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ATD Blog

Three Reasons Leaders Are Not More Inclusive and How to Help

Friday, March 19, 2021

Building an inclusive culture is both a mission-focused and business imperative for companies across the globe. Thousands of organizations have made the public CEO pledge as part of PriceWaterhouseCooper’s Chairman Tim Ryan’s CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion. The words are powerful, the intent is sincere, yet there is a tremendous amount of challenging work ahead for the newly minted chief diversity officer or the head of HR who is working to fulfill a dual role.

What makes a workplace culture feel inclusive? A straightforward answer is that every person within the organization needs to feel they are treated respectfully and sense they are valued for the skills and lived experience they bring. What makes a culture truly inclusive? When its people feel that inclusion and decisions are made without bias and in the spirit of belonging and diversity.

Diversity and inclusion programs can help, but mostly it comes down to what leaders say and do daily. In a knowledge economy, this is important because the more that people feel included, the more they share their ideas, go above and beyond, and collaborate with their colleagues, which drive company success.

Leaders do not wake up each morning with ill intent or actively serve as bad actors. So why isn’t inclusive leadership an automatic trait? Here are some reasons:

Advantage Blindness

Advantage blindness is the lack of conscious awareness that one holds advantages in life that are different from those who have different identities. Just because someone doesn’t perceive those advantages doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I recently delivered a keynote address, along with the chief technology officer (CTO) of a Fortune 500 company, on the topic of allyship. The CTO, with good intent, shared that because of the pandemic, he learned that everyone mostly had the same lived experience. He was trying to relate to his people who, like him, were shut in their homes while working, but the backlash was swift in the chatbox. His people shared many challenges that they were facing in 2020 that were quite different than this senior-level executive.


How to Help: Seek out a C-suite colleague or operations leader to serve as an ambassador for inclusive leadership across your organization. Invest in multiple conversations with this individual to discuss the impact of advantage blindness and enlist their partnership in holding discussions and learning events with senior-level leaders to help eliminate blind spots on DEI topics.

Fear of Loss

When leaders, particularly at the midlevel, first learn about their company’s desire to achieve racial and gender parity at all levels within an organization, many will revert to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs when reacting. The need for safety may be an urgent priority in their minds, and an immediate concern will be, “How does this impact my role and my future at this organization?” Some of these leaders may also worry about losing their membership in their in-group networks if they champion equality for out-group teammates or associates.


How to Help: Frame achieving diversity, equity, and inclusion as an essential part of the organization’s strategy. Position it as the competitive advantage it is for the future of your company. According to a new study from the Manifest, about 70 percent of job seekers want to work for a company that demonstrates a commitment to diversity and inclusion. Help leaders understand how they can be a part of the positive changes. Give them a role in broadening the recruiting efforts, enlist their help in delivering a more inclusive onboarding experience, or serving as a sponsor to existing talent.

In Need of Direction

Your leaders have listened as you, and your executive leadership have shared the heartfelt commitment to make real changes in the realm of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Many leaders are ready to be a part of the positive momentum you are building. The challenge lies in the fact that they need more direction on how to help. Telling leaders to have conversations about diversity and inclusion is vague and does not provide the structure or support they need to get started. Many leaders may be concerned that they are underqualified to be effective in this role.

How to Help: Offer learning opportunities for leaders and provide specific conversation starters to ease those first conversations. Remind leaders that they do not need to be experts in systemic racism or the history of homophobia to share their intent to create a more inclusive team. Offer practical tips to help them build psychological safety on teams and share how to hold meetings that signal inclusion.

Empowering and supporting your leaders at all levels with the “why” and “how” of inclusion will help you make 2021 a year of action for your diversity, equity, and inclusion goals. To dive deeper into the subject, check out this e-book Building Inclusive People Leaders: A Guide for Organizations Ready to Take Action.

About the Author

Claire Herring is a well-known writer and international speaker on topics related to the art of leveraging science to optimize employee performance and build workplace cultures of inclusion and diversity. A former Deloitte executive in their national advisory practice, Claire has spent her career serving Fortune 500 companies and large organizations as a consultant, strategist, and business advisor.

As CEO of pioneering microlearning provider Blue Ocean Brain, Claire drives their solution strategy, bringing 21st century learning to companies of all sizes and industries in over 50 countries around the globe.

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