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Dan Robertson

You only have to look as far as global businesses such as iTunes, Netflix, Tesla, Airbnb and Deliveroo, to see how business models are radically evolving, adapting and challenging traditional customer expectations.

The world around us is changing at an unprecedented speed, and is, according to Harvard Business School professor, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, increasingly being defined by three key factors: 1. Growing uncertainty 2. Complexity and 3. Diversity. The third factor, that of diversity, is one I will focus on for the purposes of this blog.

A lack of inclusive leadership is hampering innovation

Research conducted by the ENEI suggests that a leader’s ability to navigate this ever-changing global business landscape will continue to be hampered by a set of cognitive and social biases towards the people they hire and promote. These biases drive an organisation towards a narrow, exclusive way of thinking, threatening their ability to adapt to change and innovate accordingly.

From this, we can deduce that if businesses are to truly thrive in the face of this inevitable disruption, then leaders must make a conscious effort to overcome these biases and adopt a more inclusive style of leadership.

So what traits does an inclusive leader typically exhibit? According to the ENEI’s 2016 report, Inclusive Leadership…driving performance through diversityinclusive leaders can be defined as those ‘…who are aware of their own biases and preferences, actively seeking out and considering different views and perspectives to inform better decision making. They see diverse talent as a source of competitive advantage and inspire diverse people to drive organisational and individual performance towards a shared vision.’

The role of inclusive leadership

As Sheryl Sandberg stated at this year’s Davos meeting, today’s leaders need to challenge existing bias. To do this they need to adopt the principles of inclusive leadership. Supporting this, a 2012 paper on Inclusive Leadership by the professional services company Deloitte, suggested that there is an urgent need to develop business leaders who can let go of the iconic image of a leader as the hero and embrace the principles of inclusive leadership.

Further to this, Tony Baron in The Art of Servant Leadership stressed that the world economy demands an alternative way of doing business and workers demand a different style of leadership to help followers cope with change. And coping with change becomes more critical in a world defined by volatility and disruption.

This is a viewpoint also held by EY who see inclusive leadership as a core business enabler. Their model for reducing bias thinking and developing Inclusive Leadership is based on 3 principles:

  1. Think inclusively by seeking, valuing and leveraging different perspectives to achieve successful outcomes
  2. Learn inclusively by eliciting and using feedback from all directions
  3. Act inclusively by creating a shared identity for their teams while respecting  differences

To what extent are the principles and benefits of inclusive leadership understood?

Over the past six months, I have worked with Yvonne Smyth, Director and Head of Diversity at Hays to identify and understand the challenges businesses face when leveraging diversity and inclusion in the context of global disruption and uncertainty.

Yvonne and I have toured the UK and spoken to a wide range of business leaders, HR representatives and Diversity and Inclusion specialists, and hosted a number of Diversity in Action roundtable discussions. The aim of this? To identify current obstacles, plus some actionable solutions to help you leverage a more inclusive agenda. These findings will be published in the near future. What I can share with you now, is a preview of the key themes and findings which emerged from our research:

  • The benefits of an inclusive workforce are understood:

There was a clear understanding that having a diverse and inclusive workforce achieves two key goals. Firstly participants clearly recognised that similarity of thinking leads to “groupthink” and thus poses a significant risk to organisational decision-making. Secondly, participants also recognised that businesses which leverage their diverse talent pools will gain a strategic advantage over competitors through an increased insight into customer wants and needs.

  • Unconscious bias has an impact on talent selection, retention and recruitment:

There was recognition across the many business sectors who attended our Diversity in Action workshops of how unconscious bias impacts talent selection, retention and development. Our workshop discussions support the findings of Harvard University psychologist Mahzarin Banaji who, in her research, stresses that bias is not often a process of consciously discriminating. Most of the time, decision makers will unintentionally, allocate stretch projects to colleagues already in their “in-group”, invite these colleagues along to those key client meetings, giving that colleague more exposure to influential people, thus resulting in better career prospects for that individual.

  • There is an appreciation that women face an additional set of biases:

There was recognition that women do face an additional set of biases, specifically a lack of role models, access to (male) networks and exposure to sponsors. Women are also often made to feel they must choose between adopting “male traits” which will lead to them being perceived as  “bossy”, “arrogant” or “abrasive”,  and “female traits” such as being “nurturing” “well-liked”   but not necessarily respected.

How can you become a more inclusive leader?

We now know how important inclusive leadership is to businesses looking to thrive in this ever-changing world of work, but how can you gain an understanding of your personal current level of competency in this area, and identify areas in which you need to improve?

As part of ENEI’s 2016 report, Inclusive Leadership…driving performance through diversity, we outlined a list of fifteen leadership competencies. Below, I have outlined those I think are the key points. I recommend you ask yourself these questions to identify where the shortcomings are within our inclusive leadership agenda.

  1. Idealised influence – Do you / your leaders provide an appealing vision which inspires diversity of thinking and being?
  2. Unqualified acceptance – Do you / your leaders show acceptance of everyone without bias?
  3. Empathy – Do you / your leaders appreciate the perspectives of others and endeavour to understand how others feel?
  4. Listening – Do you / your leaders listen to the opinions of diverse groups?
  5. Growth – Do you / your leaders provide opportunities for all diverse employees to realise potential, make autonomous and unique contributions and progress with the organisation?
  6. Awareness – Do you / your leaders have self-awareness of how preconceived views can influence behaviour towards others?
  7. Stewardship – Do you / your leaders show commitment to leading by serving others for the good of everyone rather than for self-gain?

Ultimately, the real questions for today’s business leaders include:

  • Are you aware of how you show up to others?
  • Do you actively challenge bias thinking in decision-making?
  • How do you work to move outside of your comfort zone and connect with people who are and think differently to you?
  • Are you brave enough to stand up, stand out and challenge the status quo?

Answers to these questions and other themes which emerged from our Diversity in Action series will be published later this year. Watch this space. You can also find some advice and support through the ENEI’s existing resources, plus some of the recent Hays Diversity articles, including the below:


Dan Robertson is the Diversity & Inclusion Director at the Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion. He is highly respected as a subject matter expert on workplace diversity & inclusion, unconscious bias and inclusive leadership.

Dan has a particular expertise in the science and application of unconscious bias and leadership decision-making. He spends his days supporting executives to turn diversity theory into meaningful actions.

He has provided tailored learning on bias reduction and inclusive leadership to a wide range of national and global organisations based in London, Madrid, Paris, Amsterdam, Rome, Frankfurt, Munich, Brussels, Zurich, Dubai, Dublin, Moscow, New York, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Tokyo, Singapore, Bali, Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai & Johannesburg,

Dan is one of a small number of external facilitators who delivers EY’s UK & I Inclusive Leadership programme as well as the Inclusive Leadership Masterclass programme for The Whitehall and Industry Group (WIG).

Contact Dan: [email protected] / 07946 466 180

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