Diversity and inclusion: The ABC of inclusive leadership

inclusive leadership
© Rawpixelimages

Ali Shalfrooshan, Head of International Assessment R&D, PSI Services, outlines the challenges that organisations face in building a consistent vision that will help to guide inclusive behaviour and highlights the three phases of allyship in the journey towards inclusive leadership

The last year has led many leaders to question the very fabric of who they are, how they do things and how they support their teams in an ever-evolving landscape. These fundamental questions have covered a wide range of areas such as the future of work, virtual offices, employee wellness but nothing has been more discussed and debated than the topic of Diversity and Inclusion.

In reaction to world events, many organisations have openly acknowledged and advocated the importance of inclusion. However, despite the external advocacy, many organisations also acknowledge that they are still on a journey to get to a point that inclusion is truly a part of their organisation’s culture.

Culture change isn’t easy

Changing culture is not easy, with benchmarking revealing that upwards of 70% of organisational change initiatives fail. Trying to adopt a more inclusive culture is arguably an even more significant culture change challenge, as it is far more values-oriented and personal. An inclusive culture is about everyone and ensuring they are working in an environment where anybody and everybody is treated fairly and equitably.

Despite most people openly advocating the concept of inclusion and fairness, the reality is that some employee’s true thoughts on the matter are much more complicated. This is reflected in the level of debate and discourse that we see across social media and society. These slightly more complex thoughts and feelings still exist despite many people believing it is the morally right thing to do and the research evidence showing that it has far-reaching business benefits including increased profitability, productivity, and innovation.

As a consequence, if an organisation is keen to make their culture more inclusive, they need to recognise the size of the challenge that they are taking on. This is not to intimidate anyone but to be realistic about the effort needed to tackle this issue successfully.

Importance of leadership commitment

There are numerous ways to address Diversity and Inclusion – via structural changes, decision making and HR processes (e.g. hiring, promotion, performance appraisal) – but those changes will not be successful if there isn’t support by leadership. In fact, researchers have identified leadership commitment as one of the key contributors to the success of any change initiative.

Like any change initiative, for it to be truly successful it needs commitment from leaders, as they are the primary communication channels within organisations and set the benchmark for behaviour. In fact, research by Deloitte indicates that what leaders say and do makes up to a 70% difference as to whether an individual reports feeling included. Therefore, one of the most critical steps is to ensure your leaders become true advocates and believers in inclusion, they need to become allies.

The ABC model of inclusion

Before embarking upon such a change initiative, it’s important to consider where your leaders are within their journey to truly advocating a culture of inclusion. Start with focusing on them and ensuring they truly believe in the business value diversity and inclusion brings. As important as the issue is morally, ultimately it is the benefit to the organisation as a whole that will convert those who have more complicated views on the topic.

The ABC model of inclusion provides a useful framework to help leaders and employees support and advocate an inclusive culture. This model accounts for the fact that all of us are on our own ‘inclusion journey’ and that we all may be at different stages. The goal is to create an organisation of allies, who are keen to promote and advocate inclusion, so that everyone in all their uniqueness, can be treated fairly and work together effectively.

Appreciates: Appreciating inclusion is the antecedent of change

Allyship begins with an individual’s awareness and appreciation of the issues and experiences of others. This stage is reflective of an individual’s growth in awareness. It may involve an initial step of accepting that equity in society is something worth striving for and that one’s active support and action can help address the issue. It could also involve the individual proactively learning about different perspectives, and the nature of bias, both unconscious and conscious. Individuals in this phase are identifying the challenges of creating an inclusive environment and becoming open to learning about their need to act.

Building an inclusive climate by behavioural change

This second stage moves from an individual gaining awareness and becoming open to addressing the challenges of inclusivity, to directly building an inclusive environment. Individuals in this phase are helping build an inclusive, fair and equitable climate by their actions. They are proactively building relationships with others, gathering diverse perspectives, empathising, actively listening, and communicating transparently. These behaviours, when modelled by anyone, build an environment of trust and psychological safety.

Champions: Championing change by acting as a catalyst for others

The last phase of allyship is one of advocacy. Individuals at this stage take their behavioural commitment to another level. They tend to look for opportunities to affect change, both formally and informally. To be successful at this stage, individuals need to be courageous, action-oriented, composed, and willing to commit. Organisational change does not happen quickly or easily, but it won’t happen at all without individuals taking personal ownership. Ideally, the entire organisation is full of supporters and allies, working together because they believe in fairness. By championing they are driving the issue beyond their own behaviour, creating a climate that supports inclusion.

Without allies leading the efforts, organisational messaging and behaviour can be incongruent and inconsistent. Therefore, raising awareness alone is not going to create an inclusive culture, it is just the starting the point. Organisations need to look at the big picture and focus on the activities and initiatives that truly create an inclusive culture, as it is not one change that is going to make the difference. However, having leaders acting as allies that appreciate the challenge, are willing to build an inclusive culture and willing to champion the change they would like to see in the world, will ensure the foundations for organisational change are possible.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here