Why do leaders find it so difficult to talk about inclusion?

Written by Nigel Girling CMgr CCMI & Lisa Avery Tuesday 12 October 2021
If you think talking about inclusion will expose you as a dinosaur, you may be right. Time to find some bravery and curiosity
A group of diverse people

Decades of legislation, policy, exhortation and moral argument hasn’t shifted the dial on inclusion far enough or quickly enough. The paradigm of the White, middle-class, male and charismatic leader remains central to the blueprint of many organisations and continues to shape an expectation of toughness, dynamism, focus and ruthlessness in those who are thought to exhibit ‘leadership qualities’.

In a post-pandemic world that faces such an upsurge of mental health challenges and with so many talented people questioning whether they even want to be part of the modern corporate environment, we need to change that conversation. Quickly.

Our experience with research data and dialogue within organisations shows us that allyship is perhaps the only way we can make rapid progress on many aspects of inclusion. Our existing leadership cohort must be helped to recognise the need to create an inclusive society, want the benefits it will bring, and become allies of all those who are excluded, disadvantaged or marginalised by current business and organisational models.

After a global pandemic that has made us all aware of our shared humanity, perhaps we now have that chance?

Achieving this will require two major actions from our current and aspiring leaders: we need them to show courage and to exhibit curiosity if we are to develop a more inclusive style of leadership.

Here’s why

For many current managers and leaders, any conversation about inclusion can seem fraught with danger. We’ve found that the predominant male and White cohort are often afraid to even discuss many of the issues for fear of being attacked, feeling unwelcome or treated as dinosaurs who need to be overthrown. As a result, some have pulled up the drawbridge, while others are simply uncertain how best to make a difference. In addition, the current paradigm has served many of them very well and enables them to continue their upward career trajectory. Who needs to rock that boat?

This is where courage comes in

The word ‘courage’ comes from the Old French, meaning ‘heart and spirit’. The conversation of inclusion is one that should indeed be driven by the heart, as it invites us to explore our common humanity. It asks us to consider the ways in which we are united in what makes us human – our thoughts, our emotions, our fears, our hopes, and our dreams.

Psychology shows us that human beings need three things to be motivated. They need to feel competent in what they do, autonomous in the choices they make and connected to others along the way. It is this desire for connection that we need to highlight, and the way to do this is to bridge the gaps of misunderstanding, mistrust, and disconnection.

The only way this can happen is through dialogue, so leaders need to create the safe space in which this can take place. Psychologists would describe this as ‘psychological safety’ – where everyone can show up as they are and speak up without any fear of embarrassment, shame, or humiliation. Within any psychologically safe space, the full range of human emotions are welcome.

Psychology also tells us that whatever we repress will grow stronger inside of us and control us, so a good leader knows that inviting people to express what they are really feeling is key to creating positive change. In order that people feel safe to do this, a leader must acknowledge and validate what others share.

This kind of sharing can feel daunting to start with, but is simply a habit that we can create. As the expression goes, “neurons that fire together wire together”, so every time we think something, say something, or do something, it will become faster, easier, and more automatic through repetition, as we are strengthening those connections in our brain.

Being courageous is something that improves with practice.

As a leader, are you ready to show up with the courage to help your people meet their fundamental human need for belonging?

Find the courage to:

  • open up that inclusive conversation; accept and recognise the responsibilities you have to be an ally and to open the door to others.
  • ask difficult questions and really listen to the answers.
  • refuse to defend the status quo or your deeply held convictions and even prejudices – in order to consider alternatives and new realities.
  • challenge existing norms in order to innovate, change and break through to a better tomorrow.
  • face the issues for real, rather than hide behind policy, procedure and box-ticking; be the one to influence and persuade others to come on the journey – to truly be an enabler of a more inclusive culture.

Start the shift in your organisation

Complete the CMI Level 7 Award in Strategic Approaches to Equality, Diversity & Inclusion – it’s a structured and high-impact programme to kick-start or accelerate progress on inclusion and equity in any organisation. You can complete it at any of our approved centres across the world.

Learn more

Alongside courage, leaders also need curiosity

If we really want to find a better way, we need to be sufficiently curious about the views and experiences of others; about better ways to include and engage others from all groups and perspectives; and about the best ways to co-create a new and better world, enabling people to give their best efforts in support of a compelling vision. Why?

  • Curiosity enables us to ask real questions, where we aren’t seeking to win, score points or defend our ground – but instead are openly interested in alternatives and other points of view, in the ideas, opportunities and benefits that an inclusive world might bring.
  • Curiosity catalyses change. It helps us challenge what we think, feel, and do. Often we are oblivious to the thought, emotions and assumptions that are driving our behaviour, as they sit snugly within the subconscious mind. Assumptions may save us precious thinking time, yet they can be very dangerous, as they do what it says on the tin – assume. When we make an assumption, we fail to ask a question to clarify. Instead, we let our unconscious bias dictate. We see a person or a situation through our own individual lens that will have been coloured (or jaded) throughout our past. Yet we may be blissfully unaware that this is a filter tainting our vision.
  • Curiosity invites us to take away our filter and explore how others see the world. Every question asked is the opportunity to glean greater insight and see a more nuanced picture. We need this as human beings, since we tend to believe that every thought we have is true. We particularly fixate on negative assumptions – about people, their capabilities or worst-case scenarios – as we believe these can endanger our physical, emotional, and psychological survival, and thus demands our attention. By becoming curious and asking a question, we may realise that our lens has been darkened and our assumptions were erroneous.

Beyond assumptions

There is one more compelling reason to start asking more questions, and that is because genuine curiosity unites people. The more we ask other people questions, the more similarities rather than differences we see, the less threatened we feel by those differences, and the more united we feel in our common humanity. Curiosity ignites empathy. Empathy engenders trust. Trust opens the gate to real communication, where we can be courageously vulnerable and address that which is fundamental.

So what happens if we don’t express that which is fundamental? Human beings have an innate sense of that which is fair, and we are very sensitive to this. Research tells us that we react negatively to a lack of equity – it feels bad. What makes it even worse is that it often gets repressed inside us. Science tells us that whenever we repress our negative emotions, we temporarily suppress our immune system. If people experience a lack of equity on a regular basis and have no outlet to release this, there are emotional, psychological and physical consequences. Isn’t it time we faced up to the reality of this? Isn’t it time we found the courage to ask the question: what is fair?

In asking this question and opening the debate, we can harness the power of courage and curiosity, engender a culture of openness, trust, and honesty, where people feel a sense of psychological safety and can enjoy the process of co-creating an environment in which everyone feels free to show up as they are, speak their truth and constantly grow and evolve through opportunities which are equitably aligned with them.

Image: Shutterstock/elenabsl

Want to learn more?

Nigel Girling CMgr CCMI is head of centre at Inspirational Development Group (@InspirationalDG). He’s spent 35 years as a CEO, influencer and mentor, and is a regular contributor to expert panels, think-tanks, conferences and professional journals.

Lisa Avery is a positive psychologist, coach and writer, who who uses positive psychology – the science of optimal human functioning – in an array of settings to help individuals connect with the unique passion and purpose that drives their personal and professional success.

Don’t miss out - get notified of new content

Sign-up to become a Friend of CMI to recieve our free newsletter for a regular round-up of our latest insight and guidance.

CMI members always see more. For the widest selection of content, including CPD tools and multimedia resources, check out how to get involved with CMI membership.