In an earlier article, I had discussed at length my thoughts on Diversity. Through diversity, we look for versatility in an organisation that encourages differences in the team to elicit different perspectives. Diversity becomes advantageous to an organisation when it is enmeshed with inclusivity. But what is inclusivity?

The dictionary defines inclusivity as the practice or policy of providing equal access to opportunities and resources for people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalised”. Inclusivity involves embracing people from all backgrounds and giving everyone an opportunity to be heard, and to participate.

To be clear, we are not referring to those people in leadership positions who already wield authority and access to opportunities and are being heard. But it is more about those people who would otherwise be deprived or be in a disadvantageous position.

When we discussed diversity, we looked at how a variety of people brought in more perspectives into reckoning when decisions are taken. The value of diversity lies in the fact that people think differently, and the difference in their thought process is due to their varied backgrounds. However, the voices of these people will fail to be heard if there is nobody listening! If their voices are not going to matter in the final decision process, then diversity becomes something of a mere lip service. 

If the leader were to believe that he is a know-all kind of a person and does not want any inputs, then he has no need for diversity either. Such people are typically of the kind who believe “It's my way, or the Highway”; such attitudes are for sure, organisation killers.

There are certain other forms of behaviours, where the leader may mean well, but the message that is carried across is not for fostering inclusivity. We will explore a couple of real-life scenarios that I am picking from my own experiences where the lack of inclusivity is implicit in certain behaviours of the leader.

The Boss has the first word

This is an example from a small organisation of about 30-40 employees that I happened to be part of at one point in my career. Being a very small organisation, every individual had a significant role to play in the team. Each member of the team was that much more valuable as the skills they brought were indispensable. But every member of the team was chosen carefully and were ones who exhibited tremendous potential and had significant knowledge in their area of specialisation. There was hardly any reason to believe that there was any non-performer in the group.

Consciously, the leader of the organisation had ensured that there was a good mix of backgrounds in terms of gender, ethnicity, and community. The diversity in the team was much appreciated from external stakeholders and others who had the opportunity to know the organisation. When it came to delivering on promised results to the customers, the power of the team, in terms of the expertise available and of the diversity was not seen. Overall, the team was mediocre when it came to delivering results. This happened on multiple occasions, and this compelled the leader to bring in a consultant to analyse the team dynamics and find the cause of this mediocrity. To maintain cordiality and openness that the leader wanted, he kept the whole exercise quite informal, and everyone was very comfortable in opening up to the consultant. 

The outcome of the exercise was quite unexpected. The team bonding was extremely powerful, and everyone was seen to be trying to do their best. The leader was very approachable, and everyone had equal access to him. 

When the team gathered for any discussion on technicality or of policy matters, the leader had the tendency to speak first and give his opinion and then go round the table seeking others’ views. So, once his views were known, seldom did anyone want to contradict him. As a result, diversity in the team was not helping at all. The leader could not take advantage of the diversity of the team because of this.

Originality not welcome

Here is another issue that is often repeated in many organisations, which I shall illustrate again through personal experience. In another organisation that I was a part of, the leader was the one who, again, spoke first. And he would seek any views that were different from what he had said. He sounded quite genuine, in seeking for people to be critical of his view so that there can be a good discussion before zeroing down on the decision. But he had a practice of showing favouritism towards some of his reporting managers over the others. The group that he favoured was one that appeared to blindly agree with everything he said. Far from contradicting him, they explicitly reinforced his own opinions. In short, this group was seen as constantly supporting him so that he could finally have his way.

Though he was seeking different views, he was sending out a clear but passive message that originality was not welcome; one had to fall in line with his way of thinking and support his views. As a result of this, some of the best managers left his organisation, leaving his team depleted very soon.

Making everyone speak

In any group, not everyone opens up easily. Many speak only when spoken to and their opinions, though precious, are overshadowed by those whose voices prevail.

Here, I would like to take an example from the famous Indian epic, the Mahabharata. Amongst the Pandavas, though Yudhishtira was the eldest, he consulted his four brothers and the queen, Draupadi, on all matters, however small or large it may have been. Amongst the brothers, Bheema used to be quite vocal with his views, while the silent one was usually Sahadeva. After Yudhishtira solicited the opinions of everyone else, he used to ask Sahadeva to talk. Only after Sahadeva’s views were expressed, would the final decision be arrived at. And this practice held the brothers together and helped them succeed.

Implementing inclusivity

From these examples, it is clear what practices one must follow in order to take full advantage of a group’s diversity.

First, the leader ought to speak the last if they really want to speak. In an ideal scenario, the leader’s role should be of a facilitator, asking the tough questions and making everyone else in the room think, while their views are not tabled unless views are not forthcoming, which would seldom be the case if the right people are in the room.

The second practice is that the leader should follow up on their openness by appreciating candid behaviour and not punish candour. Absolute fairness is important if the culture of inclusivity is to be sustained.

The third practice is to seek inputs and opinions from everyone present and not just a select few. There could be some in the group who will not speak up unless asked to do so. Just because they do not open up easily, it does not mean that they do not have an opinion. The leader should be able to identify such people and seek their views too.

No individual in the team is inferior to the rest. Every view or opinion should count. The leader may be very experienced and may claim to be an expert in the domain. But even the leader can falter at times. If the leader wants to capitalise on the diversity, it is best to solicit opinions and not be a “be-all end-all” kind of a person.

Despite all views being solicited and weighed before deciding, the leader cannot shirk their responsibility of making the final decision. They must show their loyalty to the team by standing by them and owning the decision and not point fingers if something were to go wrong.

In conclusion

By practising inclusivity, the strength drawn from diversity can be maximised. It requires maturity and balance on the part of the leader to implement inclusivity. If implemented in the right manner, it not only ensures good thought-out decisions; it also fosters trust and loyalty in the organisation and will also go a long way in retaining talent in the group.

I will not be exaggerating if I were to say that the maturity of an organisation can be gauged by the level of inclusivity being practised.

About the Author

Dr. Anand Lakshmanan is the Chief Operating Officer at the Centre of Excellence for Road Safety, Dept of Engineering Design, Indian Institute of Technology-Madras.

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