The 6 Steps To Become A Radically Inclusive Leader

The importance of being inclusive is a familiar concept for leaders. Most will describe themselves as promoting inclusivity and wouldn’t intentionally exclude or leave anyone out. However, being inclusive is so much more than celebrating heritage months and an opportunity to enjoy the culinary feasts of samosas and jerk chicken amongst other treats.

Many employees report a very different story. Their personal experience of not being in the in-group lends to systemic exclusion from key conversations, informal networks, decisions and ultimately opportunities for personal and professional career development. There is no seat at the table for them, resulting in marginalisation, underperformance, dysfunctional resilience and low morale. Ultimately you’re leading to high calibre talent leaving and looking elsewhere.

It is no longer enough to lead by superficial inclusion. The work in the area of inclusion has now evolved towards increasing the depth of awareness, understanding and taking action to deal with systemic barriers to inclusion experienced by employees from marginalised backgrounds. The next crucial leap is for leaders to explore and take actions toward becoming radically inclusive. Doing this isn’t as easy as it may first appear. This will require facing many uncomfortable truths about the reality and impact of exclusion, bias and prejudice, especially from the lens and lived experience of those from under-represented groups, and minorities in the majority.  

Anyone who has endured the brutal school experience of being picked last for the rugby, netball, or hockey team knows the gut-wrenching pang of feeling left out and excluded. Those feelings of rejection and hurt don’t leave us completely and can resurface repeatedly throughout our lives. Even brief, seemingly inoffensive occurrences of rejection can sting. Williams, Eric Wesselmann, PhD, of Purdue University, and colleagues found that when participants passed a stranger who appeared to look “through” them, rather than meeting their gaze, they reported less social connection than did people who made eye contact with a passing stranger (Psychological Science, 2012). When people are chronically rejected or excluded, however, the consequences can be more severe. Long-term ostracism seems to be very devastating,” Williams says. “People finally give up.”

Embracing radical inclusion means we need to be open, non-judgemental, reflective, and curious about our own personal biases, privilege and assumptions. Externally we need to understand and have empathy with the lived experiences of those from very different backgrounds, identities, life choices, beliefs, dreams and feelings to us. Each of us has a sphere of influence around us where we can take the decision to be an ally and not just a bystander.

Here are 6 steps you will need to take towards intentionally becoming a radically inclusive leader:

  1. A deeper understanding and empathy of the lived experience of someone who has been excluded because of their identity. A good starting point is to reflect on times when you have felt socially excluded. How did this impact you? Now be curious about how this may have had an adverse impact on someone else’s confidence and self-belief.
  2. Be conscious that you’re not tempted to ‘rescue’ as this will come across as patronising and condescending. Instead, focus on creating psychological safety and trust. This will take time and patience.
  3. Consciously make an effort to include the experiences and perspectives of everyone. Developing self-awareness around our own personal bias towards others isn’t straightforward. Unconscious bias is neurologically uncontrollable and scientifically undeniable. This form of bias compels each of us to divide humans into clear categories of typically; “same as me” (and probably safe) and “unlike me” (and potential risk). As a species, despite our brain wiring, this way is superfluous to survival in today’s world. Be curious about your own prejudice and blind spots. Before connecting with others who you suspect you’re biased toward, take a moment to slow down and check in with yourself. Think of an example of when you met someone from that same group with whom you had a positive experience. We are more likely to be biased under pressure, and practice slowing down before jumping to a conclusion.
  4. Be aware that those who are excluded may have learnt to stay silent and don’t assume they are quiet because they have little to say. However, people who are excluded if given the opportunity to connect with others and have an opportunity to be sociable they will do so, even if there is only a remote possibility of social affiliation. Those that have experienced exclusion are still very motivated toward social acceptance – especially those who aren’t involved with their experience of social exclusion.
  5. Educate yourself about microaggressions and microinvalidations. A microaggression is an example of behaviour or comment which is negatively targeted at someone from a marginalised group, undermining a culture of inclusion and reinforcing privilege. Microinvalidations are communications that subtly exclude, negate or nullify the thoughts, feelings or experiential reality. For instance, telling someone that they are being oversensitive about an inappropriate remark. Or worse case playing devil’s advocate or getting defensive when someone is sharing their experience of exclusion.
  6. Explore how you can actively choose to be anti-exclusive and radically inclusive. Are there examples of empire building and silos in the organisations where people are resistant to change and protecting their areas, or self-interest at the cost of the wider organisation by excluding others and creating covert barriers to entry? Is it enough to lead through consensus in these situations and things carrying on as business as usual?

Unless you yourself have lived the experience of feeling excluded, rejected, abandoned, not belonging, shamed, racism, sexism, abuse, bullying, micro-aggressions etc. there is no guarantee as a leader you’ll understand the deeper repercussions of these when they show up in an employee. The impact of these experiences may surface disguised in many cases as a lack of confidence, denial, avoidance, anger, fatigue, imposter syndrome, self-sabotage or low self-worth. 

Radical inclusion needs radical action and courageous leadership. Be prepared to disrupt and ruffle a few feathers. The longer-term rewards will attract, retain and future-proof your organisation.

About the author: Salma Shah is an Accredited Coach, the founder of coaching and leadership development platform Mastering Your Power, and author of Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging in Coaching: A Practical Guide (Kogan Page). 


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