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How not to be an inclusive leader

Learning Lounge – Learning Bite

How Not to be an inclusive Leader – By Vanessa Boon

Inclusive leadership creates an environment where people can thrive and unlocks diverse talent for business success. Getting it wrong can be costly with damage to employee relations and wellbeing, plus the risk of litigation and embarrassing publicity.

In this Blog you will gain insights including mistakes and pitfalls to avoid, adventures in self-discovery, tongue-in-cheek pointers, and the collective learning from facilitating courageous conversations with thousands of people on this topic.  

The starting point for this work is always an exploration of what inclusive leadership looks, feels and sounds like, but people often find it easier to identify what it isn’t, providing a valuable way into the subject.

It can be a useful exercise to approach a subject from the ‘how not to do it’ angle, not least because it often articulates a recognisable, all-too-familiar, experience which can clarify the pitfalls we wish to avoid, the different kind of leader we want to be, the transformation we wish to usher in. So, let’s boldly jump in, employing irony as a tool to provoke thought, tongue-firmly-in-cheek…

3 key take-away messages –

  • It all starts with self-awareness – or lack of it
  • Deny, suppress and avoid a deep-dive into, those uncomfortable unconscious biases
  • Embrace complacency and uphold the status quo – never mind all that ‘inspirational leaders dismantle the systemic oppression that holds people back’ stuff, who wants to be a change-maker, anyway?

Indulge in an utter lack of self-awareness

Tales of the charmless insufferable boss have been told throughout the history of working life; reflected in popular culture, many novels and plays have featured the boss with no awareness of their flawed assumptions, awkward inappropriate remarks, and oblivious to, or uncaring about, their impact upon other people. Role models can be found in the pages of literary classics as well as the modern workplace sitcom and the mockumentary; the cartoon villain Mr Burns of The Simpsons, David Brent and Michael Scott in The Office, and the timeless Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge all provide a template. More subtle examples can often be found in the workplace; consider which of the leaders you have worked with, and for, to draw inspiration from.

To excel in this area, it is necessary to avoid self-examination and models of interpersonal relations. Be warned, your colleagues in HR may attempt to engage you in these. Among the models to be bypassed are:

  • Betari’s Box , illustrating the preconceptions one brings to an interaction and how they leak out through behaviour to flavour the relationship, like a self-fulfilling prophecy
  • Johari’s Window , shining a light upon gaps in self-awareness and authentic leadership
  • ‘I’m Ok, You’re OK’ offering transactional analysis, mindful of power imbalances

Practical steps include making decisions and scheduling events without consulting, or considering the diverse needs of, participants and stakeholders. Choosing inaccessible and exclusive venues, digital platforms and methods, particularly those suited to one’s own convenience are all well-established approaches. Nepotism, a scarceness of moral courage and insensitive communication alongside the evasion of compassion, humility and accountability can also be found among those eschewing inclusive leadership.

Be impervious to feedback, for example, about your conduct, biases, lack of allyship and your use of power. If you are invited to reflect upon microaggressions or, worse still, to ‘check your privilege’ , embrace defensiveness and resist. These people are just leading you down a path of mind-blowing transformative self-knowledge and learning. Likewise for 360-degree appraisals, where one gains feedback not only from a supervisor but from various perspectives such as peers, employees, clients and diverse critical friends. Reverse-mentoring by a front-line worker with lived experience of oppression is to be dodged at all costs.

Steer clear of enablers of enriching self-discovery such as coaching, reflective journalling, mindfulness, therapy, and the wide range of available psychometric profile tests to explore your personality, team role type and leadership style. Take no notice of people and approaches that ‘hold a mirror up’, inviting you to take a deep look at yourself, your attitudes, your behaviours and the source of your impressions about people living lives you have had limited exposure to. 

How not to be an inclusive leader - a leader works with her colleague who is in a wheelchair

Cotton, D. (2015). Key Management Development Models. Pearson.
Luft, J. (1955). The Johari window, a graphic model of interpersonal awareness. University of California.
Harris, T. (1967). I’m Ok – You’re Ok. Harper & Row.
Cousins, S & Diamond, B. (2021). Making Sense of Microaggressions. Open Voices.
McIntosh, P. (1998). White Privilege and Male Privilege. Wellesley Center for Research on Women.

Deny any possibility of having unconscious biases

Building upon the rejection of self-awareness further, one must avoid the uncomfortable deep dive into unconscious biases. If you don’t know what is lurking in the depths of your subconscious mind, such as absorbed harmful stereotypes and othering, you can bask in being oblivious to the ways that your decisions may be weakened; for example, the ways you may automatically, unconsciously, judge people in a more positive or negative light, causing your decisions to be ill-informed, less fair, less objective. Ignore the warnings of inclusion champions highlighting how skewed decisions risk costly repercussions such as damage to wellbeing, goodwill and discretionary effort, talent retention, resourcing course corrections, litigation and PR disasters.

There are several types of unconscious biases to relish in never examining yourself for –

  • Affinity bias (liking people similar to oneself)
  • Confirmation bias (powered by preconceptions, finding what we were looking for)
  • Authority bias (giving more weight to the views of those with formal status and hierarchy power)
  • Internalised bias (absorbed stereotypes about one’s own identity affecting self- and community esteem with potential for horizontal shared-identity discrimination)
  • The ‘halo and horns effect’ (the way that our quick first impressions cause us to view people in a more or less favourable light without basis in, and even contrary to, evidence)
  • Groupthink (the desire for harmony, consensus, conformity and avoiding conflict leads to poor decisions due to unexpressed differences or objections; going along with the group)
  • In-group and out-group dynamics (‘them and us’)

Regardless of the limiting effects that these biases can have on understanding your client base, effective wide-appeal service or product design, fair decision-making, unlocking the full talents of the people you work with, brand loyalty and business results – embracing denial and suppression is the way to go.

Unconscious biases are known to be especially influential when we make quick decisions on ‘auto-pilot’, including when rushing or tired or hungry. Therefore, be sure not to take the time to give important matters deeper consideration and neglect the sort of self-care that enables you to draw conclusions when at your best; furthermore, stick with your own rushed assessment of people and situations without gaining other angles.
If you are encouraged to take the free online test that reveals your unconscious biases with recommended steps to mitigate bias, developed by researchers at collaborating universities including Harvard, known as the Implicit Association Test , you know what to do. Stay in your comfort zone.

Banaji, M & Greenwald, T. (2010). Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People. Random House.
Clark, K & Clark, M. (1947). Racial identification and preference among Negro children. The Journal of Negro Education.
Thorndike, E. (1920). A constant error in psychological ratings. Colombia University.
Janis, I. (1973). Victims of Groupthink. Houghton Mifflin
Tajfel, H. (1970). Experiments in intergroup discrimination. Scientific American
Kahneman, D. (2012). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Penguin.

Be a champion of complacency and maintaining the status quo

When the change-makers come knocking on your (non-open) door with fresh voices and new ideas, take a stand with the “we’ve always done it this way” and “if it ain’t broke [for people who look or live like me], don’t fix it” brigade. Give critical thinking a wide birth. Take care to avoid discourse on intersectionality (the way that the multiple layers of a person’s identity, and associated types of discrimination, overlap and combine); the same goes for dismantling structural oppression (embedded in institutions, hierarchies, policies and norms).

The shunning of approaches such as accessibility audits, co-production with diverse stakeholders, positive action to remedy past and persisting exclusion, and bold new ways to turn the company’s stated inclusion values into meaningful action for improvement, all provide further illustrative blueprints for avoiding progress. Assert that “being equally polite to everyone” is enough. Be that person in the room who amplifies dominant voices and advocates for “one size fits all” approaches. Be the torchbearer of the status quo. Neglect to consult people about their experience, needs and what would support them to thrive – go with your own assumptions, preferences and the way it’s always been done.

Assume that you have sufficient, even superior, knowledge and skills for equality, diversity and inclusion – refuse further training and lifelong learning opportunities. Avoid new experiences that deepen insight and broaden horizons, reducing fear of the unknown and unfamiliar. Deny yourself the chance to experience the Human Library, where the diverse Books are people and reading is an enlightening conversation with someone who has experienced stigma and stereotyping. Stick to books, films and events created by people who look and live like you do. Do not engage independent experts.

Deny the existence of institutional oppression and systemic barriers embedded in policies and workplace norms. Instead, brag with confident certainty about the organisation being great on equality and diversity and how you’ve never heard of any discrimination or bias at work – especially if you are statistically least likely to experience discrimination yourself or so bigoted that no one would ever approach you with a concern.

Finally, when voices of experience of exclusion speak up with feedback on what has gone wrong or how things might be done differently, don’t listen to those who live it; reject humility, never acknowledge a faux pas, skip the emotional intelligence and instead employ denial and defensiveness. To really take privilege-fuelled fragility (discomfort and defensiveness about inequalities that you do not face) to another level, one might give those speaking up the career-limiting label of ‘trouble-makers’. Other classic moves include responding with vexatious counter-allegations and vengeful punitive measures using your power, e.g. appraisal, pay and promotion decisions, to make their lives more difficult; this breeds a compliant culture of fear, reducing the likelihood of further feedback and preventing change.

Greenwald, T & Banaji, M et al (1998) Implicit Association Test (IAT) – Project Implicit, Harvard University
Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color. Stanford Law Review.
King, S. (2020). Make Change: How to Fight Injustice, Dismantle Systemic Oppression, and Own Our Future. DeyStrBks.
Human Library. (2022). https://humanlibrary.org
Macpherson, W. (1999). The Macpherson Report; The Inquiry Into The Matters Arising From The Death of Stephen Lawrence. UK Home Office Archive.

But seriously…

It was not difficult to think of ‘how not to’ examples (and was quite cathartic) to write this wry piece. Sadly, it conveys the recurring themes from over two decades of dialogue, listening, training and facilitating in this space. However, it is joyful to support people to move from defensive folded arms to leaning-forward engaged positions, from confused and fearful to empowered. It is exciting to coach organisations on the journey to greater inclusion, helping everyone to get comfortable with the uncomfortable, to have those courageous conversations, and to see the difference that inclusive leadership can make.

Striving to be an inclusive leader takes ongoing effort and yields inspiring rewards. It is important to acknowledge that we all make mistakes and we are all a lifelong ‘work in progress’. It is likely that we will get it wrong sometimes (full disclosure: I’ve been there); we cannot be an expert in every circumstance, identity, culture, personality, every experience, every camera angle.

However, it is how we take steps to be well-informed, proactively learning to design and nurture an inclusive workplace where everyone can thrive and celebrate both individual and collective ‘wins’; it is our efforts to prevent adding to someone’s mounting pile of drip-drip microaggressions endured, eroding their energy, self-esteem and wellbeing.

It is the humility and compassion we can bring when we realise we have missed the point, said or done the wrong thing, left someone feeling overlooked or excluded, not safe to be their full self, or like they don’t ‘belong’. It is the sense and humility to listen to those who live it. It is the exciting potential to disrupt the practices that limit potential, limit lives and life chances. It is the opportunity to be a change-maker.

Enjoy the courageous journey ahead!

  • Embark upon adventures of self-discovery and new experiences beyond the people most familiar to you
  • Interrogate and mitigate against those unconscious biases
  • Fight complacency and disrupt exclusive policies and norms – unleash your inner change-maker!


[1] Eddo-Lodge, R. (2017). Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. Bloomsbury Circus.
[1] DiAngelo, R. (2018). White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. Beacon Press

How not to be an inclusive leader – Reflective questions:

Did you find anything familiar?

Did anything feel uncomfortable or challenging to read, and why?

Do you have any concerns or fears about ‘getting it wrong’ as you strive to be an inclusive leader? How could you address these concerns?

What terms, models or concepts were unfamiliar to you, and why might these not have been on your radar?

Are you curious to learn more about any of the terms and good practice approaches mentioned in this learning bite?

What support or training do you need to develop as a change-making inclusive leader?
If this learning bite provides a charter for how not to do it, what standards for inclusive leadership will you now set for yourself?

How will you share what you have learned?

What 3 steps could you take to cultivate inclusive leadership across your business?

View Vanessa Boon’s Profile Page

This Learning Bite is adapted from the chapter of the same name in our book Leadership Professional – available on amazon.

Read the Harvard Review article on why inclusive leaders are good for Organisations.

Watch this wonderful TED X talk by Daisy Auger Domingues on great leadership and inclusivity allyship. 
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