Three useful things to know about diversity and inclusive leadership

Commitment to act and the courage to be vulnerable should form the foundation of any leadership model – not just inclusive leadership, according to Deloitte’s Juliet Bourke

Organisations are more likely to meet or exceed financial targets if they’re inclusive, but what makes people feel included at work, and how can managers ensure they are treating all employees fairly and respectfully? The formula for inclusive leadership provides some insights, especially in the way it focuses on managers’ interpersonal skills.

UNSW Business School’s Will Felps, Associate Professor in the School of Management, recently interviewed Juliet Bourke, Human Capital Partner at Deloitte, about what it takes to be an inclusive leader, as well as characteristics that should form the bedrock of effective leadership more generally.

Ms Bourke leads Deloitte’s Australian Diversity & Inclusion practice. She helps organisations assess, develop and implement cultural change strategies, with a particular focus on diversity and inclusion. She has also contributed articles on inclusive leadership to the Harvard Business Review and Ted Talks.

Her research into inclusive leadership builds on an understanding of the importance of interpersonal skills in managing a diverse workforce and offers valuable insights for business leaders looking for solutions during this exceptionally challenging time.

1. Inclusive leadership leads to employees feeling ‘psychologically safe’

There are undoubtedly visible aspects of diversity with regards to gender, race and age, but it’s also essential to consider some of the invisible elements that inform who people are, explained Ms Bourke. These invisible aspects are things like career history, schooling, sexual identity, caring responsibilities and religion. “If you put them together that gives you the whole person, and as an organisation, we want to include the whole person and not focus on demographics alone,” she said.

“Feeling included comprises three discrete steps”, said Ms Bourke, “The first and foundational step is just getting an equal chance to participate. Just getting into the game, so to speak”. Ms Bourke then identified the second step as “Once you are in the game, into a workplace, you want to feel valued as an individual and feel a sense of belonging to the group.  Inclusion feels more personal”. She then explained that the highest level of inclusion is where people feel psychologically safe to be quite different. “This highest level of inclusion is where business value is created”, said Ms Bourke.

“People feel safe to express a different point of view, to share something that they think is a little bit risky,” explained Ms Bourke. “So that’s the environment that we want to create – high levels of psychological safety and it stands to reason that that’s going to contribute to the organisation’s mission (whether it’s a financial mission or a mission to support the citizens in a community),” she continued.

“When we look at those people who feel more included within that organisation, they’re more productive and more innovative [and] the organisation is more agile. Inclusive organisations are six times more innovative and six times more adaptive than non-inclusive ones, and that makes sense because an inclusive environment brings out the best in people,” she added.

2. Inclusive leadership is the foundation of leadership

Inclusive leadership is a relatively new concept. “There is no single organisation that can hand on heart say, ‘we have a 100 per cent inclusive culture’,” said Ms Bourke, “but there is a growing number who are really trying to get there”.

When asked inclusive leadership has only been recently recognised as an important area of development, Ms Bourke said: “First, I don’t think we’ve taken the time to define and understand it before because we haven’t been working in an environment as diverse as it is now – diversity in the sense of working in multinational companies, in a very global way, even within our own [Australian] workforce.”

“Second, we didn’t have a model [of inclusive leadership]. And that was one of the reasons why I started researching inclusive leadership. And quite frankly  I wanted to know whether I was an inclusive leader. Turns out that only 30 per cent of people can accurately assess whether others see them as inclusive,” she continued.

“So now we understand the [core] characteristics of inclusive leadership we can assess people and give them feedback,” she said. In her research, Ms Bourke identified the six signature traits of inclusive leadership:

  1. Commitment
  2. Courage to be humble
  3. Cognisance of bias
  4. Curiosity
  5. Cultural intelligence
  6. Collaboration.

On the first point around commitment, Ms Bourke said when she spoke to highly inclusive leaders, they were all driven by their values. “So, their commitment to being inclusive stems from something within them, something about fairness or integrity or everyone having an opportunity,” explained Ms Bourke.

Group of colleagues high five-min.jpg
Inclusive leadership refines the importance of interpersonal skills in managing a diverse workforce. Image: Shutterstock

“Of course they also believed in the business case and would articulate that to people. And they would make diversity and inclusion a priority through their investment of time, energy and resources. And finally, challenge the status quo and non-inclusive behaviours," she said. All of these factors indicate a leader’s commitment to being inclusive.

On the second point, she said courage means being humble. “It is the courage to be a bit vulnerable, which we’ve seen more of during COVID-19,” she added.

Cognisance of bias, the third point, is acceptance of personal biases and recognising where you need to improve – “which is harder than it sounds, because there is a bias you may know called blind-spot bias, the bias to believe that everyone else has more biases than you,” she added.

Then follows curiosity: “Curiosity is about openness, tolerance of ambiguity and a perspective, taking and empathy,” she explained. While cultural intelligence is about whether a leader understands other cultures and is able to adapt. “Do you have information about other cultures and then adapt your behaviours as a result? And then collaboration is about empowerment, voice and team cohesion,” she concluded.

This model incorporates critical skills and perspectives for leaders more broadly, she observed: “These are foundational, human interpersonal skills. And it is very easy to be inclusive of someone similar to you, but if someone is different, you need to be committed to it.

“And it's harder work, and you need to be a little bit vulnerable, conscious of your biases and curious about them... this style of leadership focuses on interpersonal relationships, how people interact with human beings. And this is why it is fundamental to business performance”.


3. The most important characteristic of inclusive leadership

For leaders, the essential characteristic of inclusive leadership (and leadership more broadly) is commitment. “If you don’t commit, then you’re never going to improve,” said Ms Bourke.

On the other hand, for someone who is looking at or responding to a leader, the most crucial thing they look for is a consciousness of bias. They want to know if a leader is treating them fairly, whether they’re vulnerable, whether they have empathy and are able to appreciate different perspectives, explained Ms Bourke.

The most common factor that people in general struggle with, however, is that leaders don’t seek feedback on whether they come across as inclusive to someone else.

“They either assume they do, or they don’t know what to do with the answer if they did, or simply didn’t think to ask. So, they’re not getting the feedback, and yet every leader is judged by others on how inclusive they are,” added Ms Bourke.

Juliet Bourke, Human Capital Partner at Deloitte, leads Deloitte’s Australian Diversity & Inclusion practice and sits on the HR Advisory Committee at UNSW Business School. For more information, contact  UNSW Business School’s Will Felps, Associate Professor in the School of Management. 


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