Develop inclusive leadership practices to realise the performance benefits of diversity

Inclusion and diversity have been on the workplace agenda for many years, with a spotlight currently being shone on the issue due to recent events. Many organisations recognise that inclusion and diversity are important, but some may be struggling to know how to start becoming more inclusive. Others may be further along in their journey, already proactively reporting on the gender and BAME pay gap, providing unconscious bias training to staff, and taking steps to attract and promote more diverse talent. But despite good intentions, many inclusion and diversity programmes fail as they are primarily focused on raising understanding and awareness, which doesn’t do enough to create the buy-in amongst leaders needed to see real change. To realise the benefits of diversity on performance, organisations need to engage leaders and provide practical tools to help them develop more inclusive leadership practices.

While gender pay gap reporting can provide valuable insight into where the pay gap is worst, as well as valuable insight into the factors that contribute to inequalities, it doesn’t appear to be driving change. The data indicates that the gender pay gap is wider at more senior levels within organisations and there are marked differences across sectors[1]. This type of reporting has been mandatory in the UK since 2017 for organisations with 250 or more employees. Astonishingly, data from the ONS indicates that there has been very little change in the gender pay gap since 2012[2]. Why has there been so little change? Increasing awareness of the problem by itself does not seem to provide individuals or organisations with an impetus to change, to view the problem as urgent, or to take personal responsibility to act on it.

Unconscious bias training is another common initiative designed to reduce bias and increase inclusion. Organisations invest significant amounts of money in putting their employees through this type of training. The underlying assumption is that people are unaware of their biases, and if they become aware of them, then their behaviours will change and people will become more inclusive. So, how effective is this type of training? The answer to this question is that the results are mixed. Research indicates that it can help people become more aware of their biases, but it doesn’t necessarily result in individuals or leaders demonstrating more inclusive behaviours over time[3].

To effect real change, organisations need to build on these types of initiatives and take the next step by encouraging individuals and leaders to own not only the problem but the opportunity. Inclusion and diversity, when they are on the agenda, may often be seen as other people’s responsibility. Responsibility is given to legal departments to report on the gender pay gap, and to HR departments to manage diversity training. The fact is that business leaders are key to helping create change and it is in their interests to do so. Attitudes of individuals can vary dramatically – inclusion and diversity may be seen as the latest thing on the ‘woke’ agenda, a tick box exercise, a critical social and business imperative, or something in between.

To change behaviours, organisations need to work to shift attitudes so that leaders see the connection between inclusion, their role and business performance. Diversity drives better decision making[4], creativity[5], and profitability[6]. Team members with inclusive leaders are 29% more likely to report behaving more collaboratively and 20% more likely to report making high-quality decisions[7]. It is clear that inclusion and diversity are linked to better team and organisational performance and can help everyone thrive together. Promoting these benefits and helping teams to experience them will help win the hearts and minds of leaders, which is critical to start seeing change within an organisation.

Leaders play an important role in creating inclusive team environments where diverse thinking, perspectives, opinions, backgrounds, and experiences are valued. They can demonstrate this through their words and actions. Research by Deloitte has found that leaders who create inclusive environments demonstrate 6 main behaviours[7]:

1. Visible Commitment
Inclusive leaders value diversity and make it a personal priority, they communicate a commitment to increasing inclusion, challenge the status quo, and hold others accountable.

2. Humility
They admit mistakes, are modest about their capabilities, and invite contributions from others.

3. Awareness of Bias
Inclusive leaders are aware of their own blind spots, how systems may be flawed, and work to create opportunities for others.

4. Curiosity about Others
They have an open mindset, are curious about others, seek to understand those around them, and listen without judging.

5. Cultural Intelligence
They seek to understand others’ cultures and adapt their language and behaviours when interacting with others, making decisions and carrying out work.

6. Effective Collaboration
Inclusive leaders enable effective collaboration by encouraging diversity of thought, creating psychological safety, and empowering others.

These leadership behaviours have a lot in common with growth mindset. Leaders with a growth mindset demonstrate a willingness to learn, high levels of curiosity, humility, as well as a highly collaborative approach. They also help to create positive team dynamics where everyone can grow[8].

These are all attitudes and behaviours that can be developed. Supporting leaders to develop these behaviours will help to create team environments where people are comfortable speaking up, sharing different perspectives, and collaborating with a diverse range of people, and help unlock the performance benefits associated with diverse thinking.

As well as influencing leaders, organisations can implement processes and systems that make it easier to access and generate diverse thinking. This includes, for example, recruiting from diverse talent pools for all levels of the organisation, engineering diverse project teams with different backgrounds and expertise, promoting people with different experiences and profiles, and including performance metrics related to inclusion and diversity.

There is no one silver bullet, instead a systematic and holistic approach is needed to help organisations to increase the success of their inclusion and diversity programmes. Seek to increase awareness, change attitudes, build inclusive leadership behaviours, and make changes to systems and processes to create diverse thinking. It won’t be easy, but you’ll be rewarded with stronger team and organisational performance.

To learn more about Matthew Syed Consulting’s approach to leadership development and behaviour change click here.




[3] – Chang, E. H., Milkman, K. L., Zarrow, L. J., Brabaw, K., Gromet, D. M., Rebele, R., Massey, C., Duckworth, A. L., and Grant, A. (2019). Does diversity training work the way it’s supposed to? Harvard Business Review, July.

[4] – Horwitz, S. K., & Horwitz, I. B. (2007). The effects of team diversity on team outcomes: A meta-analytic review of team demography. Journal of Management, 33 (6), 987-1015.

[5] – Reiter-Palmon, R., Wigert, B., de Vreede, T. (2012). Team creativity and innovation: The effect of group composition, social processes and cognition. Handbook of Organizational Creativity, 295-326. Elsevier Inc.

[6] – Hunt, V., Prince, S., Dixon-Fyle, S., & Yee, L. (2018). Delivering through diversity. McKinsey & Company.

[7] – Bourke, J., Espedido, A. (2019). Why inclusive leaders are good for organizations, and how to become one. Harvard Business Review, March.

[8] – Morison, L., Weeks, K., & Syed, M. (2019). Mindset Advantage. Matthew Syed Consulting.