“Most organisations will need to transform their cultures to become fully inclusive”.
For decades, management theory has endorsed the notion of ‘cultural fit’. Organisations have been run on the assumption that homogeneity in a workforce is good for business because it avoids many of the challenges associated with diversity. Homogenous workplaces were espoused to be more efficient because everyone understands and plays by the same rule-book. Organisations have worked hard to embed a well-defined dominant culture – a clear and well-defined playbook for ‘the way things are done around here’. To encourage conformity, people who display the qualities and behaviours deemed to be aligned with the organisation’s values are rewarded. Counter-cultural behaviour is discouraged and penalised.
Cultural fit is evident in a law firm that actively recruits female employees but rewards and promotes on the basis of masculine leadership stereotypes including long, inflexible work schedules. Cultural fit can also be written into employee policies. Amazon’s published employee principles include ‘Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit’ The principle reads ‘Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.’ While aligning with Western cultural values of individualism and competitiveness, an aggressive culture of debate is countercultural to individuals with cultural backgrounds that endorse social cohesion and interpersonal harmony. Those individuals may be rated less highly in a cultural context that promotes and rewards interpersonal assertiveness.
In contrast to organisations that endorse cultural fit, an inclusive workplace does not seek to assimilate its members to a dominant cultural norm. Rather, inclusion involves the preservation of individual differences. Inclusive workplaces encourage the coexistence of different values, beliefs and styles in the workplace. In an inclusive workplace, diversity is valued and encouraged and individuals are encouraged to bring their whole selves to work, including those aspects of their identity that may have traditionally been perceived as being countercultural.
Moving from Cultural Fit to Inclusion
In the same report, Deloitte notes that although around 70 percent of organisations today aspire to have an inclusive culture, most companies have not progressed beyond a programmatic approach to diversity and inclusion. A programmatic approach is characterised by ad-hoc interventions and initiatives without a corresponding shift in mindsets and behaviours. For example, parental leave policies that do not distinguish between primary and secondary carers yet fathers are much less likely to use their parental leave entitlement compared with mothers.
What prevents the maturing of diversity and inclusion efforts from a programmatic approach to sustainable cultural change is that organisational leaders frequently underestimate their role in driving inclusion. As with any culture change, the success of any diversity and inclusion strategy relies on leaders that model and promote desired behaviours. Unless leaders set the tone from the top, the returns from investments in diversity and inclusion programs will be limited. Deloitte reference research showing that inclusive leadership accounts for up to 70 percentage points of difference between the proportion of employees who feel highly included and the proportion of those who do not. This effect is even stronger for minority group members. US think-tank the Centre for Talent Innovation reports that firms with inclusive leaders are nearly twice as likely as others to unleash value-driving insights and their employees are 3.5 times more likely to contribute their full innovative potential. The same study reported that inclusive organisations are 45% more likely to report a growth in market share over the previous year and 70% more likely to capture a new market.
A common request of leaders who have bought into the business case for diversity and inclusion is “Just tell me what to do”. While inclusive leadership doesn’t come with a manual (because ultimately inclusion is different for every employee), there are some useful frameworks that leaders can apply to direct their efforts.
Deloitte’s Six Signature Traits of Inclusive Leaders
Deloitte offers an evidence-based framework for inclusive leadership. The consulting firm’s survey of inclusive leaders from Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Hong Kong, Canada, and the U.S. shows that such leaders possess six fundamental traits that foster diversity and inclusion on their teams.
Inclusive leaders demonstrate courage in three ways. First, they challenge mindsets and practices that stifle diversity. For example, by calling out bias or setting targets with accountability for hiring or promotion. Second, leaders display courage by acknowledging that they don’t have all the answers. When leaders are humble enough to admit their limitations, they model collaborative problem-solving. Third, inclusive leaders solicit honest feedback from followers. Leaders must be willing to open themselves up to criticism.
Contemporary leadership problems are global, dynamic, novel, and unpredictable. Reliance on what worked in the past is no longer sufficient. Neither can leaders rely on their own limited experiences and narrow understanding of the world to solve complex problems. Inclusive leaders actively seek diverse perspectives to compensate for their blind spots.
Australia’s multiculturalism is self-evident. About 28 percent of our population was born overseas, with another 20 percent having an overseas-born parent. 32% of the general Australian population have a background other than Anglo-Celtic (ABS, 2016). As workplaces become more culturally diverse, cultural differences present new challenges for inclusion. Consider the Western idiom, the ‘squeaky wheel gets the grease’ and compare with the Japanese idiom, ‘the nail that stands up gets hammered down’ or the Thai idiom, ‘The gold stands behind the Buddha’. Western cultures are “speak up and stand out” individualistic and competitive cultures whereas Eastern cultures typically endorse group solidarity and modesty. In the East, self-promotion is frowned on. Inclusive leaders recognize that fostering inclusion in culturally diverse work settings requires attention to cultural differences and how they might be limiting the contributions of some individuals. Inclusive leaders make adjustments to their own behaviours and to work practices to ensure that all employees feel respected and valued, can contribute fully to work practices, and have a fair chance of progressing their careers. For example, sending meeting agendas in advance, scheduling a time in the agenda for every member to contribute, consciously inviting every member of the group to contribute and actively monitoring and regulating the contributions made by more dominant members of the group can ensure every member has access to equal airtime.
Cognisance of Bias
Cognitive neuroscience research has taught us that most decisions we make, especially regarding people, are “alarmingly contaminated” by biases that operate under the scope of human consciousness. The existence of implicit or hidden biases means that we often make decisions that we believe are consistent with our conscious intentions to be fair and objective, but in fact, our unconscious beliefs and preferences are driving our responses. Unconscious bias at work has profound implications—when we make decisions on who gets a job, who gets disciplined or promoted, who we chose to develop, who we see as a confidante or as a suitable mentee, and whose ideas we give consideration to, we may be adding our own subliminal and emotional criteria to that decision. Criteria we might not even be aware of and which may have no basis in facts. Fortunately, research has also shown that we can override our reflexive responses with controlled and conscious thought or reflection. When we are motivated to be fair and unprejudiced because of either a strong internalised belief that it is morally correct to treat others fairly or because of strong social norms and legal restrictions against expressed prejudice and discrimination, we can engage controlled mental processes to override biased automatic responses.
For diverse perspectives to be integrated into work practices or combined in novel ways to create new solutions, team members must first be willing to share their ideas and perspectives. To that end, inclusive leaders create a psychologically safe environment in which all individuals feel empowered to express their opinions freely to the group without fear of embarrassment, humiliation or penalty. Diverse workgroups may have to work harder than homogenous groups to foster a speak-up culture. In 2017, in a world-first, The Australian Workplace Psychological Safety Survey collected perceptions of psychological safety from a diverse cross-section of workers. Overall, the results indicated low levels of psychological safety with significant variations across income, age, gender, and education level. Overall, only 24 percent of respondents reported feeling safe to take risks at work, and 58 percent of all respondents felt that their colleagues often reject others for being different. Leader behaviours are critical for fostering psychological safety. A single instance of a team leader critiquing, talking over, or otherwise dismissing a concern raised by a junior team member can damage perceptions of psychological safety for the whole team. However, because psychological safety is a group-level phenomenon, what matters is not only the behaviours of leaders but also the behaviours of all group members. Leaders must pay attention to the responses of others as well as their own responses.
Diversity and inclusion require leadership effort and sustained commitment. Diversity and inclusion will not work if it’s a leadership after-thought or empty words. There is no way around it—if leaders want to foster diversity and commitment, they must ‘walk the talk’.
The Leadership Shadow
In addition to the Six Signature Traits of Inclusive Leadership, Male Champions of Change and Chief Executive Women’s The Leadership Shadow is a helpful framework for leaders seeking to direct their inclusive leadership efforts. The Leadership Shadow prompts leaders to consider inclusive leadership in terms of what they say, what they do, what they prioritise and what they measure.
Combining the Frameworks
Overlaying The Leadership Shadow onto the Six Signature Traits of Inclusive Leadership offers leaders a helpful framework for developing an action plan for their inclusive leadership efforts. Leaders are encouraged to consider each of the six signature traits in terms of what they will say, what they will do, what they will prioritise and what they will measure to either develop or to model that trait.
For example, a leader’s action plan might include:
I will develop cognisance of bias by undertaking the implicit association test.
I will display courage by calling our gender bias.
I will model curiosity by actively seeking diversity in my professional network.
I will demonstrate commitment by setting cultural diversity targets with accountability.
I will prioritise cognisance of bias by actively questioning my assumptions when making promotion decisions.
I will measure commitment to gender diversity by analysing promotion rates by gender.