Article · 5 minute read

Workforce Inclusion Network – More Inclusive Leadership

Thoughts From Our Recent Roundtable

6th July 2023

Our recent series of virtual roundtable events brought together talent practitioners from across the globe to share ideas, experiences and practical solutions for making talent practices more inclusive.

The first roundtable in the series looked at ways that organizations can nurture more inclusive leadership, with perspectives from a range of sectors, including IT, professional services, pharmaceuticals, travel and more.

What do we mean by ‘inclusive leadership’?

Harvard Business Review defines inclusive leadership as “Leadership that assures that all team members feel they are treated respectfully and fairly, are valued and sense that they belong, and are confident and inspired.”

Research suggests that teams with inclusive leaders are 17% more likely to be high performing, 20% more likely to make better decisions and 29% more likely to collaborate effectively.

Other benefits include:

  • Increased trust between leaders and their teams.

  • Happier, more-engaged employees who feel valued, listened to and have a sense of belonging.

  • Increased innovation sparked by a wider range of knowledge and experience.

  • An open and safe communication where employee voices are heard.

  • The ability to tap into a more diverse talent pool and new customer markets.

So there’s no surprise that inclusive leadership is high up on many organizations’ talent agenda. 

We asked the group if they thought leadership teams are becoming more diverse?

In our afternoon session, 100% agreed that they were. However, in our morning session just 17% agreed, with 83% disagreeing, which suggests that there is still plenty to do in this regard.  

In our second poll, we posed the statement: ‘Self-awareness is the biggest barrier to improving inclusive leadership’

Self-awareness is crucial in inclusive leadership. Leaders need to be aware of any issues, empathetic and open to change, which may not always be the case.  

In our first session, 29% agreed that self-awareness was currently the biggest barrier to inclusive leadership, with 71% disagreeing. In the second session it was a closer split of 56% and 46% respectively. 


This led on to our first break-out session, where we asked our groups:

What are the barriers to creating inclusive leadership teams?

Answers included:

  • Changing perceptions and understanding what is meant by ‘inclusion’.

  • Breaking existing habits – people are used to doing things they are already doing. Habits are difficult to change but people are slowly understanding the need to change.

  • Inclusion needs to start from the recruitment/hiring perspective. Bias awareness is crucial and the need to work out of these habits and biases.

  • Having self-awareness is great – but there needs to be more focus on the ‘so what?’. What can we do, and what talent management processes can be put in place?

  • Leadership often starts with the self – but there needs to be a model in groups/teams as well as the individual level.

  • Currently seen as aspirational rather than an end goal.

  • “A few years ago it was clear what inclusive meant – gender, ethnicity, etc. But how do we go further than that and get people to understand it’s about inclusivity of ideas”.

  • A difficulty in teaching ‘softer skills’ and helping people to develop empathy?

  • The culture needs to be open to change but often isn’t.

  • Prioritization and self-interest. Leaders aren’t prioritizing inclusivity; they are focused on what they will be measured on, such as sales targets etc.

  • Leaders not being able to see that differences exist.

  • Defining what inclusivity is – does it mean the same to everyone?

  • What we measure and what we see in the real world not aligning.

  • Organizational values and systemic systems, e.g. working hours, Incentive structures, may hinder inclusivity. Current systems are not rewarding empathetical leadership.

  • Education of individuals in their position is important e.g. privilege, racism vs microaggression.

  • DE&I fatigue – people feel they are already inclusive and making an effort.

  • Lack of diversity of thought; people do not realize the gap there might be.

  • Confidence can also be a barrier – leaders not wanting to look weak in front of colleagues.

We identified the following leadership traits as crucial when looking at them through the lens of inclusion:

Table showing inclusive leadership traits; collaborating, demonstrating empathy, advocating others, consulting with others.

We then asked the groups, ‘What effective measures have you implemented to develop inclusive leaders?’

  • Increased education and internal session about the subject, plus advice on how to ask open, non-offensive questions.

  • ‘Bottom up’ allyship initiatives and ‘reverse mentoring’.

  • Sharing of cultures, ie Black History month and sessions on what Pride is about.

  • Neurodiversity sessions and initiatives.

  • Value-based recruitment, more emphasis on soft skills, ie. no application forms.

  • Attempts to ingrain what key behaviors are, being mindful of the fact that skills are constantly changing/evolving.

  • Identifying ‘pinch points’ and areas for improvement.

  • Challenging the behavior of leaders who have been in the business for a long time.

  • Leadership programs with inclusive leadership workshops – interestingly, the group reported that existing leaders often don’t attend these!

  • Employing DE&I experts to work in conjunction with existing leaders.

  • Networks and communities – creating voices to be heard – encourages like-minded people to come together and helps to embed change effectively.

  • Have really good competencies that pick up people skills – ensure they apply to all within the organization.

  • Hold leadership accountable – showing respect, understanding people.

  • “If you get inclusion right, Diversity and Inclusion just happens.”

Take-Away Thought

Truly inclusive leadership helps create a ‘safe’ environment where employees feel valued and their voices heard, which in turn can lead to increased innovation, better talent attraction, retention and increased productivity.

The narrative should shift from how can leader be more inclusive, to inclusivity being be expected and understood as a key  part of being a good or great leader.

If you are interested in this subject, you can find out more in our article The Importance of Inclusive Leadership & How You Can Nurture It