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University of Sunderland

The role of leaders in promoting diversity and inclusion

Posted on: May 2, 2024
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Promoting a Safe and Inclusive Workplace: Embracing Diversity and Safety

In the UK today, leading a strong business means leading a diverse and inclusive business. Our society is multicultural, our experiences are varied, and our world is globalised. 

This is why equality, diversion, and inclusion (EDI) strategies – and the leaders who implement them – are so important within our workplaces.

“Promoting and delivering EDI in the workplace is an essential aspect of good people management,” explains the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). “It’s about creating working environments and cultures where every individual can feel safe and a sense of belonging, and is empowered to achieve their full potential.”

The role of leadership in promoting diversity and inclusion

Leaders play a fundamental role in promoting workplace equality,  diversity and inclusion, in the same way that they dictate the strategic direction and values of an organisation.

Leaders shape the policies and embed them within their own teams. They set the tone for what inclusive behaviour looks like, and set the example by encouraging – and acting on – diverse perspectives and ideas. In short, leaders create a culture of inclusion.

“We find that what leaders say and do makes up to a 70% difference as to whether an individual reports feeling included,” says a 2020 article in the Harvard Business Review. “this really matters because the more people feel included, the more they speak up, go the extra mile, and collaborate — all of which ultimately lifts organisational performance.”

Benefits of creating diverse and inclusive workplaces

The most important reason to create an inclusive and equitable workplace is, quite simply, that it’s the right thing to do. Everyone should feel included at work, knowing that they’re safe to do their job and safe to be themselves, too. They shouldn’t have to worry about discrimination, bullying, or harassment of any kind – directly or indirectly.

But there are other benefits, too. For example, a solid approach to EDI can boost an organisation’s reputation, making the business more attractive to consumers or investors and strengthening its financial position. Other benefits include:

Recruitment

People want to work for organisations that make them feel valued, so inclusive work environments are really attractive to potential employees. They can draw in top talent across diverse – and often underrepresented – groups of people, including people with different ethnicities, gender identities, and abilities. 

Retention

When people feel valued at work, they’re less likely to leave, so it’s unsurprising that EDI can positively impact retention rates. And this has a knock-on effect, helping companies keep their expertise and experience in-house, build stronger, more cohesive teams, and reduce turnover costs, too.

Employee engagement

When team members feel that their diverse backgrounds and unique perspectives are valued, they are more likely to feel what’s known as psychological safety, and can engage fully with their tasks and teams. 

Profitability

A diverse workforce is better at problem-solving and decision-making because it brings different viewpoints and experiences to the table which leads to better results for businesses. 

“Openness to diversity widens access to the best talent. Inclusion allows engagement with talent effectively. Equality enables delivery of fair outcomes,” the CIPD sums up. “Together, this leads to enhanced innovation, creativity, productivity, reputation, engagement and business results.”

How leaders can promote diversity and inclusion

It’s clear that leaders play a vital role in promoting diversity and inclusion within businesses, but for many, it can be helpful to have support in understanding how to do this. 

Thankfully, with EDI being such an important topic in modern business, there is lots of support available.

For many leaders, the first step in promoting an inclusive workplace culture is recognising and addressing their own unconscious biases.

According to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas), unconscious biases are rooted in our personal experiences and can shape our beliefs and views – rightly or wrongly. Moreover, because of these biases, people may think better of those who are similar (of the same race or gender, for example) or think less of people who are different. 

One of the best defences against unconscious biases is being aware that they exist. Diversity training, or leadership training with a focus on EDI, can also help illuminate these often-invisible barriers to inclusivity. These training and mentoring programmes prepare leaders to better manage and champion diverse teams, building up their skills in open communication and emotional intelligence as part of their own leadership development.

From there, it’s important that leaders take action, from embedding inclusive policies and practices, to spearheading dedicated EDI initiatives and strategies.

“Although there’s no legal requirement to have a written EDI, it’s a good idea to produce one to demonstrate the organisation takes its legal and moral obligations towards being a diverse employer seriously,” adds the CIPD. “It can also encourage employees to treat others equally. Any EDI policy and strategy will have greater buy in and sustainability if it is developed in collaboration with the lived experience of marginalised and discriminated against staff and middle managers.”

What does success look like? How to assess and measure diversity and inclusion initiatives

It’s important to track progress – or regression – in EDI within organisations.

For example, who makes up the senior leadership team? If it’s mostly white men, what is being done to address this? How has this changed over time? How are cultural diversity, marginalised voices, and underrepresented groups being elevated? 

EDI isn’t a box-ticking exercise. It’s about making sure that people are represented and valued. So use metrics to assess engagement with EDI initiatives and employee resource groups. Track employee sentiment on inclusivity. Use surveys, employee feedback sessions, exit interview data, and retention metrics to measure EDI gains – and then keep pushing forward.

What is inclusive leadership?

Inclusive leadership is a leadership style that’s dedicated to making sure all employees feel they belong, are respected, and are valued for their unique contributions. And it thrives in diversity, so it’s a really effective leadership style for managers and other leaders who take EDI seriously.

Inclusive leaders make an active effort to include different perspectives and adaptability in their decision-making processes. They recognise that different groups of people have different challenges, or face different disparities.  Furthermore, they’re committed to creating equal opportunities in their teams and inclusion in their organisations.

Develop a reputation for inclusive leadership

Build your understanding in the role of inclusive leadership with the University of Sunderland’s 100% online MSc Management with HR course. This flexible master’s course in management with a focus on human resources has been created to give busy working professionals an opportunity to develop the skills they need to boost their careers while still in their current roles.

You’ll gain a deep understanding in areas such as the relationship between individual performance and organisational policies and practices, and explore various aspects of people management, recruitment and retention, organisational culture, motivation and reward. And with a module dedicated to cross-cultural management, you’ll develop the skills to effectively manage diverse teams.

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