Thinking Differently: creating space to develop inclusive leadership

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In this blog I briefly set out my current thinking about facilitated spaces that can be carefully created and crafted to enable learning about, and development of, inclusive leadership. I draw on relevant work that has inspired me to consider ways for individuals to think about their attitudes towards difference in the quest to lead more inclusively within the UK higher education sector. I look at various reports and models to explore the need to couple psychological safety with frequent opportunities for reflection and discussion. I look at how both the content and process combine to activate learning for inclusive leadership. I will discuss what inclusive leadership is, then focus on three areas that I consider to be important for inclusive leadership development.

Inclusive leadership is a contested term but considered a critical capability within organisations and described as such in Harvard Business Review’s The Key to Inclusive Leadership (2020). For a meaning closely related to the higher education sector, the Inclusive Leadership – driving performance through diversity (2016) collaborative report by CIDP, Buckingham New University and ENEI: Employers Network for Equality and Inclusion, suggests inclusive leaders are, “leaders who are aware of their own biases and preferences, actively seek out and consider 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.”

Advance HE’s Leadership in Global Higher Education scoping study (2022) explored the question: What works for leadership in HE?  The study identified the hallmarks of good leadership by highlighting the skills, competencies and behaviours needed within the current and emerging landscape of HE. Being inclusive was stressed as an expectation and that leaders needed to show respect for diversity, understand culture and context, build an inclusive environment, and be aware of how leadership is influenced by diversity. This highlights a focus on diversity within the culture, context and environment of HE and a leadership’s place to create a culture which recognises, celebrates and integrates differences and in which people belong so they can grow as individuals as well as connect to form effective teams and organisations. Inclusion requires individuals to understand biases and be more conscious of actions that will create change. The previously mentioned HBR article stresses the importance a leader’s awareness of personal and organisational biases and that integrating difference is key. How can this be done effectively and for sustainable change? I see three areas for further consideration: talking about difference, facilitated spaces, and the presence of psychological safety. How do we create a safe enough space to talk about attitudes towards difference? Where else is this being considered and successfully implemented? How is this being engaged with in other sectors?

These questions led me to the work of Angela Foster and Frank Lowe because they directly linked ways to think about difference with spaces in which this was made possible. Frank Lowe’s Thinking Space initiative was set up in 2002 as a monthly learning forum to promote thinking about race, culture and diversity in psychotherapy and beyond. The design of this model came from Lowe’s experience of participating in and facilitating learning events where he felt that there were barriers to thinking and learning due to some of the following reasons: fear of saying what one thinks, saying nothing at all due to concerns about saying the wrong thing, witnessing uncomfortable discussions, feeling upset or concerned about such events. The premise for the initiative was that the more familiarity we have with issues, the greater the ability to bring them into conversation and engage fully at depth, particularly around complex issues that may be difficult to address.

Angela Foster (2006) writes, in Difference: An Avoided Topic in Practice, about encouraging a culture of open enquiry and considering ways of facilitating discussions on difference. She identified a set of conditions which help to make this work possible and those that stop this from happening, such as fear of saying too much, or of saying something that offends someone else, or that something we say may expose us within a group environment. She speaks of Aymer’s development of ‘co-operative inquiry’ groups in which members are encouraged to tell their stories and through discussion begin to make sense of their experiences. This helps us to consider the importance of finding a way to speak of our unique experiences and that if we acknowledge difference and remain open to understanding it then we have to be prepared to be influenced and changed by it.

These examples bring to mind the concept of psychological safety which could be considered to be the component that allows these discussions as it is the shared belief that the team is a safe environment to put oneself at risk. The Catalyst report (2019) states that, “companies can’t add diversity to the mix of a team and expect that people will automatically collaborate, connect, resolve conflicts, or innovate as a cohesive unit. People need to work in an inclusive atmosphere where they can belong, contribute, and thrive.”  This report highlighted that 45% of employee experiences of workplace inclusion can be explained by their leadership model of leading outward and leading inward. It states, “we found that managers who practice both leading outward and inward can boost employee experiences of being valued, authentic, trusted, and psychologically safe at work – the hallmarks of an inclusive workplace.”

In conclusion, it seems important when helping individuals to lead inclusively to create spaces which are facilitated thoughtfully and with care to allow for reflection and conversation on difference. How can we continue to use these ideas to think differently together to encourage a variety of approaches to inclusive leadership development?

If you would like to share examples of such work, or would like to continue the conversation then please do feel free to contact me at

About the author – Hannah Fromageau SFHEA started with Advance HE in February 2022 as Senior Adviser in Leadership and Organisational Development. She is an experienced trainer, facilitator and coach with a demonstrated history of leading and managing careers and professional development programmes for staff within higher education and research environments.