Inclusive Leadership: Industry themes and top tips

Cubiks recently held a roundtable event with HR leaders working within organisations interested in improving diversity and inclusion (D&I) through inclusive leadership and associated initiatives. Below we uncover some of the questions posed, key themes and present Cubiks’ advice and interpretations.

Charlotte Harman, Senior Consultant for Cubiks UK
Charlotte Harman

Senior Consultant

Casual professional professionals work together; inclusive leadership

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1.    Why is everyone talking about inclusive leadership?

Inclusive leadership is attracting more and more attention and causing a shift in the diversity and inclusion (D&I) landscape. Leaders can have a profound impact on organisational culture and minority group members, so, unless they are committed to improving diversity and embedding an inclusive culture, broader D&I initiatives a have limited chance of success.


2.    What is inclusive leadership?

There should be a simple answer to this seemingly simple question; however, with no consistent understanding of what inclusive leadership actually is, and no comprehensive industry-wide definition – it’s a question we’re often asked. Cubiks has developed its own model of Inclusive Leadership to address this issue and provide greater clarity. The following definition and associated traits were discussed during the event and are reflected in Cubiks’ Inclusive Leadership model:

The definition: Inclusive leaders believe in the power of diversity and embrace difference while generating feelings of belonging within teams and organisations.


3.    What does an ‘Inclusive Leader’ look like?

During the roundtable we discussed key traits, establishing that inclusive leaders:

  • Are authentic – they have the courage to be honest about their experiences and acknowledge the complexities of inclusivity

  • Are self-aware - they continually ask for, and are open to, feedback to reflect on their own biases and style to understand how these affect others

  • Are curious - they value and actively seek-out different perspectives and take time to understand them

  • Are neutral - they respect differences and keep biases in check

  • Are supportive – they develop everyone, especially those from underrepresented groups

  • Are willing to challenge the norm - and hold both themselves and others accountable for doing so

4.    Are most organisations now attempting to embed a more inclusive culture?

The business case for inclusive leadership is far more compelling now than 15 years’ ago. There is data to support how D&I leads to innovation, retention and collaboration – ultimately empowering better business results.  

There is often, however, great difficulty in obtaining buy-in to implement inclusive leadership initiatives. Where buy-in has been successful, the key causal factors were:

  • Innovation being an integral part of an organisation’s strategy and a genuine belief that an empowered, diverse workforce leads to improved and increased innovation.
  • Drawing on external pressures, such as:
    • Competitors publicly engaging in similar initiatives and feeling the need to keep up with the competition;
    • Customers asking for it;
    • Investors considering inclusive companies as having more growth potential;
    • Government initiatives and legislature;
    • Attracting talent, as candidates, particularly graduates, are starting to select prospective employers on the basis of values and culture;
    • Media activity and scrutiny;
    • Societal trends, such as younger generations feeling passionate about the subject.

There is no quick fix to embed inclusive leadership, but recognition of the barriers is a good first step to tackling change then follow this by action...

5.    What are the barriers to implementing inclusive leadership interventions?

Cubiks have identified the main barriers to achieving Inclusive Leadership. The first is Leaders not seeing the need or looking for a quick fix; the second is the resistance to change both at an organisational and an individual level. Below we explore these barriers in greater depth and pose some possible solutions.

Inclusive Leadership: Barrier one

Gaining buy-in: Either business leaders do not see the need for more inclusive leadership or they fall into three common ‘execution’ traps:

  • TRAP ONE: They want one single, easy solution: this does not exist; multi-facet progressive organisational change is required.

  • TRAP TWO: They create a D&I role and delegate solving the problem: however, the task is too large for one person and without buy-in, support and action from leaders across the business, change is restricted.

  • TRAP THREE: They limit their focus: Leaders still see inclusive leadership as an HR challenge and limit the focus to recruitment and promotion processes, it should be embedded throughout all organisation-wide processes / procedures / projects to ultimately succeed.

Inclusive Leadership: Barrier two

It’s hard to disrupt the way that things are done at an organisational level:

  • Culture fit vs embracing difference: It is hard to balance embedding and recruiting for an overarching culture, whilst also embracing difference.
  • Targeting subgroups or all: There is debate over whether 1) targeting initiatives at individuals from subgroups shines a spotlight on them being ‘different’ and so exacerbates the issue, or 2) whether subgroups need to be targeted to help them reach the same level of power and access to decisions/information as the majority group.
  • Calling out embedded behaviour: In organisations with a very set culture, it can be difficult to confront or call-out exclusionary behaviour.
  • Tackling biases: Biases are prevalent in the workplace; a particularly difficult one to disrupt is the similar-to-me bias, whereby individuals recruit or choose to work with individuals who are like them.

Inclusive leadership: Barrier three

Individuals’ openness to change:

  • Defensiveness: Established leaders may perceive inclusive movements as questioning the core of their success.

  • Fear: Leaders are scared of getting it wrong and being exposed to backlash.

  • Admitting it’s hard: In a culture where perfection is expected, progressing change, trying new initiatives, is hard.

Casual business professionals laugh together

Interested in hearing about Cubiks’ model of inclusive leadership and inclusive leader development solutions?

We conduct behaviour framework audits, facilitate inclusive leadership workshops, and provide inclusive leadership 360 feedback solutions to offer leaders valuable feedback on their leadership style.

6. How can these barriers be overcome?

There is no quick fix to embed inclusive leadership, but recognition of the above barriers is a good first step to tackling change. Follow this by action; the below strategies have been implemented by companies leading the way with inclusive leadership initiatives. Choose the one(s) that work best for you and your context:

  • Have key champions in influential roles who are willing to disrupt the status quo;
  • Use external facilitators, such as Cubiks’ Consultants, to challenge individuals or to create a safe space;
  • Move beyond policies to get leaders to understand the onus is on them;
  • Try different angles of the business-case that appeal to leaders;
  • Start small with initiatives within specific teams to prove results and perfect methods;
  • Start with leaders engaging in initiatives and then involving their direct reports.


7.    What interventions have been tried that are successful?

Raising awareness and talking about it is one of the key, more successful interventions. This dispels feelings of anxiety, defensiveness and nervousness.

Following awareness raising, the following, more structured initiatives have been successful in different organisations:  

  • Established community groups e.g. BAME networks to share stories and strategies.
  • Publishing inspiring stories about inclusion or inclusive behaviour, allowing them to be read and digested in a safe way.
  • Workshops with external facilitators which are educational, immersive and in a safe space.
  • Disrupting the way things are done by challenging biases and majority group dominance; e.g. questioning the composition of different teams or team allocation, and/or the way decisions are made etc.
  • Embedding inclusive leadership within existing behavioural frameworks to ensure individuals are recruited in, evaluated against and surrounded by inclusive behaviour.

At Cubiks, we can measure how inclusive your leaders are through our recruitment and development assessment services. To find out how you can help your organisation increase inclusion, engagement, innovation and performance, contact us today.

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