Although an overwhelming majority of organisations aspire to have an inclusive culture, survey results report that 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, an employer with a gender neutral parental leave policy yet fathers in the organisation are less likely to use their parental leave entitlement compared with mothers. While best practice programs and policies are important, they remain tick-the-box initiatives unless there is corresponding cultural change.

What prevents the maturing of cultural change efforts is that organisational leaders frequently underestimate their role in driving inclusion or overestimate their impact. As with any cultural change, achieving an inclusive culture requires leaders that model and promote desired behaviours. Leaders cast a long shadow—only when leaders consistently and visibly demonstrate that they value diversity and inclusion will they influence others. Unless leaders set the tone from the top, the returns from 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.

Assessing employee experiences of inclusion through surveys and focus groups is useful for identifying opportunities for strengthening inclusive leadership. Inclusion data, however, can be confronting for leaders. Learning that employees experience bullying and harassment, or are concerned that they are not paid fairly, or are anxious about speaking up in meetings can be uncomfortable for leaders. Leaders can also be shocked to learn subordinates view their commitment to diversity and inclusion as insincere or that staff perceive they preference some groups over others. Because of the unconscious nature of bias, leaders may struggle to understand why their intentions regarding diversity and inclusion are failing to translate to positive experiences for employees. Negative feedback on a leader’s biases and blind spots can also trigger problematic emotions like denial and defensiveness. Most of us judge our behaviour against our intentions and this can cause us to dismiss or reject perceptions that do not align with how we see ourselves. Denying a person’s lived experience, however, doesn’t alter their perceptions and can amplify the harm done.

Understanding the intention-perception gap

Fortunately, there is a tool that can help leaders see themselves as others see them without triggering defensiveness and backlash. 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. The model shows how good intentions can fail to translate. Leader messaging can fail when leader intentions are poorly defined or leader behaviours don’t (or only weakly) reflect their intentions. The result is a mismatch between leaders intentions and the lived experience of employees.

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Every moment, individuals take in through their senses thousands of items of ‘data’ (stimuli from our environment). In themselves, these have no meaning at all. It is through interpretation—assigning meaning to what we perceive based on our past experiences and understanding of the world—that we make sense of events. In turn, the meaning we attach to our experiences trigger emotive responses. Positive emotions trigger approach behaviours (engagement) whereas negative emotions trigger avoidance behaviours (disengagement).

Applying the model to an example, while leadership intentions might be to increase the representation of women at senior levels, if the leadership team consists mostly of men, women employees perceive they are undervalued and cannot progress to senior roles, and report lower engagement scores and higher turnover than men.

Closing the Intention-Perception Gap

The Intention-Perception model reminds us that to effectively communicate we must realise that we all perceive and interpret the world differently and use this understanding to improve our communication with others. To change the lived experience of employees, leaders must build a context in which new interpretations are possible. They can do this by focusing on the gap between their intention and the impact of their message. This approach involves four steps:

  1. Understand the lived experiences of staff: To build trust as a leader, you must first understand the experiences and concerns of those you are leading. This means making an effort to understand the lived experiences and the realities of your staff. Leaders should seek to understand perceptions of inclusion from engagement surveys, focus groups, exit interviews, and engaging with staff directly on their experiences. Leaders should approach learning about employee experiences with an open and curious mindset. Adopting a growth mindset is helpful. Mistakes and blind spots are inevitable. Inclusive leadership requires vulnerable leaders who open themselves up to criticism.
  2. Clarify intentions: To address a gap between your intentions and impact, you need to define where you want to end up so that you can ascertain how far away you are from achieving that goal. A succinct and clear statement of your intention defines your end-point, aligns efforts, helps to prioritise initiatives, and offers a metric by which you can measure the success of your efforts. The success of any cultural change relies on leaders who communicate and model the changes that they want to see in their workplace. If leaders haven’t clearly defined and articulated those changes, they can’t successfully influence others.
  3. Strengthen messaging by ‘walking the talk’: Only by visibly demonstrating a strong and consistent message on diversity and inclusion can leaders change the lived experiences of employees. The Leadership Shadow (Champions of Change/CEW) is useful for helping leaders assess the strength of their messaging. The Leadership Shadow prompts leaders to focus on what they say, how they act, what they prioritise, and how they measure results.
  4. Monitor impact: The intention-perception model reminds us that lived realities can differ. Effective communication requires leaders to regularly and continuously monitor their impact and to take corrective measures when a gap persists.

Learn more about inclusive leadership and developing inclusive leaders.

Thanks for reading. Felicity.