What does inclusive leadership have to do with cooking? (3 min reading)

“The greatest distance between two people is misunderstanding”

It’s the begging of a new year, after a 2016 full of challenges on the path to a more inclusive world.

How about kicking off 2017 refreshing your perspectives on three key concepts to get the most out of your teams?

Why you should always ask people what they mean by inclusion and diversity

If you ask people around you to tell you what they put behind the words inclusion, diversity and inclusive leadership, you’ll be amazed by the variety of answers.  How people define these terms is influenced by their personal experiences, the countries where they live, and the organisations they work at, amongst others.

Once I started working for a global beverages company, and decided to meet all senior leaders to understand their expectations. As I started my round of interviews, I realized that although everybody was talking about “diversity”, most of them meant gender diversity. In Brazil, diversity in companies is mostly associated with disability, because of legal requirements to employ disabled people. I once attended a glamorous European diversity event, and as the organisers were LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transsexual) activists, most conversations related to LGBT inclusion.

Inclusion is an even more challenging concept. The word simply doesn’t exist in many languages. I couldn’t get the word translated into Swedish. In France it’s often translated as “integration”, which can actually mean the opposite of inclusion. And inclusive leadership is an emerging concept. Different authors propose different definitions.

Three pragmatic definitions that you can adopt or adapt

The definitions I’m proposing are simple and pragmatic, and yet reflect the latest developments in the inclusion and diverse field and across countries. Feel free to adopt or adapt them.

  • Diversity is the mix of visible and invisible differences such as differences in gender, age, disability, nationality, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, communication, thinking and working styles, education, professional experience, social background, etc. Diversity is endless and is like an iceberg: there are aspects that are very visible (such as gender, and race) and others that are under the water line (such as education and thinking style). Ultimately, we’re looking for the diversity of thoughts and perspectives that come with all different life experiences and backgrounds. That’s what some call cognitive diversity.

Based on the above definition, there’s already a lot of diversity within individuals, nobody fits just one box, and some aspects of diversity change overtime (age for instance). We all bring some type of difference to the workplace. The question is, how free are we to express those differences? Often the diversity that’s already in organizations is underutilized. That’s why inclusion is so crucial.

  • Inclusion is the culture where people feel their different opinions, behaviors and needs are taken into account. An inclusive culture makes you feel valued and free to be yourself, even if you look, think and behave differently from the majority. An inclusive culture gives you a sense of belonging, that prevents you from feeling like an outsider.

Once I heard a white male business leader sharing with the audience why he was a big supporter of inclusion and diversity initiatives. He said that his main difference was not visible from the outside. Although he had no accent, he was born and raised in a communist country. He felt really different in this respect from most of his US colleagues. His company’s inclusion and diversity strategy had made him feel comfortable revealing this part of his self and made him a happier person at work.

Increasingly specialists underline the importance of inclusion over diversity. Personally, I prefer to say “inclusion and diversity”, rather than “diversity and inclusion”, in order to emphasize such importance. That’s because to attract, develop and retain diverse talents, you need an inclusive culture. You also need an inclusive culture to reap the benefits of a diverse team: if people don’t feel included, they’re unlikely to bring their full selves to work and give their best. If people can’t share their different perspectives because they don’t feel safe, it’s not possible to improve decision making and to innovate. Finally, diversity without inclusion can lead to an increase in conflicts that can be counterproductive.

  • Inclusive leadership is the ability to lead successfully diverse people. Men and women from different cultures and generations, with different abilities and lifestyles. It’s about managing differences effectively. Inclusive leaders know how to attract, engage and influence people with different backgrounds. That’s why they excel at getting the most out of their teams. They play a key role in building diverse teams and creating an inclusive culture.

It’s like having the perfect meal: you need a chef (the inclusive leader) who knows how to choose the good ingredients (diversity) and how to combine them using the perfect recipe (inclusion).

My next post will talk about the three inclusion misconceptions you should get rid.

This article is an excerpt from one of the chapters of my upcoming book “How to become an inclusive leader – The winning leadership habits in a diverse world” (release in February 2017).


Check out our Inclusive Leadership Program that empowers leaders and managers to get the most out of their teams by outsmarting unconscious bias and adapting effectively to human differences.


Are you an inclusive leader? Take the inclusive leader quiz and find out!

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