Inclusive leadership. Really? How exactly?

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.



On being invisible

Do I only feel invisible, or am I actually not there?

I injured my knee recently and had to spend a couple of weeks on crutches. In order to get to a meeting a short flight away, I needed to arrange assistance. I learned such a lot from this experience. I have nothing but praise for the professionals who helped me on and off various modes of transport – they were cheerful, caring, attentive and thoughtful.

I didn’t feel quite the same way about the general public.

People looked over the top of the wheelchair, stood right in the way of the mobility buggy chatting away on their mobile phones, nipped into seats before I could limp there –  and even butted right into the middle of a conversation I was having with the person assisting me. I have never felt so unseen. There would be lots to say here about navigating a world designed for the fully mobile, but this is a blog about language.

Many of the women in my research project described episodes or moments of feeling unseen. Not all the time of course, but an important enough issue to raise nonetheless. (And just to be clear here… I am not saying men don’t also experience episodes of feeling invisible; only that there were no men in my sample.)

Juliana, a marketing manager in a global manufacturer said, “I feel that because I do not have seniority, my comments are not welcome. I feel like I lack influence – and I’m not sure it’s because of my experience or because I am not able to get ideas through”.

And Anna went further, “The plant’s CEO was presenting and senior management present jumped in whenever they had a question. I tried to do the same but my voice was too soft. Perhaps the way I put my questions seemed rather hesitating as if I was not sure if the question was legitimate or ridiculous.”

Do these women only feel invisible, or are they in someway actually not seen?

What I am finding in my research is that reflective accounts of how meetings are experienced, bear little or no resemblance to what it has actually been possible to analyse in the transcripts of such meetings. Invisibility is hard to spot, of course.

Let me give just a few examples to illustrate my point. In four 30 minute episodes of recorded, natural talk at work – a brainstorm, an routine management meeting, an action planning session and an international conference call – on average, just under half of the people present in the room or on the call, are visible in the transcript.

Here’s one example. The first table gives a snapshot of who is doing the talking overall in an international conference call I have been analysing. [NB. lines and are number of transcribed lines on the page and turns represent each new speaker].

Team members Lines % Turns %
Business unit director



Team 1 (4 engineers)



Team 2 (6 supplier interface)



Unidentified or inaudible



The engineers hold the floor, followed closely by the person in chair, and the supplier interface bring up the rear both in terms of the length of time they were speaking and the number of times they got a turn to speak. This is the pattern that the director recalled after the call – it felt more or less right – and it is a pattern she would like to change.

And look at the picture when we can see exactly who is speaking and for how long. What is made visible here is that in fact, the director and the leader of team 1 were occupying over half of the time and space in this meeting. [F = female, M = male]

Participant Total lines > 1 Total lines < 1 As a % of total [1050 lines] Total turns As a % of total [403 turns]
Director (F)






Leader 1 (F)






Team 1 (F)






Leader 2 (F)






Team 2 (F)






Team 2 (M)






Team 1 (M)






Team 2 (F)






Team 1 (M)






Team 2 (M)






Team 2 (F)






That may be a good thing, of course depending on the people, the task, the constraints and a whole host of other conditions. The meaning is always contextual and it is impossible generalise from a snapshot – but it certainly raises some interesting questions. It would appear that in my samples, more than half of those invited to meetings – presumably because they can contribute in some way – are not heard either because they say less than others, or nothing at all. In this particular sample, as you can see from the table, this dynamic is not directly related to gender. On this occasion, of the seven lowest contributors, four were men and all originated from countries outside Western Europe and North America.

In these samples who gets seen and heard is of course, patterned by gender, culture, expertise, hierarchical position and power. But here’s the thing – my experience of travelling in a wheelchair forced me to see an aspect of the world that I had previously known but that was in someway invisible to me – the fact that the world is structured for the fully mobile. If you are not this ‘fully mobile ideal person’, you exist on a different plane – one where, to all intents and purposes, you are invisible to those who move about without assistance.

The examples of analysis of talk at work suggest that there is a conversational equivalent. People see others, hear ideas, notice and take account of the conversational behaviour of people who more or less fit within their implicit ideas of how meetings work. Others, who “choose” to remain silent, are unseen, unheard and structurally invisible.

Simply put, our routine interactions tend to recycle sameness – and this is bad news for diversity and inclusion.

My point here is not that silence is powerless – silence can be powerful in all sorts of ways. I’m drawing attention to the enormous weight of conversational norms. I hadn’t been able to see that my everyday attitude to moving about in the world was part of a powerful and exclusionary norm until I wasn’t inside it any more.

When the women in the research describe being invisible, it is usually when they reflect upon their identities as women, noting as they do so, that this doesn’t sit comfortably with their identities as managers and leaders. They find themselves in a situation, as I did during my travel assistance, where they are made suddenly and acutely aware of their difference to the norm.

And if things weren’t already complicated enough, this is because the (masculine, Anglo Saxon, English speaking) norm favoured by the business world, is itself usually “invisible”.

But for the sake of “diversity and inclusion” let’s at least talk about it.



Leading a balanced conversation

“It’s only a simple brainstorm – it isn’t a power thing – everyone gets to speak.”

Do they?

The Dynamics of Difference participants think otherwise.

Imagine the scene. You’ve gathered your team together to inject some energy into your initiative.  You run a multi-national team, most of your meetings are virtual so it’s important to make the best of being in the same room together.

Let’s make the best of this opportunity,” you say. “I’d like us to share our thoughts about really getting some energy behind this initiative. So, what do you all think? Let’s share some ideas. I’ll capture them; go ahead.

A speaks for her department’s pet plan

B spots this, answers her and (very subtly) disagrees

A counters – the subtle disagreement was so not very subtle after all

B draws breath…

You “Thank you. Let’s have some different ideas.”

A ten second silence which feels like half an hour

You “What’s your take on this C?”

C speaks quietly about a third position

A counters

B counters A

A disagrees

You intervene…

And so it goes on. Participants D to G [from southern Europe] eventually get a word in, but participants H to J [from Pacific rim countries] don’t say anything.

This is not only a question of native speaker fluency and communicative competence (although that matters, of course), it is also about what we consider to be normal and unremarkable about the way we converse, or hold a meeting, or do a quick brainstorm of ideas. We tend to see these mechanisms as completely transparent and value free. This is because we take the norms for granted

Let’s take an example.

Everyone knows how to do a brainstorm. It is intended as a participative way of leading a meeting in which it is possible to make more space for more people to speak out and have their ideas heard. Indeed, most of us would be able to take up the pen and would know when the rules are not being followed.

Here’s how it usually works:

  • Someone takes the pen and invites others to offer up ideas freely (no judgement or argument allowed);
  • All the ideas are of equal value – the aim is to get the ideas flowing;
  • When everyone has said what they would like to say, everyone in the group makes sense of what is recorded.

Or at least that’s how it works in theory. In practice, having everyone make sense of what has been recorded is not so straight forward. This is because in fact, the rules don’t guarantee that everyone is heard in equal measure or interpreted in the same way. Some people are given (or take) more turns than others; and some do not make their voices heard at all.

We observe these patterns of interaction and assign possible meanings to them. It can be inferred, for example, that someone who does not speak has nothing to say; or it may be assumed that members of the group do not want to hear what they imagine she has to say – or any number of other social meanings that can be assigned to this pattern.

Similarly, a brainstorm participant who dominates the conversational floor by taking every opportunity to speak may be read as a strong leader, a domineering team member, or a native speaker of English, depending on a whole range of contextual factors including the perspectives, interests and political agendas of everyone else involved.

In fact, your average brainstorm can turn out to be a conversation where the person with the pen holds the power to decide who gets to speak. The same old loud voices get heard, and the record of what was said is skewed in favour of one or other department, one or other point of view. People shout out their ideas and perspectives from the point of view of their individual and group interests – and then jockey for position in the overall “product” of the brainstorm – because we all know that the record counts.

So what if the record was more inclusive? How might we do that? Bearing in mind that absolutely nothing is value free, we might imagine different rules with different effects.

Imagine, for example, that after generating a board full of ideas you ask, “OK, so I’d like to invite the different groups here (marketing, sales, finance, engineering…or whatever) to choose five of these ideas on behalf of the whole group – the things that matter most to everyone here.”

You’d probably witness another of those silences that seems like half an hour.

People are not accustomed to being asked to articulate what might be in the interests of other groups. More frequently we imagine the question of what is in the interests of the whole group to mean just my group. The fact that most groups can’t do this exercise is because they don’t actually know what the other groups see as priority issues.

So what needs to happen next?

People need to ask each other a limited number of very carefully crafted questions. If, when the groups call out their priorities (after having listened very carefully to what the others have to say), you choose to circle the important priorities of each group in a different colour of marker pen, you will see where the groups’ interests diverge and overlap.

That’s actually the common ground – a place we often can’t see because the accepted, unchallenged patterns of conversation obscure our view. And unless we call these out, the exclusionary processes and effects that go with them, will also remain invisible.


Are you visible enough?

Without a doubt, if you attend meeting after meeting and always end up with the impression that you are neither seen nor heard, then its easy to conclude that that you need to learn to be more forceful, more visible. And if you spend a great deal of your time leading meetings in which some people fail to engage or refuse to speak out, it’s easy to conclude that the fault lies with them. After all, they also believe that the fault lies with them.

Take Lorena, an experienced marketing manager for a global manufacturing company. She reflects:

“I feel that because I do not have seniority, my comments are not welcome. I feel like I lack influence – and I’m not sure if it’s because of my experience or because I’m not able to get my ideas through. I used to be extroverted and outgoing – but I am trying to change that. I want to be different – to speak less – to get my ideas through, but … I never really know when I’m taking too much or not enough!”

Lorena believes that she is the one with the problem.

Interactional difficulties are experienced individually, so we shouldn’t be too surprised if solutions to such problems are aimed at individuals too. And of course there is nothing wrong with working on empowering oneself to make more or better contributions – people need to feel that they have the power to make a change which will allow them to have more influence, be a better manager, take up the power of their role more effectively.

But there is a trap in this sort of thinking. It smooths over the contradictions of how people actually experience power (or the lack of it) in their workplace conversations. It over-simplifies the causes and the solutions, and robs teams of difference – different perspectives, different values and different ways of addressing problems and finding solutions.

As part of the Dynamics of Difference research I have spent a long time reading and re-reading the written reflections of the sixty professional women participants whose struggles to understand their own contradictory relationship with visibility and power, point to the need for a more nuanced understanding of the perennial challenge of getting heard in meetings.

So let’s take a closer look at the contradictions of visibility and power.

First there is good visibility. You see yourself as relatively powerless – perhaps because your English is not so good, or because you are a woman in male dominated firm, or because you are from the European south and not its powerful north – or a whole host of other reasons that mean it seems harder for you to make your mark. You are invisible. In this case invisibility equals powerlessness; visibility brings you power. Joana reflects:

“The environment is highly competitive and the interactions are important for all of the professionals in the meetings. I need to give visibility to the successes and challenges of my teams – and to increase my own profile so senior managers are aware of my achievements. But I sometimes feel that I cannot contribute to the conversation or be taken seriously enough because of the way I speak. I often struggle to be heard.

Then there is bad visibility. You are different (your age, race, gender, culture, sexuality, nationality) and being different makes you stand out from the norm. But you don’t want to stand out because that weakens your power. You have to be seen as one of them in order to make your mark. You are too visible. In this case visibility equals powerlessness; invisibility brings you power. Teresa says:

“It is difficult to be seen as senior as I am. I don’t mind making mistakes, but I don’t like it to look like I don’t have enough knowledge when really, it’s just a language problem. The main question is about expressing myself with enough seniority among peers who are mainly all native speakers. Getting the language wrong means they start treating you differently, like they think you aren’t up to it, or they don’t fully trust you.”

Both perceptions are present in my data, in fact both are present in the same person, and even in the same breath.

Pamela knows she’s young to have reached a relatively high position in her lawn firm. She also knows it’s because her clients are very happy with her work, and on a one-to-one basis she has no problem getting her ideas across and holding her ground. In meetings with senior partners though, she sometimes can’t break through. She explains:

“In meetings, knowing when to speak to generate good impact can be a problem. I am 31 years old, and I might even look a little younger, so sometimes I have the feeling that the older professionals don’t take me as seriously as they should. Recently I was at the negotiating table with a partner from our firm, but the way the counterpart spoke back made me think that he wasn’t taking me seriously. He only wanted to address his remarks to the partner from our firm, and never directly to me. He didn’t even look at me.”

She felt invisible and yet she reflects:

“I want to sound like them – to sound more serious – to be taken more seriously”

What Pamela wants is to blend right in, to become “one of them”, and the way she sees she can do this most effectively is by altering the way she interacts. She wants to be seen and to be invisible.

This is odd, is it not?  Surely we can untangle what’s good and what’s bad. But Pamela’s experience is not unique – many feel this contradiction. They experience good and bad visibility, power and powerlessness, hand in hand, both at once. And because there isn’t a ready way to make sense of such tensions and contradictions, the cocktail of good and bad visibility gets mixed up in conversations and mixed up in your mind. Then, instead of opening the issues up and talking about them with others, we account for our individual experiences and feelings with self-criticism and off the shelf self-help explanations.

But when we focus too hard on personal weaknesses and individual solutions, we overlook the more structural aspects of experience, and in particular, the incredible power of the conversational norm. Our workplace conversations follow predictable and fairly stable patterns which conceal the norms and values within them. These norms can over-ride our surface awareness of fairness and inclusivity precisely because we take conversational patterns so much for granted (it’s how you “do” a brainstorm, or a case review or a board meeting or whatever) and because of this, the exclusionary processes and effects also remain invisible.

So what does this have to do with being visible, powerful and effective at work?

It reminds us that changing practice is a collective effort. This is not to say that we should give up trying to figure out how our own thinking and behaviour is both part of the problem and the solution. Everyone can work on themselves, of course. But that can’t be the end of it – because the thing about conversations is that there is always more than one person involved.

Picture a whirlpool of conversational practices. The norm has a very powerful pull.

So if we really want to make our professional conversations more inclusive, we have to tackle the whirlpool. If we don’t, we will end up talking about the value of difference, but doing it in a way which values sameness.



What makes a decision stick?

The decision of the British people to leave the EU has left a fragmented nation and a population divided between elation, devastation and regret. The UK press reports financial, political and constitutional confusion; a leadership vacuum with no one “at the helm” and no direction.

A decision has been taken but no one can do anything with it.

We have been witness to a democratic process, but also a dangerous one. The divisive campaign has legitimised intolerance and taken the lid off differences hitherto contained by the unspoken rules of society. There are divisions in two major parties, between north and south, between the nations of the United Kingdom, between generations, and between colleagues, friends and family members.

A decision has been taken but it not yet clear if it will stick.

The Brexit story reminds us that a majority decision, democratically taken does not mean action.  It also reminds us that waiting for the illusive inclusive leader to take us out of the mess means we could be in for a pretty long wait.

Brexit is chaos writ large on a world stage, but the practices are not so unfamiliar, as many of the Dynamics of Difference research participants have been only too keen to point out. Calls for unity accompanied by scheming and backstabbing; decisions taken behind closed doors and played out democratically for show; half-truths instead of honesty; bullying in place of leadership; and long drawn out processes of securing apparent agreement which lead precisely nowhere.

Take Maria’s story:

I currently work in an American-European multi-national and English is the common language for meetings and communications. Discussions, which are often over the phone, take place with people from the Netherlands, France, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Germany and Spain. As an example of what I want to discuss, one initial meeting was to agree on a classification of a type of professional service. This classification had impact on delivery resources and revenue recognition between two different teams from different business units. Opinions were opposed between these two teams and my role, as part of a central team, was to be responsible for making the final decision.

Because of the nature of the decision and its impact, the discussions took place over several meetings. During each meeting, each team would describe their position but there would not be any real debate. Sometimes it seemed like participants were not listening to one another, and that it was perceived as a win-loose situation, and no one wanted to loose. Also, because the meetings took place over the phone, there were quite a lot of interruptions and misunderstandings. 

After four or five meetings my team took a decision and formally communicated that to all stakeholders. But one year later I have found out that not everyone “agreed” with that decision, and that the discussion still seems to be open. This feels very unsatisfactory as a lot of people have spent a lot of time trying to get the best decision.

As with Brexit, Maria found that when there is no clear way of hearing dissenting voices and no way of working together in spite of these differences, agreements may not be what they seem. If we treat differences themselves as the root cause of conflict, then obviously, we will try to minimise them. This leaves us in the untenable position of trying to value diversity by getting rid of it.

But as Brexit reminds us, programmes of inclusivity which hear some of the people some of the time might be in for a nasty surprise.

Let’s look again at the way we interact at work, and at the conversations we call decisions. When people with differing beliefs, needs and interests come together to decide how to proceed two things frequently happen. First, they carefully manage their contributions to the conversational floor to create and maintain as much agreement as possible. This usually means there is insufficient robust questioning of motives and interests. And second, when a consensus does not emerge more or less naturally, they put it to the vote.

And as we have seen a majority does not guarantee a sound decision. 51.9% of the British electorate voted “Leave” – a decision that will change the face of Europe for decades to come. No one in the rest of the EU had a voice.

When the situation is really serious and a great deal is at stake, we need to look at temporarily changing the “rules” of decision making so that more voices can be heard and everyone involved can see the common ground. We need a conversation where different views can be expressed and decisions can be taken which translate into people taking responsibility for making sure things happen.

For this we have the Decision Circle

First let’s shake up two mistaken assumptions:

  1. That once something is agreed publicly, then the decision is taken and action will follow
  2. That everyone has to see things the same way before agreement can be reached

Now let’s play around with the patterns of interaction:

Next time you want to make sure you have really heard different views when your group has to take a decision, give everyone two index cards and ask them to write two things they want to see or make happen. Have them sit around an empty table and read out what’s on their cards, one at a time, putting the cards in a central pace on the table. No questions, no comments and, apart from the reading of cards, no speaking.

Here’s the tricky part – if people think that what is written on the card is doable now (i.e. there is no need to push or fix anyone or anything in order for the activity to happen) then the card gets left on the table. If on the other hand, someone believes that this is not doable, then he or she should lean over and take the card out. There may be many reasons to remove a card but at the first reading, these do not need to be declared. The only speaking is the reading of cards.

When all the cards have been read, some will still be in the centre while others will be near the person who removed them. Typically, the ones in the centre are the lowest common denominator ideas and not much is at stake. This means of course, that the important proposals are not yet on the table and some negotiating needs to take place.

To lead an inclusive process of negotiation, a little more of the motives and interests of the speaker need to be shared. Don’t be fooled into thinking that this is too risky. In fact, even when motives are not declared, people read them loud and clear.

Take the example of the phone and the bath. You are baking in the kitchen, your hands are covered in sticky dough and the phone goes. “That’s the phone” you say.  And you mean, “I want you to pick it up” and incidentally, “I’m the person round here who can tell you what to do.”  From a distant room your partner shouts, “I’m in the bath!” meaning, “You’ll have to pick it up yourself” and incidentally, “You’re not telling me what to do!”

And all that’s been said is, “That’s the phone!” and “I’m in the bath!”

So encourage people to reveal a bit more than usual about what’s behind what they say – you’ll be surprised at how much care they take to honour people’s views and preferences – and when something is just not going to happen, it’s better to know it up front rather than waste weeks or months of manoeuvring for nothing.

Slowly, people begin to see that if they change their cards a little, more and more can make it’s way to the centre, to the space that is for proposals that are doable now – meaning that no one in that decision circle will stop it. All that remains is for someone to take responsibility for the activity by picking up the card – and if no one picks it up, well it was never going to happen anyway!

This exercise needs power, awareness and the ability to speak and to listen as an equal. Uncovering differences, exploring dissent and heading off veto take more than a little courage. But it is a lot more effective than moving the deckchairs around on a sinking ship.

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.

Speaking (and not speaking)

We rarely get the full benefit of the energy and intelligence of our people, because too many of them feel they cannot speak.

From the Dynamics of Difference research, the problem of ‘speaking out at meetings’ crosses countries, industries and hierarchical levels

Looking or sounding different can put you in an uncomfortable spotlight and so meeting participants who find themselves in a minority – the only woman, the only non-native speaker of English, the only member of a particular culture or group  – hold themselves in check, waiting for the right moment; wondering if what they want to say is interesting, appropriate, grammatically correct, polite, relevant, allowed, stupid. And too frequently, the right moment never actually comes.

We explain this state of affairs away in terms of confidence (well, they should just speak out more), culture (people from there never speak out at meetings), and conflict avoidance (they can’t handle disagreement) – which is convenient for us because as the fault lies with them, we don’t need to do anything.

In fact, my research suggests that most of the time it is the same people who speak up, and the same people who do not – and that both groups have work to do.

Take Anna, for example. An ambitious upwardly mobile HR manager for a global engineering giant, Anna returns from maternity leave to find her situation changed – new boss, new teams, new strategy. An important part of re-calibrating her place and performance is reading the new conversational patterns which, for the first time, are all in English. She says:

 “Now when I participate in a debate I am finding it difficult to speak out or to ask anything. Is this the right thing to say? How am I going to look asking this? Is maybe the answer too obvious and that’s why no one has said this already. And in English, to all these concerns you have to add – am I using the right words? Is my idea being properly understood? In the end, thinking all those things, time passes and it is somebody else who has spoken out, so I missed my opportunity to be present.”

If English is not your first language, or the meeting culture is unnatural for you, or everyone is more senior than you are, it can be difficult to judge when and how to speak. As you form and reform your sentences in your head, holding back, listening for the gaps, you watch as different people claim their patch of the conversational floor. The light is on them, they speak and everyone listens. They know they have conversational rights.

For you though, mostly the opportunities pass by and when you do speak out, the response you get is not what you had hoped for as communications manager, Belinda, explains:

“You can’t afford a mistake. You’re on stage. Although I have an interesting point of view to express, I feel frustrated because it’s hard to get my turn. Sometimes I give up and don’t say anything. And I know you have to talk to lead the discussion or to be taken into account. It’s just that when you get it wrong and the spotlight is on you, you feel small, punished.”

Silence can be such a terrifying response. So what can you try? Here are three things to remember:

  1. Think of the light not as a searchlight, but a lighthouse beam. It will come round again. Time your intervention just before or just after the beams swings round over you. You need to be seen and heard, but not with the light in your eyes.
  2. Use a gentle, polite way in. Don’t let things build in your mind until you blurt it out as fast as you can. Instead say, “I wonder if I could just come in here?” The politeness matters – your voice is heard in support, and when the conversation pauses, you have the right to speak.
  3. Think not what you can say, but what you can ask. Keep your inner thoughts focused on what is being said in the meeting, and formulate a relevant, incisive question, rather than a statement of fact or opinion. If you have their attention by asking the right question, you will be able to weave your message into the conversation that follows.

We will return in the future to the question of politeness, but let me make a linguistic point. Admittedly there is difference between being gracious and ingratiating, but being appropriately polite is always important – and it does not mean that you are displaying weakness. Nor does removing markers such as “just” and “sorry” mean you are expressing your power more effectively. You are just as likely to get a reputation for being rude.

So, if you are the one in charge of meeting proceedings, and someone speaks a little later than you anticipated, or with a strange turn of phrase, or “too harsh” or “too soft” – don’t close them down; and don’t sanction interruptions or disapproval.

Protect their space and their right to speak.

At first sight it may not seem like much, but patterns like these close down too many opportunities for people to lead and to contribute inclusively, and they are very hard indeed to break. But they have to be tackled because they stifle difference and reproduce restrictive, narrow interactional routines which are bad for diversity and bad for business.




Why Linguistics?

I want to start by answering the question I have been asked so many times since I began my research programme: why Linguistics?

Colleagues and friends in management, and in my field of leadership and organisation development, are curious as to why I decided to go in this direction. It is more common to turn to ideas from psychology, learning or systems for explanations of behaviour, and for ideas about how to do things differently.

This week Daniele Fiandaca co-founder of Token Man, published on “Diversity at Work” in the Guardian, Women in Leadership. He writes convincingly of the importance of unconscious bias and goes on to give great advice about going against that bias. He ends, “Finally, ensure that you have built an environment where everyone can thrive and have a voice within the business.” Absolutely. And what more can we do to make it possible for some to speak out and others to listen more?

As professional women we strive for inclusivity, opportunity and diversity in our organisations. We know that who gets to speak and whose proposals are heard translate directly into action and influence; and of course, we are acutely aware that being silenced is tantamount to being sidelined. And yet we all slip into routines of interaction which militate against our being able to achieve our goals. We get stuck in our own patterns of conversation.

So why Linguistics?

Simply this: by seeing through the surface talk to the mechanisms beneath, we can slow this process down sufficiently to see how seemingly little things like whose turn it is to speak, can change the course of a conversation. By turning to Linguistics we can understand who gets to interrupt, who gets to change the subject, who gets to disagree and who has no choice but to agree – and we can learn to influence this process.

Across the desk and around the meeting table power is granted, gained and given away in the moves and nuances of interaction. A more thorough grasp of how power is mediated through talk is crucial to understanding one’s influence and impact.

It is important if you find yourself with less power in your professional conversations than you would like. Perhaps being a non-native speaker of English means you stay silent because you are too fearful of being impolite or of exposing your true language level; maybe you are a woman executive in an all male C-suite who longs to drop the speaking style she’s had to use to get where she is; or perhaps you are one of the many women leaders and managers who wants to exercise her power more effectively.

And it is just as important if you are used to having more of the power. If you are a native speaker of English for example, it is hard to imagine the extra power you wield simply by having been born into the conversational rules of the game. Or if you are a manager determined to be a more inclusive leader, it can be difficult to see the patterns of interaction – and this usually means it is the same people who do the speaking.

So here’s a technique for you to try out. It helps everyone see how your team manages the crucial question of whose turn it is.

Take whatever small markers you have to hand (counters, coins, paper clips, sugar lumps, or as I do, your children’s discarded building bricks) and the next time you have a team meeting, put a pile in the centre of the table and tell everyone, “Every time you take a turn, take a brick”… or a sugar lump or paper clip or coin…

Are you leading inclusively? Put yourself to the test. Peel back the top layer of the meeting table to reveal the clockwork below.


Interested in Daniele’s article?

Photos: Rubianca Photography  (