Inclusive Leadership: The Key to Organisational Success.
Guest Writer Geffrye Parsons explains how inclusive Senior Management can promote organisational learning, to uphold and develop corporate culture and values.
by Geffrye Parsons
My name is Geff Parsons. I am a gay cis man, and I use he/him pronouns.
Last year, I retired from a successful 35-year front office executive career in the financial services industry, based variously in London, Hong Kong, Singapore and Amsterdam, to dedicate myself full-time to promoting inclusion in and through commercial organisations. From being a Managing Director at various banks, I am now the Founder and CEO of The Inclusion Imperative – an independent Diversity, Equity & Inclusion consultancy practice.
I have long believed that a workplace culture that champions inclusion is the ‘secret sauce’ of sustained corporate success. To be robust, such a culture has to be underpinned by sound values which govern how everyone operates there every day.
I had this ethos in mind when I set up my own organisation. Understanding the synergy of moral and business priorities (where ‘the right thing to do’ meets ‘the best thing to do’), when an organisation grasps and upholds the importance of an inclusive culture, led me to call it The Inclusion Imperative – because inclusion is fundamental, not just a nice-to-have, as we shall see. And for good measure, my conviction that empathy is one of the most critical ingredients in the recipe for a successful modern leader, led me to adapt the title of CEO to mean, in my case, Chief Empathy Officer.
Culture underpins everything in an organisation; it is its DNA.
As Shopify’s Brittany Forsyth has observed, the “behaviours and beliefs [you value as a company] should be so essential to your core, that you don’t even think of it as culture.”
But what if that culture does not champion the importance of inclusion?
History is littered with examples of toxic corporate cultures which have sparked spectacular collapses (Enron, anyone?) – failures of integrity which could have been avoided if the environment had been sufficiently inclusive to create the psychological safety necessary to allow doubters to speak up. For example, banks, like those I spent most of my career working for, are effectively paid to take risk, and so rely enormously on being able to identify and assess it – but markets and products are constantly evolving, so being open to new ways to spot and measure risks is critical to avoiding disaster for them.
Arguably the most spectacular instance of a failure of learning caused by a flawed culture is not a corporate example, but involves the Space Shuttle ‘Challenger’, which exploded just after launch in January 1986. Serious doubts expressed by engineers at the time were met with such disdain from their bosses that they reversed their initial ‘no-go’ recommendation – with, of course, tragic consequences. Seven deaths, and irreparable reputational damage, arose because the workplace culture was not inclusive enough to allow the status quo to be questioned without negative repercussions for those involved.
Inclusion = Innovation
An inclusive workplace culture is far from being only about managing the downside. An inclusive culture creates organisational learning, which is the lifeblood of innovation. As management guru Peter Drucker has remarked, organisations must “innovate or die!” An inclusive culture, where staff feel a sense of belonging and trust, allows received wisdom to be challenged and mistakes to be seen as learning opportunities. A ‘Goldilocks’ zone, where high levels of performance expectation merge with high levels of psychological safety, therefore produces what Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction” – an environment where creativity and innovation can, and do, flourish.
This is where empathetic leadership matters most. A consciously inclusive Senior Manager encourages and embraces diversity of thought – ensuring that the skewing effects of biases like affinity bias (which effectively endorses established practices), confirmation bias (which blinds them to alternatives) and proximity bias (which favours the loudest voice in the room), are actively counter-balanced.
How can a Senior Manager be “consciously inclusive”?
This requires resisting the temptation to fill one’s team in one’s own image, or to continue with ‘business as usual’ unquestioningly. It also necessitates curiosity about alternative perspectives (and the lived experiences and cultures that have formed those perspectives) – through a willingness to really (rather than superficially) listen and learn, through active outreach (not just a passive ‘my door is always open’ mantra) and by self-educating, perhaps by enrolling as an ally of employee resource groups.
Additionally, for Senior Management, it requires setting up the environment so that different views are able to be aired and respected in meetings and other forums, in ways which feel appropriate and safe to both extroverts and introverts in the team, so that the ‘usual suspects’ (usually the loudest, most extroverted) do not dominate the conversation.
It also means that mistakes should be accepted and viewed constructively, as a source of future knowledge, rather than destructively; this is what it takes to ‘break the mould’. Similarly, it often also necessitates an ‘investment’ mindset, accepting a partial sacrifice of immediate term efficiency in order to promote greater success in the medium term and beyond. In turn, this of course requires buy-in from other stakeholders, allowing space and time for strategy to triumph over tactics.
After all, staff are people, and people see the world differently. Those with minority characteristics (especially if those are not visible, which often includes being LGBTQIA+) may be inclined to play down their difference, codeswitching and withholding or limiting their contributions to the team environment, for fear of outing themselves or of being ridiculed, ostracised or punished. Those with multiple characteristics may feel even more marginalised as the barriers to their participation compound.
Yet ultimately, ALL progress comes from difference. Difference, manifested in diversity of thought and perspective, should not merely be tolerated or even accepted; it should be celebrated, because it is core to successful decision-making. This is the Progress Paradox – that all progress relies on someone being ‘unreasonable’, i.e. refusing to accept that the status quo is necessarily optimal. But for that to work, a mutual sense of trust between Senior Management and team members must be created in the ways I have suggested.
The role of corporate renewal, and how LGBTQIA+ People are well-suited to be inclusive leaders in corporate spaces.
Integral to all this is managing the dynamic of corporate renewal. As we have seen, creative destruction spawns progress, but this must be managed to pollinate rather than erode the core values of the organisation, or its inclusive culture. Staff changes are inevitable and pose a challenge in this context. In this context, the company’s management – at all levels – take on the dual role of custodians and educators. They socialise newcomers to the organisational culture and values, while empowering them to contribute to its development in a bi-directional process of learning.
Senior Managers who come from marginalised backgrounds themselves are often best-placed to embody an empathetic approach in everything they do with their teams from the start. They are more likely to understand the true importance of holding space for others, and in this respect LGBTQIA+ people are definitely well-equipped to lead by example.
By embodying and role modelling inclusive management practices every day, Senior Managers can leverage inevitable change to develop an organisation, without compromising its core values. Inclusive leadership is therefore critically important in upholding, developing and enhancing corporate culture.
It is undeniable that working culture is a considerable factor in attracting the best future talent who will continue the cycle of corporate education and renewal, influencing others in the same way that others did before them. The greatest significance here though, is the often-unrealised potential of how inclusive workplace values can influence people’s thinking in their wider lives. If everyone upholds an inclusive, empathetic culture in every part of their world, this will enable our society to progress even further, making life better for everyone in the future.
Therefore, inclusive leadership is critical for not just organisational robustness and success, but also educating others and passing along empathetic values across generations, borders and cultures.
Geffrye Parsons (he/him)
Geffrye's passion for promoting LGBTQ+ inclusion and equality has resulted in global recognition, including winning the award for ‘LGBT+ Inspirational Leader’ at the British LGBT Awards in May 2019. Outside work, Geff acts as trustee for two UK-based LGBTQ+ charities: GiveOut and Diversity Role Models.
You can find more information about Geffrye's work here.
If you would like to book Geff as a speaker for a workshop or panel event, please get in touch with us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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