Inclusive leadership / Olga Dzene’s article

Inclusive leadership / Olga Dzene’s article

Living in a diverse business world where change takes place not just in the workforce, but also in customers who we wish to attract or markets in which we plan to expand, we must have the ability to be inclusive. What are the principles of inclusive leadership, and what do they mean to the company team?

The Deloitte company has identified 4 global trends which are influencing the development of contemporary organizations.

1. Market diversity

Firstly, it is market diversity on a global scale in the cultural, political and economic sectors. An increase in the number of ethnic residents and their levels of income is characteristic of these specific markets, which are providing growth opportunities for companies throughout the world. As market diversity is providing a great opportunity for growth, it is important to reach these consumers to make money.

2. Customer diversity

The customer is the key to success for any business. Nowadays, customers are on top of technology, and they want a personalized approach and the opportunity to express their opinions on consumer products. The challenge for companies is to provide an individualized approach, while also improving their sales figures. In satisfying the specific needs of customers, it is important for an organization to have customer specialists, to go into depth and understand nuances. An example of this would be to understand the specific needs of expectant mothers in terms of the choice of hygiene products or what may be required by a sight-impaired person for them to be able to work with software.

3. Idea diversity

The introduction of innovations is a priority for business efficiency and competitiveness. A broad range of ideas are required from individuals and organisations to achieve business goals. Diversity of ideas is important to avoid uniform thinking and to be able to generate creative ideas.

4. Talent diversity

Global changes are impacting on the ages of residents, the level of education and the flow of migration and this is demanding a readiness by organizations to react more swiftly to changes in society. Now, like never before, there are simultaneously five different generations employed in the workforce in Latvia. New views and a different attitude towards work are appearing with the entry of a younger generation into the workforce, which is changing organizational culture. 

Inclusive leadership ― a response to diversity in the world

Currently, there is a great challenge in maintaining a diverse body of talent at a company to satisfy the varying needs of customers, to reflect demographic diversity and to gain new markets. This is why inclusive leadership is more important than ever before. Independently of whether an organization takes on new and diverse employees in its employment or seals transactions with new customers, if the team does not have an inclusive environment that embraces all of these differences and creates a workplace in which everyone can freely and safely express their true nature, nothing will come of it. Inclusive leadership is becoming a unique and critical skill. It helps organizations to adapt to different customers, markets, ideas and to fully include diverse talents in the work process.

What makes people feel included in an organization? It is the feeling that they are being treated honestly and respectfully, that they are valued and that they belong. An organization's mission and values are also important, as is the behaviour of colleagues.  And, this is mainly dependent on the leaders in an organization. It is specifically what leaders say and do which influences 70% of employees’ sense of belonging to a team. The more that a person feels included, the more they will invest additional energy and collaborate more actively at work — all of this improves an organization’s performance.

Inclusive leadership is the ability to effectively manage and lead a diverse group of people, and to take their individual uniqueness into account empathically and without bias. It is a leadership style which excludes discrimination, biases and favouritism based on gender, disability, skin colour, race or other features, and allows employees to feel truly valued for their investment and performance.

Inclusive leadership - pluses and minuses

According to the McKinsey research, Diversity Wins: How Inclusion Matters (2020), organizations that are concerned about diversity at the employee and management level, show better business results.

  • Companies with ethnic diversity show earnings which exceed average indicators by 35%.
  • Companies which have gender diversity in their management team, gain revenue that exceeds the average indicators in their sector 19% more often.

Inclusive leadership which helps diverse talent feel safe, free and creative, influences innovations, collaboration and employee well-being in a positive way:

  • it steers a team towards innovative solutions, using the knowledge, skills and ideas of all team members;
  • it ensures that all employees have a say and opportunity to influence decisions;
  • it improves the relationship between employees and management, facilitating open communication;
  • it makes employees happier, ensuring that they feel heard and respected at work;
  • it creates trust between managers and employees.

But, there are also some risks as this leadership approach is very partnership oriented, non-dominating and without a strong hierarchy.

Inclusive leadership can:

  • create uncertainty in roles, as it is difficult to understand the hierarchy and responsibilities of management and employees;
  • create greater conflict as teams cannot agree about the right kind of actions;
  • lead to a potential battle for power between managers and employees.

Six competencies of an inclusive leader

Specific behavioural competences can be divided up to gain a better idea of how inclusive leadership can be expressed in the specific actions of a leader.

1. Visible commitment: these inclusive leaders clearly formulate and communicate a commitment to ensure diversity, challenge the status quo, and make diversity and inclusiveness their personal priority. They believe that the creation of an inclusive culture starts with words and actions and, therefore, they strongly object to discrimination and come up with specific goals that strengthen diversity.

2. Humility: these leaders are humble with respect to their ability, admit their mistakes, speak publicly about their shortcomings and provide an opportunity for others to provide their contribution. This helps them learn from criticism, to accept diverse opinions, to seek help from others to compensate for their weaknesses. From my experience, the adoption of this competency is challenging, as it is more characteristic of our way of thinking to consider that a strong leader is the most knowledgeable and professional person in the team. And this contrasts with humble behaviour. Whereas, if the leader always has the last word, team members will not attempt to offer ideas.

3. Understanding bias: these inclusive leaders are aware of their blind spots, stereotypes, and shortcomings in the system as well, and work hard to ensure objectivity in decision making. Stereotypes and biased decisions about people are the Achilles heel in organizations which lead to unjust and irrational decisions. This is why these leaders care for and even fight for equality and equitable pay and work appraisals, an objective and transparent selection process, honest selection in promotions, explaining the basis and arguments for their decisions to the team.

4. Curiosity about others: these inclusive leaders demonstrate open thinking and curiosity, listen to others without judging, and try to understand those around them with empathy. In line with the previous competency, inclusive leaders accept their limitations, listen to the opinions of others willingly to create a broad and objective overview. This requires the investment of time and as I have observed, our managers most frequently economize time specifically on this. If a leader is open to various opinions and is interested, this will result in employee loyalty, as they feel valued.  The skills of asking the right questions and active listening are the key to success in finding out the perspectives of other people.

5. Cultural intelligence: leaders have broad knowledge about various cultures, they are tolerant and careful towards other cultures, value and respect differences in other cultures, are able to adapt, are aware of their culture’s stereotypes, do not evaluate people by their nationality, but try to develop relationships between representatives of different cultures within their team.

6. Effective collaboration: these leaders empower others, focus attention on diversity in thinking and psychological security. They concentrate on team cohesion, the mutual exchange of ideas to create something new or to solve problems. They are aware that demographic factors which characterize employees, influence their thinking in a direct (for example, education), and indirect (for example, gender or race) way. They take this into account when creating certain groups and coordinating their decision-making process.

Potential pitfalls

Sometimes, leaders have good intentions in creating various teams and practicing inclusive leadership, but quite often a gap develops between their intentions and results. There are situations when organizations and teams experience unexpected consequences. For example, individuals who don't feel accepted in a new environment, do not use their full potential, and can drop out of or even leave a team. In turn, when other employees notice these negative consequences at work, the level of trust falls, the organizational culture suffers and the feeling of psychological security drops. Therefore, it is important to be aware of the types of pitfalls that are worth avoiding.


Tokenism takes place when a leader wants to be inclusive and wishes to create a diverse team by employing a small number of, or just one employee, from insufficiently represented groups. For example, organizations may take on a single female or one person from another culture, in order for there to be diversity. But in such a case, tokenism creates the opposite result. If there is an absence of true representation, the team does not benefit. Furthermore, persons from insufficiently represented groups may feel awkward or even used. I have encountered such a situation: a female who was a representative on the board of a large company, did not feel useful when taking part in meetings, but felt more like an exotic animal at which the others stared curiously, but nobody was really interested in her opinion.


If employees from a minority feel that their culture is not dominant in an organization, they will, most likely, try to assimilate into the team. In other words, they will formally assume the values and approach of the majority in the team, so that they don't stand out. However, through this assimilation, the employees risk diminishing a diverse perspective. Leaders must understand and take into account the differing experiences of people, to be involved in true collaboration and to help their teams use their potential in full. For example, a manager at a particular company shared his approach about how he gave Orthodox employees holidays during their festivals. In this way, Christmas was celebrated twice within his team, so that all team members could fully observe their traditions.


Sometimes, employees may be taken on at work, based on the organization’s or a particular manager’s idea about team diversity, but the old team does not accept them and does not perceive new employee's intelligence or ability level correspondingly. This widespread error is also one of the most powerful and painful pitfalls. This is why inclusive leaders should devote time to create trustworthy relationships, taking in any interest in employee well-being at work, and listening to their concerns and trials.

In the crisis which we are currently experiencing, the focus on inclusiveness and the demand for inclusive leaders is becoming ever more critical. People’s psychological insecurity is increasing in relation to their differences, and a distancing from the team and common goals is also taking place. As a consequence, the implementation of inclusive leadership is not always easy, as there are a lot of hurdles, potential risks and various nuances on this path.

As stated by Ashley Allmana consultant for the inclusion of persons with a disability, whose customers are Fortune 500 companies: " For a long time the workplace mantra was to leave your personal life and problems at the door. Now the mantra is to give everything of yourself at work, your very best." And an inclusive leader is the one who can support this process.

Olga Dzene - leadership development expert, consultant, presenter and coach.

Republished from iBizness

Other articles by Olga Dzene can be seen here, in the Related Articles section.