Five steps to becoming an inclusive leader

04 August 2021 7 min. read
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According to a study by Korn Ferry, an organisation with a reputation for inclusiveness – ley by their leadership – becomes a talent magnet for diverse talent. So how can leaders become more inclusive in their approach and ways of working? Brad Jennings, a senior management consultant at Newton, shared his five steps.

Last summer catalysed a cultural shift in discussions around diversity. Protests in the streets and campaigns on social media built international awareness in a way that hasn’t been experienced for over a generation. A year on, and as we are set to return to our offices, much of those conversations are still very much centered around the issue of representation.

Yet, what about the step after – that is, once you have a diverse team, how do you then harness its power effectively?

Brad Jennings, Management Consultant, Newton Europe

Earlier in the year I had the opportunity to sit down with Matthew Syed for Newton’s brand-new podcast, Newton Talks - The management and consultancy podcast for curious minds, to discuss the value of cognitive diversity. Our conversation made clear that we share the belief that people have an immense capacity for change and led us to three key principles for managing a cognitively diverse team.

Objective truth: the workplace conundrum

Our life experiences, cultural background, education, the media that we consume, gender, race, and nationality all have an impact on how we make sense of the world around us.

Objective truth relates to that which exists independently from an individual, for instance, we seek to gain objective truth through data and statistics. Normative truth is what we as a group believe to be true i.e., the concept of time. While the subjective truth relates to an individual's perception of the world.

This becomes problematic when one individual, or one group of individuals with a similar background or life experience, mistakes their view of the world as the objective ‘truth’. In other words, groups can often operate within an echo chamber. Matthew used an example from the CIA in which he traces the basic errors made in the build-up to 9/11 back to the homogeneity of its recruits.

He explains how almost all the recruits were white, male, from the west coast, protestant, liberal arts graduates meaning that the entire population of the organisation existed in an echo chamber. The team made flawed inferences based on reasoning and logic that were synonymous with their own world view and, as a result, missed the threats presented by those with an alternative understanding of the world.

From this it is important to acknowledge that none of us have a complete monopoly of truth – the ‘truth’ takes many forms.

Managing multiple truths

Throughout my career, I’ve seen many examples of how not to manage conflict and I can admit that at times I’ve made a couple of mistakes myself.

Having a cognitively diverse team – comprised of people with unique experiences and world views – means there are going to be multiple truths at play at any one time. The dynamics between individuals creates complexity and can result in conflict between team members if not managed correctly.

Here it’s important to see disagreement as a contribution to the group perspective. Once we acknowledge that this can contribute to the dynamism of a team, the sooner we can break free from group echo chambers and feel the benefits of cognitive diversity in solving complex problems.

In a group there are going to be ideas challenged and ideas rejected, so embracing cognitive diversity needs to go hand in hand with the ability to resolve conflict. Armed with the knowledge that ‘the difference can make a difference’, the challenge for any leader is to create the conditions for great teams to flourish through conflict.

Creating psychological safety

Any great team has one thing in common: psychological safety – the belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake. Social trust is massively important for organisations and even society in making diversity work for us. Trust provides the foundation for cognitive diversity to take place, because without it that’s when individual competition comes into play and a team is no longer working towards a shared purpose.

The starting point is to create a trusting environment with three key things: trust, care, and feedback. Protect the outsider mindset where no idea is a bad idea and promote a learning culture. Speak human-to-human, show that you’re truly curious to hear their point of view. Ask for feedback to highlight your own blind spots and acknowledge that at times you may be operating in your own echo chamber.

1. Know yourself
Unlocking the collective wisdom of a diverse group requires a leader capable of making the decisions that allow for dynamic conversations. However, before we can begin to understand how to bring the best out of others, we first need to understand ourselves.

Some questions to ask yourself could be: What are my biases? Where is my comfort zone and my appetite for risk? How do I ‘show up’ as a leader?

2. Connect before content
Organisations, first and foremost, are about people. It’s people that bring about change and so it’s a people-first approach you want to foster. This environment requires space for people to build rapport and for relationships to blossom.

People need to connect with one another before they can tackle tasks and leaders need to ensure their team is aligned so that they can work together in the most successful ways. It is in this alignment where cognitive diversity can really come into its own.

So, the next time you hold or attend a meeting, notice whether people jump straight into the task. If they do, consider taking a few minutes to allow the group ‘check in’ with each other and begin the conversations that build relationships.

3. Team and task
Particularly when we’re short of time, we can tend to focus on the task ahead of the team. In order to optimise cognitive diversity, maintaining dynamics of the group is just as important as delivering the task; it's a balancing act as a leader.

Keep a foot in the conversation and a foot ‘outside’ to keep an eye on the bigger picture of how the dynamics are supporting the achievement of the task at hand. Pay attention to the process the group is taking to work together to deliver the task. This will give you the headspace to notice different views are being held and built on. Formed groups have established ways of working and can ‘sleepwalk’ into an echo chamber.

If you notice the patterns in ways of thinking, then it's up to you to step in and create the shift.

4. Listen with intent
It is important to understand not just what people say but also what they mean. People perceive and process information in different ways so actively listening with intent is important to understand how they are thinking and ‘where they are coming from’.

As a leader there are practical things you can do to listen better. If you’ve spoken twice in a group discussion, hold back and let someone take the floor. Read the subtle signals people are giving out about the things they care about.

5. Question with curiosity
Judgement is the enemy of curiosity. When you’re next in a meeting notice the questions that you ask – are they the result of judging an idea? Remember our judgement is based on how we see the world, which is not necessarily everyone else’s truth.

A well-aligned group builds on ideas together so take genuine interest in other people’s ideas and, rather than throw your idea in, perhaps build on another idea – kind of like the ‘yes, and’ principle of improvisational drama/comedy.

If you start taking steps to create psychological safety and foster greater trust amongst your team, you can expect to see increased motivation to tackle difficult problems, more development opportunities, higher levels of engagement, and better performance.