There has been a strong business case for organizational diversity for over a decade, but progress towards establishing gender, ethnic and cultural diversity has been slow. As research continues and collective understanding matures, we have increased clarity that inclusive leadership drives organizational diversity, and has positive impacts on organizational health.
What is inclusive leadership?
Inclusive leadership is a style of leadership where individuals prioritize establishing and maintaining an organizational culture where members feel they are respected and treated fairly, which increases their sense of being valued and belonging. This experience results in board members who are more confident, creative and inspired.
According to the Employers Network for Equality and Inclusion, inclusive leaders are ones who are aware of their own biases and preferences. They use this awareness to actively seek out and consider different views and perspectives to inform and improve their decision-making. In their view, diverse board members are a competitive advantage and they actively inspire diverse people to drive organizational towards a shared vision.
This practice of leadership does not just happen. To be truly inclusive and dismantle systems that are rooted in discrimination and encourage subordination, leaders must commit to their personal development and live through the shifts of heart, mind and behaviour that they want for their boards and organizations. This learning rooted in lived experience is what helps translate your personal shifts into real, lasting change that improves the health of your organization.
Why does organizational health matter? What does diversity have to do with it?
Organizational health matters because healthy organizations perform more efficiently, and effectively. According to the Boston Consulting Group, organizational health, which is directly tied to high performance, is determined by three key markers:
- how effectively an organization functions;
- how appropriately an organization copes with change;
- how the organization grows from within.
Leaders who are invested in building healthier organizations recognize that increasing the numbers of traditionally underrepresented people does not automatically result in better outcomes or higher performance. This aligns with research indicating that increased diverse representation actually increases interpersonal tension and conflict, and does not directly correlate with improved financial performance. What it does result in is improved work quality, decision making, team satisfaction and equality.
How do leaders leverage cultural differences as an asset to improve performance? They create psychologically safe spaces for their directors by reshaping power and engagement structures. This includes building boards that value and encourage varied points of view from diverse lived experience instead of suggesting they be suppressed to maintain a cohesive group.
By modelling being deliberately open to and appreciative of different perspectives, inclusive leaders encourage their directors to learn about and from the diverse experiences of their colleagues. This new information helps them re-imagine how services, processes, systems, and norms can be made more inclusive and effective, which starts the shift towards a healthier organization from the ground up.
This learning focused approach creates the circumstances necessary for diverse boards to realize performance benefits. Inclusive leaders deliberately set aside time and space for their directors to reflect on and discuss how they function. These conversations can shed light on the impact of status differences and how that impacts the choice to encourage enquiry and value difference, as well as what can be learned from it. When leaders do not make this space, diversity can undermine the effectiveness of boards and the health of the organization.
Restructuring your leadership style and your organization will take dedicated time and focus. As you continue on your learning journey to become a more inclusive leader, here are some things you can set in motion to create a healthier board of directors.
One of the most effective ways to improve organizational health is to remove barriers to communication. Inclusive leaders do this by working with their boards to identify structural and stylistic barriers that make it challenging for traditionally underrepresented directors to share concerns and experiences, including fears of negative mental or physical health outcomes. By creating psychologically safe spaces, inclusive leaders help reduce retaliation and glean insights from concerns and complaints that can inform policy and procedure change.
This could include changes around access to developmental opportunities and coaching an improved awareness of which groups are more likely to be given second or third chances to prove themselves. And inclusive leaders don’t keep this information to themselves. Instead they model practices and share their learnings with other leaders to support a shift in culture across the sector.
Leaders know their organizations are unique—from the board complement to the challenges to the value proposition. Developing inclusive policies and programs that are relevant to organizational context, instead of trying to shoehorn a generic one into place, makes sense. How the organization is run should be informed by data about the board, clients and stakeholders—especially when shifting into being a more inclusive, equitable organization.
This might mean looking at the data with a lens that leverages an understanding of how systems of privilege and oppression—including racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, classism, heterosexism—operate in the wider culture, and are being reproduced within the organization because they have been accepted as the way things are done. Specifically examine what the data says about groups that thrive, and those that don’t and see if you can identify the levers that make that difference.
Examining the data may prompt the realization there is not enough of it to make an informed decision. In such cases, collecting more information to establish benchmarks and inclusion goals is a good first step that supports examining change over time.
Sharing initial findings, process and outcomes with your directors over time will increase transparency, accountability and trust—which are critical to maintaining a healthy, inclusive organization. Also look to see what comparable organizations have started to do—use similar analysis to determine what they are doing to improve their effectiveness and leverage their learnings.
Inclusive leaders work to maintain a culture of psychological safety, and trust by building spaces where their directors feel safe to express themselves through vulnerable, honest conversation that facilitates learning and change. This includes feeling safe to say things like “I don’t know,” “I made a mistake,” or “I need help.”
Leaders who take risks and model this behaviour across lines of difference, including power, race, gender, sexuality and age, and who meet this behaviour with acceptance instead of judgement or rejection, strengthen trust with their boards. This includes admitting knowledge and expertise gaps when it comes to not knowing how to address the deep grief, rage and despair that racialized directors may feel, especially if they have been marginalized or undervalued.
However, admitting gaps is not enough. Once identified, inclusive leaders deliberately foster learning for themselves and their boards to repair existing damage and respond more effectively next time. This approach better prepares them to create connection and safety the next time they initiate a conversation from a vulnerable position, instead of leaning into their positional power and privilege. This practice over time will create a culture that encourages the sharing of lived experience so directors can learn from each other’s lived experience, which are great sources of ideas for enhancing the organization’s work and culture.
Inclusive leaders are successful because they don’t stop there. Instead they work with their directors to implement those ideas to make system and cultural change through concrete actions that build trust by addressing discrimination where it is identified so their boards, and organizations can thrive.
In addition to learning from lived experience and using that information to change policy and practice in the current moment, inclusive leaders are mindful of the future. They understand that traditionally underrepresented board members face challenges when they choose behaviour norms expected by the organization that contradict the values that align with their identity; directors might also face challenges when they express their values in contradiction to the norms of the organization. Either choice challenges expectations.
Inclusive leaders are aware of the cost of this kind of code switching, which is a strategy of shifting from one linguistic and behaviour code to another, depending on the social context or conversational setting. Racialized people use it to successfully navigate interracial interactions and has large implications for their well-being, economic advancement, and even physical survival. Inclusive leaders demonstrate their genuine respect and value for their directors by doing more than inviting traditionally underrepresented board members to the table to have conversations that determine how change is made. Instead, these leaders invite their directors to build the table together. This includes giving them the power to determine agenda items, to prioritize committee work and how it is done in a way that accounts for people’s needs and interests, and that builds meaningful recognition and opportunities for meaningful engagement.
This key shift in power and control is what enables truly inclusive leaders to tap into the benefits that their diverse directors bring to the table.
Building on all of the previous steps, inclusive leaders use their experience and learning to encourage collective learning and change to identify and dismantle organizational policies, programs and systems of discrimination that harm organizational health. This work requires leaders to influence their boards and develop an organization-wide mission to collectively reflect, experiment, act and change what has been commonly accepted. It also requires a commitment to monitoring impact and making ongoing adjustments, instead of only doing so once.
This might include testing new technologies, determining the impact that they have on all directors and addressing disparities before rolling them out across the organization. It might also include deliberate practices to counteract stereotyping and tokenism by running more equitable simultaneous recruitment and assessment processes to reduce bias, increasing development opportunities for historically underrepresented groups.
While these five approaches are not the only ways inclusive leaders build healthier organizations, their impact individually, and in combination, creates organizations with improved work quality, decision making, team satisfaction and equality.
Niya Bajaj is an award winning mentor and philanthropist who helps high performing leaders achieve their strategic objectives while building healthier organizations. As a queer woman of colour and a yoga therapist she brings her interdisciplinary insights to her research, practice and the organizations she leads and advises. Connect with Niya – https://www.linkedin.com/in/niyabajaj or on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/holisticyogatherapist/