At Include-Empower, we recognise that organisations cannot achieve diversity and inclusion without inclusive leadership capability. As with any culture change, the successful implementation of a diversity and inclusion strategy relies on leaders who model and promote desired behaviours. Unless leaders set the tone from the top, the returns from investments in diversity and inclusion 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(1). 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(2).

What is Inclusive Leadership?

Inclusive leadership refers to the leadership capabilities required to foster diversity and inclusion. Diversity is the representation of individual differences in a workforce. Inclusion involves the integration of different ideas, perspectives, experience, expertise, and backgrounds accompanying a diverse workforce in work practices and decision-making.

Inclusion does not automatically follow from diversity. Biased mindsets and practices, cultural and language barriers, and organisational culture and workplace norms can prevent all employees from contributing fully.

Inclusive leaders actively manage those barriers by fostering work settings where all employees are willing and able to bring their full selves to work. Individuals bring their full selves to work they when they experience the four factors of inclusion: respect, belonging, empowerment and fair progression.

Challenges to Inclusive Leadership

Advantage blindness

Because of the unconscious and hidden nature of bias, it can be difficult for leaders to appreciate that individuals with backgrounds different from their own experience the workplace differently to them. Privilege is typically invisible to those who have it and many leaders believe that success is a level playing field. Leader blind spots mean that leaders typically underestimate the effect of bias at work and others’ experiences of inequity and exclusion—they cannot ‘see’ barriers to inclusion facing diverse talent because they do not experience those barriers themselves. In those contexts, diversity and inclusion are abstract concepts that do not resonate with leaders in a tangible or emotional way to motivate change.

Dispelling the merit myth is critical to engaging leaders in diversity and inclusion. Collecting evidence of workplace data through workforce analytics is a powerful technique for disrupting blind spots. Similarly, sharing the real-life stories of employees who have suffered from bias, harassment or discrimination evoke empathy and engage leaders on an emotional rather than an intellectual level in diversity and inclusion. Studies show that the emotional brain is a more effective motivator than the rational brain.


Diversity and inclusion may be resisted by members of the traditionally dominant and advantaged group out of concerns that it will limit their opportunities. For example, a common misperception is that when women win, men lose. Leaders from the majority group need to understand that diversity does not limit their opportunities, but that the enhanced organisational returns that result from diversity and inclusion efforts increase opportunities for everyone in the organisation.

Members of the majority group may also feel that they are being blamed for workplace inequalities. When egalitarian values and being fair to others are central to a leader’s self-concept, they may deny or be resistant to engaging in the topic of diversity and inclusion because it threatens their positive beliefs about themselves. To buffer guilt and other negative reactions, it is important to convey to leaders that inequality is socially constructed, unconscious and universal, but they hold the power to challenging the status quo and driving positive change.

Lack of knowledge/confusion on how to address inequities

Many leaders do not know what to do to drive diversity and inclusion. Transferring knowledge and skills for inclusive leadership capability gives leaders a tangible roadmap and action plan for ‘walking the talk’.

Inclusive leadership necessitates unlearning old ways of leading and ingrained habits and mindsets

Inclusive leadership capability involves complex interpersonal skills that are not easy to master. They take time, effort, and practice. Leaders need to repeat new behaviours for at least two months for them to become new habits.

Lack of accountability

The management adage, “What gets measured, gets done” is particularly relevant for diversity and inclusion. Because the biases that perpetuate workplace inequality are largely unconscious and automatic, shifting an organisation’s talent management paradigm from ‘cultural fit’ to ‘diversity and inclusion’ takes more than well-intentioned policies, programs and capability development. Unless leader KPIs and compensation are linked to clear and robust measures of diversity and inclusion capabilities, efforts, and outcomes, a tendency to revert to habitual and ingrained thinking and behavioural patterns limits the returns from an organisation’s investment.

Best Practice for Developing Inclusive Leadership Capability: Six Steps For Meaningful Change

Step 1: Diagnose the issues

The first step in inclusive leadership development is to collect diversity and inclusion data that highlights bias across the employee life cycle or market place that leaders might otherwise be unaware of. Sources of data include employee analytics, employee surveys, and qualitative feedback from customer, supplier or employee focus groups. Useful metrics include representation, retention, recruitment, selection, promotion, development, pay & rewards, benefits, flexible working arrangements, grievances and lawsuits, employee engagement, employee perceptions of inclusion, and customer and supplier satisfaction. Armed with a clear picture of your diversity risks and opportunities you are better positioned to develop a compelling business case to engage your leaders in cultural change efforts.

Step 2: Engage leaders in change efforts

(i) Build a robust business case relevant to organisational goals

Leader buy-in requires a clear link between the organisation’s diversity and inclusion risks and opportunities and business-specific challenges and opportunities. Ensuring leaders have a clear understanding of ‘what’s in it for me’ in the context of their business strategy makes diversity and inclusion relevant for leaders. When leaders can link diversity and inclusion to business outcomes, they are motivated to drive diversity and inclusion initiatives and their efforts and commitment are authentic, meaningful and sustained. Building a robust, organisational-specific business case takes some time but it’s necessary for securing leader commitment.

(ii) Engage leaders emotionally

The best outcomes from inclusive leadership development are achieved when organisations invest in enhancing leader motivation and commitment by incorporating the lived experiences of employees into inclusive leadership development. Leaders may not be aware of the actual experiences of employees. In this context, it is challenging to gain strong commitment to behaviour and culture change required for meaningful and sustained inclusion.

‘Feel the Need’ is an evidence-based activity grounded in behavioural science research that involves humanising the data from surveys and focus groups to drive leader engagement(3). Asking leaders to read actual quotes from employee focus groups brings the voice of employees into the discussion in a powerful way—focus group findings are used to ‘show’, not ‘tell’ the leaders of the impact of their own or other’s behaviour. Non-identifying real-life stories and anonymous quotes engage the emotional brain rather than the rational brain, which fosters empathy and enhanced motivation for and commitment to change.

(iii) Manage problematic emotions

Learning that employees experience bullying and harassment or are anxious about and refrain from calling out inappropriate remarks or behaviour may be confronting for leaders. Leaders can also be shocked to learn that subordinates view their commitment to diversity and inclusion as insincere or inauthentic or that their leadership style contributes to low levels of psychological safety. Fortunately, there are some tools that can help leaders to see themselves as others see them without triggering backlash, defensiveness or denial.

The Intention–Perception Model of Communication is employed in leadership coaching to help leaders improve their effectiveness by considering the gap between what they want to communicate and achieve and what is perceived and experienced by employees(4). Employing this model presumes that individuals are well-intentioned. This encourages buy-in by buffering defensiveness and other problematic negative emotions that may limit receptivity to workshop content and learning outcomes.

The model focuses participant attention on amplifying their role in successful inclusion efforts. Participants learn the importance of expressing an authentic commitment to inclusion and backing up their verbal statements with visible and meaningful action that progresses inclusion in measurable ways.

Step 3: Transfer inclusive leadership skills with formal training

Once leaders understand the need for and are motivated to drive diversity and inclusion at their organisation, the next step is to transfer the knowledge and skills needed for fostering diversity and inclusion through formal inclusive leadership training. As part of inclusive leadership training, leaders should be encouraged to reflect on the organisation’s real-life diversity and inclusion data, identify challenges and opportunities facing their particular business area and develop an action plan for addressing those challenges by identifying specific inclusive leadership behaviours introduced during the workshop that they can practice back in the work-setting.

Step 4: Optimise learning outcomes with action learning

The outcomes from diversity and inclusion training are optimised when employers invest in embedding behavioural change and driving accountability through action learning. Action learning brings learning to life, develops capability, and embeds behavioural change by applying workshop learnings to solve real-life problems and then reflecting on the impact of the action taken to enhance learning. After the formal coursework ends, leader participants engage in reflective practice and regroup 4-6 weeks post the workshop for a facilitated group debrief during which participants will:

  • Review action plans and commitments made during the workshop
  • Share their experiences practicing new behaviours
  • Explore what went well and why, and what were the challenges and why
  • Discuss ways to address challenges and/or modify action plans
  • Make re-commitments and new commitments for input into an ongoing peer coaching circle program (Step 5 below)

Step 5: Embed and sustain behavioural change with peer coaching circles

Peer coaching circles, pioneered by Charles Brassard, are based on the premise that ‘the wisdom is in the room’, meaning that we can gain as much from the wisdom and experience of our peers as from traditional learning strategies. Peer coaching circles adopt the principles and methods of individual executive coaching and apply them to small intentional groups of leaders. The outcome from a peer coaching circle that each leader will leave with feedback, advice, and action ideas from their peer group. Coaching circle members gain greater insight and awareness of their own impact, learn from the experiences and knowledge of others, and give and receive peer support as they work towards meaningful behavioural change in line with organisational goals.

Peer coaching circles help to create a greater capacity for listening, questioning, dialogue and feedback in the workplace and create a commitment to action and learning well beyond the boundaries of the formal program. Members of peer coaching circles build their own coaching capacity more quickly and become adept at translating their insights and skills back on the job. By developing an internal coaching capacity, coaching circles extend beyond their immediate peer group as leaders apply their coaching conversation skills back in their workplace with direct reports and colleagues. Further, because peer coaching circles build strong collaborative peer support networks for addressing ongoing challenges and issues related to diversity and inclusion issues as they arrive, they become a powerful mechanism for embedding and sustaining cultural change throughout the organisation.

Step 6: Establish accountability

It is important to have a formal plan for measuring the outcome of your investment in inclusive leadership development—what metrics will be calculated, by who, and how often? Once targets or other goals are set, responsibility for their achievement should be assigned to individuals who are held accountable through scorecards and other performance management tools. Ultimate accountability for diversity and inclusion should be at the level of the CEO and the Board of Directors, although every leader should be rated on their inclusive leadership capability.

Success Stories

At Include-Empower, we are committed to making a measurable impact and working with our clients to track the success of our programs. Inclusive leadership behaviours practised by leaders we have worked with include:

(i) Behaviours that promote fair progression

  • monitoring decision-making in selection and appraisal for bias and actively challenging ‘cultural fit’
  • calling-in bias in the decision-making of others
  • engaging in more frequent and detailed feedback to subordinates rather than waiting for the formal review process
  • actively seeking to provide development opportunities that stretch and engage an employee
  • being mindful of a fair allocation of development opportunities (e.g. rotating chair for team meetings)
  • making introductions and promoting access to role models and networks

(ii) Behaviours that foster respect and safety

  • calling-in bias and acting as an upstander
  • practicing micro-affirmations (e.g. active listening, acknowledgement of contributions and achievements, greater attention to tone and language in email communications)
  • being more mindful of and using inclusive language
  • regulating emotion effectively and responding to stress productively
  • giving and seeking feedback effectively
  • finding ways to celebrate differences
  • flexing one’s expectations or leadership style to accommodate for differences in working arrangements, working styles, ideas and perspectives, and individual needs
  • endorsing a zero-tolerance approach to bullying and harassment

(iii) Behaviours that increase belonging

  • encouraging the formation of friendships through the sharing of personal information
  • running inclusive meetings to ensure all team members contribute
  • actively seeking diverse perspectives in decision-making
  • fostering psychological safety including monitoring and regulating one’s stress response and providing a safe space for smart failure
  • sharing their own stories of exclusion to create a safe place for others to bring their whole self to work
  • paying greater attention to onboarding processes including ensuring a buddy system

(iv) Behaviours that empower

  • reaching out to and seeking feedback from individuals with a disability regarding how they can better support them
  • being more transparent regarding their use of flexible working
  • promoting the use of flexible working as a tool for managing mental health and wellbeing
  • modelling evidence-based strategies for managing stress and building resilience
  • sharing information and being as transparent as possible, especially during periods of uncertainty


  1. Deloitte. (2018). The Diversity and Inclusion Revolution: Eight Powerful Truths. Downloaded from Deloitte website:
  2. Center for Talent Innovation. (2013). Innovation, Diversity and Market Growth. Downloaded from CTI website:
  3. Inclusion Nudges, Nielsen & Kepinski, 2016
  4. Menzies (2018). Developing Inclusive Leadership: Helping Leaders See Themselves as Others See Them. Downloaded from Include-Empower website: