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How Inclusive Leaders Harness the Value of Diversity

Many unique and diverse individuals in the workplace still do not feel entirely safe to be their authentic selves. How can leaders give them the freedom and confidence they need to thrive?


In a Nutshell

  • Diversity and inclusion is of growing importance in corporate leadership

  • Unique and diverse individuals in the workplace do not feel entirely safe to be their authentic selves

  • Organisations can create safe, inclusive environments through relational leadership


Diversity and inclusion is a key factor for successful companies. A workforce that is rich in diversity—whether in age, perspectives, lifestyles, nationalities—and that makes every individual feel valued because of (not in spite of) this diversity, has succeeded in honouring people.

It brings in results as well—there is a clear link established between companies with high awareness of diversity and inclusion, and bottom line. “Companies with diverse leadership teams are more likely to financially outperform their peers,” Russell Reynolds says.

Diversity and inclusion is of increasing value for business leaders today.

The growing importance of diversity and inclusion in corporate leadership

“From the #MeToo movement to various headline scandals, diversity and inclusion have been brought to the forefront of workplace dialogue,” Gallup says, in 3 Requirements for a Diverse and Inclusive Culture.

Awareness on diversity and inclusion increases proper business ethics and decreases financial and reputational risk for a company.

“Diversity represents the full spectrum of human demographic differences—race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age, socio-economic status or physical disability. A lot of companies consider lifestyles, personality characteristics, perspectives, opinions, family composition, education level or tenure elements of diversity, too.”

Human Resources defines inclusion as “the collective of actions, behaviours and gestures that make everyone, no matter what diversity they bring to the table, feel included as part of the bigger collective.”

We need more inclusive leaders to take action

Leaders acknowledge the need for diversity and inclusion in organisations, but progress remains slow.

“Covering at the workplace” is still common today. “Covering is a term coined by sociologist Erving Goffman in 1963, to refer to the way individuals with known stigmatized identities would make a great effort to keep the stigma from looming large.”

Examples cited by Deloitte in Uncovering a New Mode of Inclusion include how “a woman might avoid talking about being a mother because she does not want her colleagues to think she is less committed to her work.” Or “how much individuals “stick up for” their group. “A veteran might refrain from challenging a joke about the military, lest she be seen as overly strident.”

“Vast majorities of certain populations in the workplace are actively covering more stigmatized aspects of their identity,” Deloitte says. “They are downplaying who they are... Anyone who looks at the numbers should be disturbed. That's a lot of great talent being blocked by what they think the expectations of this culture at this company are.”

In The Difference Between Diversity And Inclusion And Why It Is Important To Your Success, Forbes points out the heavy financial implications for the company and that it is harmful for the person’s sense of self-worth.

“We're not coming up with the best products and services because so much of the workforce is afraid that they can't be their full self.”

What can leaders do to encourage employees to be themselves at the workplace? This is where inclusion comes in.

Inclusion is just as important as diversity

Most of the focus of study on the two topics has been on Diversity. Not enough has been done to develop Inclusion, but it is crucial to making diversity work.

And the distinction between diversity and inclusion is not always clear.

Having a diverse workforce sends the message that all are welcome, and no one will be discriminated against. Inclusion makes each individual—regardless of background, color, or personality type—feel valued.

“Diversity is the who and the what: who’s sitting around that table, who's being recruited, who's being promoted, who we’re tracking from the traditional characteristics and identities of gender and ethnicity, and sexual orientation and disability—inherent diversity characteristics that we're born with. Inclusion, on the other hand, is the how,” says HR consultant Jennifer Brown, author of Inclusion: Diversity, the New Workplace, and the Will to Change.

“Inclusion is the behaviors that welcome and embrace diversity. If you are a great leader for inclusion, you have figured out how to embrace and galvanize diversity of voices and identities. If I could have my wish, every leader would say, ‘Where is the diversity in this conversation?’”

Harvard Business Review, in the article Diversity Doesn't Stick Without Inclusion says, "In the context of the workplace, diversity equals representation. Without inclusion, however, the crucial connections that attract diverse talent, encourage their participation, foster innovation, and lead to business growth won't happen."

The challenges in creating an inclusive environment

How can we allow unique and diverse individuals to feel safe to be their authentic selves?

“Employees in inclusive environments feel appreciated for their unique characteristics and are therefore comfortable sharing their ideas and other aspects of their true and authentic selves,” Gallup says.

“When there is a safe environment for people to be their authentic selves, communication opens up. Innovation can take place as people feel safe to express their thoughts and ideas.”

But the reality is that building inclusion is difficult. These are some of the hurdles faced by workplaces in implementing inclusion:

1. It is personal and rooted in deep beliefs

Columbia Business School professor and founder of Mentora Institute, Hitendra Wadhwa, says that inclusion “goes really deep into the core of who you are, how you were raised, dinnertime conversations with your family, things that happened to you at school. These dynamics have shaped your beliefs about humanity, whether some groups are superior or inferior, who gets it and who doesn’t, who is trustworthy and who is not.”

2. Lack of inclusion strategy

Because diversity is not well-differentiated from inclusion, inclusion has not received enough attention, especially where training is concerned.

Most training programmes are focused on diversity, majority of which have been unsuccessful. “Most diversity programs aren’t increasing diversity,” Harvard Business Review says in Why Diversity Programs Fail.

And when inclusion strategies do exist, their likelihood of success is also low.

“Because the issues surrounding diversity and inclusion are so personal....individuals won’t be motivated to change because of a human resources initiative or because the organization says it’s a good idea,” Forbes says in Is This The Answer To Diversity And Inclusion?

3. It’s not as straightforward as it looks

Bias is part of human nature and leaders find themselves challenged when implementing inclusive practices and values in a diverse team.

“You can’t just outlaw bias,” Harvard Business Review says. “Executives favor a classic command-and-control approach to diversity because it boils expected behaviors down to dos and don’ts that are easy to understand and defend. Yet this approach also flies in the face of nearly everything we know about how to motivate people to make changes.

Decades of social science research point to a simple truth: You won’t get managers on board by blaming and shaming them with rules and reeducation.”

How organisations can create safe, inclusive environments

How can leaders find success in creating safe and inclusive environments?

1. Develop trusted and relationally competent leaders

Inclusion starts with leadership. When leaders engage staff and build relationships with their teams, they see, hear, and understand their concerns and can address them more meaningfully.

When it comes to implementing diversity and inclusion, focusing on compliance will have negative results. Instead, leaders must focus on buy-in and commitment. To do this, leaders need to take a relational approach.

Share the organisation’s commitment to inclusion in a way that staff will understand.

Listen to the staff’s concerns and address them without judgment.

2. Leaders need to walk the talk

Diversity and inclusion is something that is caught, and not just taught. The team needs to see it in action, and leaders must demonstrate this consistently. People can only recognise it when they see it and practice it if they have experienced it. For a culture of inclusion to thrive, leaders should not allow discrimination to be tolerated.

3. Build trust

Trust is the bedrock on which a culture of inclusion can be built. Building a safe environment is one where staff trusts the leader. A leader needs to earn and build trust daily, through consistent behaviour, showing integrity, and showing that he or she has the best interests of the team at heart.

Open and honest communication such as giving and receiving feedback, or the ability to have courageous conversations and resolve issues in a way in which everyone feels heard and respected—these are ways in which leaders build trust day by day.

4. Care and be interested

Inclusive leaders are aware of the stigma faced by marginalised groups and actively create an environment where who they are is celebrated. Inclusive leaders make an effort to define value and protect each person’s self-worth.

At the heart of inclusion is a deep care and value for people. When the culture is about caring for people, being sensitive to diversity will come naturally, and discrimination will not be tolerated.

When the workforce has the freedom and confidence to come to the table being fully themselves, the power of diversity—opinions, talents, backgrounds—kicks in.

A diverse and inclusive team is engaged and motivated to give their best and deliver results.


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