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Inclusive leadership – why it’s vital to businesses right now

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This is the last in a series of six articles created from conversations about Diversity and Inclusion with Hilary Harvey, Partner of TPC Leadership. In this final instalment, we look at why inclusive leadership is essential to address the challenges that businesses face. 

The leadership landscape has been changing fast in the last year. Challenges surrounding diversity have shot into the mainstream, virtual and remote teams have complicated inclusion, and the talent marketplace is becoming a more and more competitive space. 

To create a sustainable future for businesses in such a climate, inclusive leadership is essential. Organisations might be able to last a little longer by focusing on efficiency and productivity alone, but it is the businesses that prioritise diversity and inclusion that will be robust enough –  and innovative enough – to create success long term.

Inclusion in our relational leadership

“Inclusive leadership is not about any particular group,” says Hilary. ‘’It’s about seeking to value the people in your organisation for the individuals they are, not just the work they produce.”

There are so many unconscious assumptions we make in terms of age, gender or ethnic background. Hilary recalls one instance where she was mistaken for an admin temp at a firm where she was a managing consultant. As a result she ended up doing a coffee run, with good grace, even though it was well below her pay grade. 

“In some ways, not much has changed since then,” says Hilary. “Those assumptions and moments will continue to happen, and that’s okay as long as people get the check-in messages. When we hear we’re making a false assumption, we can learn from it.”

Everyone, no matter who they are, has experienced times when they feel included and times they don’t. But the frequency and intensity of this feeling is influenced by the culture of the organisation you’re in. And underrepresented groups are usually the ones who feel most excluded here. To value them for the individuals they are, we need to be active in our conversations and in-the-moment exchanges.

Inclusion in our team leadership

Once we’re beginning to catch non-inclusive behaviour in the moment, we might become aware of how we can promote inclusivity more broadly in our teams. 

How we handle inclusivity directly affects engagement. If people feel they are on the edge of an organisation’s priorities, they’re unlikely to identify with their organisation and feel connected to its purpose. It might not be long before they grow resentful or leave.

This is a cyclical issue. The less included people feel, the less engaged they will be, the less potential they will actively demonstrate and the less chance they have of being promoted. Years later, that translates to less diversity in senior leadership, which can perpetuate a sense of exclusion for underrepresented groups.

“In years past, I’ve sometimes wondered whether it’s even worth having this conversation,” says Hilary. “But we don’t have the luxury of not dealing with these issues anymore. We have a responsibility to hold each other to account and say, ‘What are we doing? Whose voices are we including? And who is not in the room?’”

Inclusion in our systems leadership

It’s on a systems level that we can see the broader patterns at play. A survey of 1,275 U.S. HR professionals was carried out by The Society for Human Resource Management. It showed that 49% of black HR professionals feel that discrimination based on race or ethnicity exists in their workplace. Only 13% of white HR professionals agree. 

It’s a sad statistic that reflects the oversight that happens when we believe that our current level of inclusion is enough. Unless we’re aware of systemic issues and our need to address them, our best intentions will be undermined. 

So inclusive leaders need to confront the issue. They need to roll out meaningful D&I training in their organisation. They need to pay attention to their inclusive language policies, to flexible working models and leadership development schemes. And they need to be asking whether their talent ID process is inclusive or not.

We also need to consider performance reviews. One audit of a U.S. law firm revealed that white men were more likely to be judged on their potential, while others were more likely to be required to prove themselves. The best talent strategies go looking for the people with potential, not just the obvious candidates. But without a structure ensuring we actively seek out those who are often excluded, the talent pipeline will remain non-diverse. 

“There isn’t a magic wand for any of this,” says Hilary. “We need to do the work.”

Looking for insight on how to move forward? Get in touch with us to find out how we can help.

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