does this aims to be inclusive –  but that isn’t all…

Habits of language: The commonplace ways of expressing our ideas and actions can carry messages which reinforce the very ideas we aim to discard. Language constrains our thinking – an unconscious linguistic bias which in and of itself can become an obstacle to realising the change we aspire to.

Now our inclusive leader needs to be vigilant that the words she is using to communicate important messages don’t undermine her goals. What are the right terms to use? Can she speak about wanting more “women leaders” when she never writes about “men leaders”? Should she start talking about male and female leaders? Or just leaders?

Habits of language lead to habits of thinking – and vice versa, of course. But what comes next matters most.

How does everyone in the recruitment meeting interact? Does the leader ever interrupt? Does she talk over someone else who is trying to make a different point? Is the subtlety of that different point given conversation room? Just because the meeting is about diversity, doesn’t make the interaction inclusive. In fact, a more co-operative approach to leadership can sometimes make the subtleties of exclusion even harder to spot.

Habits of interaction are the core of the Dynamics of Difference project. Micro moves of conversation played out in interruptions, turns, hesitations, and silences are the raw material of power dynamics in action. In subtle and complex ways, these moves influence how decisions are made and how work gets done.

So let’s turn to the application of Linguistics to see through the surface talk to the mechanisms beneath so as to identify the moves and patterns which hinder our progress. By making small shifts we can make our working conversations more effective and more inclusive.

Let’s try shifting competitive talk for cooperative conversation.

The usual pattern of competitive talk has everyone working on the assumption that the more they talk, the more space and power they will have. To stay in the game, you should make sure that the other people speak less – particularly if you happen to know that another person has a different point of view. The more you speak the more influence you will have, right?

Controlling the topic means you can control what gets on the agenda. And controlling the agenda means you control the action. But it also means you probably didn’t hear any radically different perspectives – or even minimally different perspectives. You can’t hear what wasn’t said.

Now lay your hands on some counters, bricks or other markers and give each person two. These bricks represent topics. Whenever a person introduces a new topic, they must put one of their bricks into the centre. If you work on the competitive talk premise, the conversation will very soon run out of steam because everyone only has two topics. But in this cooperative conversation we get to turn that on its head. If one person has put both their bricks into the centre, one of the others can choose to give them one of their own bricks for which, in return, they take two from the centre. So, the act of giving away space, actually brings more space, and in fact just as much influence.

Thinking, language and interaction mutually reinforce each other and a change in interaction can bring about new thinking by taking our habits by surprise.

Try it.

Until we put inclusivity into practice in our interactions, “inclusive leadership” doesn’t mean a thing.


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