Exploring the principle of inclusive leadership

by Contributor 0

Exploring the principle of inclusive leadership



Article written by Dan Robertson from Vercida Consulting & Marshall E-learning Consultancy




Have you ever had an amazing manager? The kind that really values your contributions to the team. You know, the kind of manager that makes a real effort to include you and seeks your ideas in team meetings. Or the kind of manager that gives you the permission to challenge and to suggest alternative ways to deliver work outcomes? Or one that simply says thank-you when you do a good job?


Now consider the opposite. You have a manager that creates cliques and has team favourites. They participate in gossip about you and others and only shares information with a small inner circle. To some they are friendly and open, to others they are aggressive or dismissive.


Now imagine how these different styles of management would impact on your levels of engagement, motivation and emotional wellbeing. Styles of management manners! How managers think and act impacts on the performance levels of the people they manage.


In a Harvard Business Review classic on leadership and management John P. Kotter reminders us that whilst leadership is about coping with change, management is about coping with complexity and organisational systems[i]. Whilst Kotter helpfully provides a distinction between leadership and management, in the modern workplace we should really view these two concepts as inter-connecting on a ‘leader-manager’ continuum.


Why lead inclusively?

Research by the cloud-based decision-making platform Cloverpop has shown how inclusive decision-making significantly increases organisational performance[ii].

There are a number of principles which underline their research. Firstly, they have shown how teams of individual decision-makers, make better business decisions than individuals about 66 percent of the time. This is perhaps not surprising and aligns to research carried out by James Surowieck[iii] and shared within his influential work on the wisdom of crowds, in which he argues that groups of individuals make smarter decisions than individuals and that diversity of opinion amongst groups of individuals results in better decision-making.

For Cloverpop, teams of people: are better at:

  • Identifying new and better choices that were not previously considered resulting in a better decision.
  • Bringing more perspectives, experience, and information, which helps to reduce cognitive biases and improves accountability.

Finally, as the diversity of the team increase, so does the chances of smarter decision-making A study by Scott E.Page[iv] from the University of Michigan challenges traditional assumptions about management and leadership decision-making by demonstrating how the power of difference can help leader-managers to avoid the pitfalls of Groupthink and learn how to innovate and grow through utilising an organisation’s collective wisdom. What this research also highlights is that it is ‘diversity of thought’, and not simply group categories such as gender or ethnicity which provides such benefits.

A 2017 study by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) – The Mix that Matters: Innovation through Diversity – found a positive relationship between diversity and organisational innovation. Measuring outcomes from 171 companies the study found a statistically significant relationship between management diversity and business innovation. The studies’ other major findings include:

  • The innovation boost isn’t limited to a single type of diversity. The presence of managers who are from other countries or industries, can boost innovation.


  • At organisations with diverse management teams, openness to contributions from lower-level workers and an environment in which employees feel free to speak their minds are crucial in fostering innovation.


Thinking fast and slow: How unconscious bias hinder management and leadership decision-making

Behavioural psychologists such as Daniel Kahneman suggests that a leader-managers’ ability to navigate an ever-changing business landscape is hampered by a set of cognitive biases[v].

Behavioural science tells us that leader-managers, like all human beings, depend on a dual processing system for thinking and decision-making. System 1 – which Kahneman refers to as fast thinking – is governed by emotion, intuition and impulse. System 2 – referred to as slow thinking – is partly designed to regulate the impulsive nature of System 1 and is governed by logic and deliberation.

The evolution of human decision-making is related to risk and safety. In order to survive human beings often had to make fast decisions within a limited time frame. To help us to do this we have developed a complex process of neuro networks that rely on pattern recognition or heuristics. These heuristics or mental short-cuts help executives to make decisions based on previous experience and can be effective when developing strategic goals. However, as stressed by Andrew Campbell from Ashridge Strategic Management Centre the heuristics which leader-managers rely on are prone to a set of cognitive biases which in turn leads to errors in leader-management thinking, judgement and decision-making.


Emotional tagging and the nature of human bias

In a Harvard Business Review article entitled Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions[vi], the authors warn us of the dangers of emotional tagging, a process by which leader-managers attach emotional information to their thoughts and views of other people, resulting in unconscious biases. Psychologists refer to unconscious bias as our unintentional people preferences that result from the processes of socialisation and social categorisation. Our unconscious biases are likely to be activated whenever we encounter people who are similar to us and people who are different from us.

A common form of unconscious bias is affinity bias. This type of bias impacts talent processes in organisational decision-making in the following ways:

  • Recruitment: A 2012 study by the Policy Exchange found ingrained levels of age based bias in the UK labour market, whilst a 2009 Department for Work and Pensions study found significant levels of ethnic bias amongst UK employers.
  • Work allocation: Leader-managers are more likely to assign key projects to individuals within their teams who they have an unconscious affinity with.
  • Performance management: Leader-managers are more likely to spend time informally discussing contributions to the team and will focus on development and future work plans. For these where there is little affinity leader-managers are more likely to question past performance.
  • Informal sponsorship: Leader-managers are more like to informally coach, mentor and sponsor colleagues who think and work like them over colleagues who do not.

In a complex and rapidly changing world these biases are impacting organizational innovation and talent attraction and development.


The need for a new and inclusive style of leadership-management

In 2012 the professional services firm Deloitte published a paper that stressed two key points which perhaps most of all define the current approach.[vii] The first point is that ‘diversity of thinking is gaining prominence as a disruptive force to break through the status quo’. And secondly, ‘signals point to inclusion (as opposed to diversity) as the new paradigm’. The key point here being that whilst diversity has dominated the language and approach to what we can now call ‘inclusion management’, for many organisations, there is a growing willingness to admit that the approach so far has indeed had limited impact on, for instance, increasing the number of women and other groups moving up the pipeline.

Deloitte’s paper also stated that there is an urgent need to develop leader-managers who can let go of the iconic image of leader as hero, and to embrace the principles of inclusive leadership.

Here are 10 things that inclusive leader-managers do to mitigate unconscious bias and promote inclusive work cultures:

  1. They are curious about their own biases and ask – how do I appear to others?
  2. They go out of their way to get to know all team members
  3. They ensure that everyone is heard and work with the principle of Amplification
  4. They are fair in work allocation decisions
  5. They grow diverse talent by sponsoring people not like them
  6. They are honest and consistent in feedback conversations
  7. They make it safe to challenge and to propose alternative viewpoints
  8. They question bias decision-making, and look for patterns in recruitment, appraisals, performance management processes, and in talent review meetings
  9. They hold others to account to meet agreed goals and targets
  10. They adopt personal principles and make them public


It is clear that diversity of thought together with an inclusive work culture leads to greater organisational outcomes.  Ask your self:1

  1. How does unconscious bias play out in my institution?
  2. What do you see as your institution’s greatest diversity and inclusion challenge?
  3. What can you, as a leader-manager do, to help to reduce unconscious bias and work towards promoting a culture of inclusive for all?



Dan Robertson is the Director of Vercidaconsulting.com – the global inclusion company

He is highly respected as a subject matter expert on workplace diversity & inclusion management, unconscious bias and inclusive leadership.


LinkedIn: Dan Robertson


email: Dan@Vercidaconsulting.com



[i] Harvard Business Review (Fall 2014) Seize Your Leadership Moment.

[ii] Cloverpop (2017). Hacking Diversity with Inclusive Decision Making.

[iii] Surowieck, J. (2005). The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economics, Society and Nations. London: Abacus.

[iv] Page, E. S. (2008). The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[v] Kahnmen, D. (2011). Thinking Fast and Slow. New York: Penguin Books Ltd

[vi] https://hbr.org/2009/02/why-good-leaders-make-bad-decisions

[vii] https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/au/Documents/human-capital/deloitte-au-hc-diversity-inclusive-leadership-hug-0312.pdf