Diversity in the workplace: How to lead as an ally

How do leaders embed inclusivity into their thinking and behaviour?

Diversity in the workplace: How to lead as an ally

With diverse companies more likely to win top talent, improve customer loyalty and employee satisfaction, the benefits of building inclusive workplaces are endless. But how do leaders embed inclusivity into their thinking and behaviour, and by extension, the thoughts, words and deeds of their organisation as a whole?

According to author and Global Leadership Development professional La’Wana Harris, the challenges are significant, but leaders can set out their approach to embracing inclusive leadership by adopting three important principles:

1) Leveraging power and privilege to enable inclusion
2) Becoming a thoughtful and effective ally for underrepresented groups
3) Embedding inclusive behaviours into everyday business

  1. Understanding power and privilege are crucial to enabling inclusion

Put simply, power and privilege are the rights, benefits, and advantages exclusively granted to particular people. They manifest themselves in every workplace, and in a wider sense, are part of a much larger system that exists to protect the majority systems and power across society.

The challenge leaders often face in relation to power and privilege is that they are unaware of the role it plays in their thinking, behaviour and in the management processes they establish - both formally and in ‘unwritten ground rules’. Equally important can be the negative reaction of those with power and privilege to the personal impact of change, even in the pursuit of equality. It is an issue perhaps best summed up by the widely used phrase: “when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression”.

Read more: ‘Role models are essential to change perceptions’

But acknowledging power and privilege are vital points on the journey to inclusive leadership, and getting there is about self-awareness, growth, and empowerment. It is only when leaders recognise its existence and impact — in the many ways it manifests itself — can they leverage it to truly empower others who are underrepresented, and deconstruct embedded and divisive norms.

  1. Allyship means taking positive action for underrepresented groups

When an acknowledgement of power or privilege exists, ‘Allyship’ is one of the best ways to create positive action. Allyship is the practice of promoting social justice, inclusion, and human rights by members of an ‘ingroup’, to advance the interests of an oppressed or marginalised ‘outgroup’. Everyone can be an ally, as privilege is intersectional. For example, white women can be allies to people of colour, men can be allies to women, and cis people can be allies to members of the LGBTQI+ community.

Becoming an ally requires active, consistent, and determined commitment to a process of unlearning and re-evaluating, during which a person in a position of privilege and power seeks to operate in solidarity with a marginalised group. In practice, allyship requires those with power and privilege to engage at the systemic level to redefine policy. They must speak up about issues of inequality, even when they feel uncomfortable or themselves defensive. These are natural feelings, but by playing a personal role in orchestrating positive change, leaders can see past their bias and discomfort and realise their part in the bigger picture.

Read more: How to have ‘difficult conversations’ at work

  1. Enabling everyday inclusion is a permanent commitment

As we have seen, mindset and attitude play a central role in the emergence of inclusive leadership. Inclusion should not be addressed as a special interest or a side project - it needs to be embedded into every phase of the employee lifecycle: from recruitment to retirement, including training, rewards, and recognition. Only then can it become a ‘given’ - an automatic and natural part of working culture and interpersonal behaviour.

Those in leadership roles must set the tone for building an enduring and respected inclusive culture and drive the conversation. They can enable meaningful, everyday change by allocating adequate budget, personnel, and resources to increase inclusion and belonging across the organisation. Sponsoring an employee resource group (ERG) or Inclusion Council to proactively assess systemic policies and practices are proven ways to support the wider process.

Inclusive leadership requires genuine commitment and an open-minded approach. Far from an overnight fix, it is a journey of continuous learning and improvement that welcomes change and progress, and supports that with processes and investments over the long term.

Rosie Cairnes is vice president – APAC at Skillsoft

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