Eradicating workplace discrimination essentialises a strong need for inclusive leadership and a vision to ‘be’ what you ‘see’. By Tracie Jolliff

Creating the conditions for increasing levels of inclusion is no “walk in the park”; many of you reading this can attest to that. To successfully lead for inclusion, the “do what I say” approach is woefully deficient. Inclusive leadership necessitates role modelling and embodying the messages of inclusion. For all of us, this means that when others are on the receiving end of you, they encounter through your leadership, experiences of increasing voice, choices and opportunities; they feel in themselves that something liberating is happening.

I sat recently with our facilitators to discuss the work of Building Leadership for Inclusion. Our facilitators had been working with stakeholder groups, made up of people who have experience of being excluded and marginalised because of their disability, gender, race or sexuality.

To successfully lead for inclusion, the ‘do what I say’ approach is woefully deficient

As the conversation progressed, we noticed that there were some themes coming to the fore that needed to be better understood before being responded to. The shared principle of understanding first, and then responding, meant the conversation required time, and for each person to invest the best quality of their attention to what others were saying.

What emerged from this was a collective appreciation of what we needed to pay attention to; what patterns were emerging, and importantly each person recognised the need to step out of our comfort zones, to explore new territory.

Marginalised and excluded people are constantly being told by others that they’re mistaken about their day to day realities of discrimination. Leaders may respond in ways which deny discrimination for several reasons, including:

  1. Finding it difficult to speak about discrimination with those who are experiencing it, partly because they’ve had little practice in having these conversations
  2. A misplaced sense of disloyalty towards colleagues whose behaviours are being called out (even more risky if this is someone more senior)
  3. Being unclear about their own responsibilities to promote inclusion, and the duty of care they have towards their staff
  4. Not having the development or support they need to lead more inclusively

Holding to positions that deny the experiences of others in this way can thwart organisational inclusion aspirations. It sends the message to those who experience discrimination that it’s far too hazardous to speak up about it.

We need to grow leadership capabilities that result in people from different backgrounds having positive workplace experiences. Leadership is about relationships. Through this frame, it ceases to be about job role or hierarchy. It’s about the connections that we make with others, connections where people notice and feel that something is inspiring them to want to follow.

We need to grow leadership capabilities that result in people from different backgrounds having positive workplace experiences

The plumb-line for the extent to which we’re exercising inclusive leadership is not our own subjective – and at times overly valued – barometers on self. It’s the experiences of your lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender staff, and what they encounter on your watch. It’s the extent to which your female colleagues feel empowered to speak, know they’re being heard, and having their contributions acknowledged. It’s the extent to which disabled staff feel able to say that the level of accommodation currently being made for their disability is way too low, and know that this will be positively responded to.

It’s the degree to which Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic staff feel assured that in telling their stories about discrimination, they won’t subsequently be negatively labelled, and receive even worse treatment, as a result of being courageous and speaking out. We can only know these things if staff trust us enough to tell us about them.

When we’re lost on a journey, it’s vital first of all to locate where “here” is. Once “here” has been established, we can work out how we’re going to get to “there”. Questions that might help us to recognise the features of “here” in terms of inclusion might be…

  • What is it about my own identity that influences my experiences?
  • How are my experiences differing from others with different identities?
  • How am I making sense of the stories and experiences of others?
  • What important patterns are emerging about “here”, when viewed through the lens of inclusion?
  • What is informing how privilege and power are showing up “here”?
  • How are differing forms of power at work to bring about the inclusion outcomes that we see “here”?… and so on

Once we have done this work, we can begin to appreciate more fully that there is a “there” that we haven’t reached yet. The astronaut Sally Ride importantly points out that “you can’t be what you can’t see”. The veracity of these words takes on new meanings when applied to leading change on inclusion. We need to “see” the changes we’re wanting to make, because for many, we have not experienced enough of what “there” could be like, to have fully formed this vision.

Leaders can only address discrimination by building positive, trustful and inclusive relationships across difference; there’s no short cut

If as a leader you’ve had historically poor relationships with staff from marginalised or excluded groups (and by poor, I mean that you’ve failed to build positive, trustful relationships and people are fearful about calling out discrimination in your leadership practice); you’re most certainly not the first or the last to be in this position; however in service of inclusion, you cannot remain in this space.

Change is both possible and achievable. No matter what the starting point is, a willingness to change is a powerful motivator.

When staff are telling you they’re experiencing discrimination, no amount of positive posturing, fine sounding words or novel gestures will address it. Leaders can only address discrimination by building positive, trustful and inclusive relationships across difference; there’s no short cut. For example, no amount of being nice to BAME staff can eliminate racism. Niceness has nothing to offer in transforming cultures that exclude.