Why Inclusive Leadership Is So Important

One of the responses I received to my last post, The Truth About Inclusion, was from a senior executive in the tech industry. He agreed with a concept that I'd mentioned in my post--that of "psychological safety," the zone where members of teams feel they are in a climate of trust and mutual respect--posited by Charles Duhigg in his article in The New York Times Magazine.

Noting that psychological safety appears to be a "way forward to successful teams," the senior leader also pointed out what he feels to be a "Catch-22" about the concept: "that those who currently control the boardrooms and technical teams feel psychological safety when things remain the way they have always been." So he asked: "How do you encourage the status quo teams to embrace creating psychological safety for all under these circumstances?"

It's a good question, and one that we think about a lot at SHAMBAUGH. Personally, I think the answer lies in inclusive leadership. The key to creating an inclusive culture--including at the senior executive and board level--is to recognize the fact that all voices need to be on deck. This concept of inclusiveness needs to go beyond gender balance to consider all types of diversity.

With that in mind, striving for better gender balance at the leadership level is certainly an important part of what can create a more inclusive culture, so I'd like to share some new research in this regard. A recent Wall Street Journal article highlighted the work of two professors--Larissa Tiedens of Stanford's Graduate School of Business and Melissa J. Williams of Emory University's Goizueta Business School--who synthesized 71 studies that tested reactions to those who acted assertively. The pair found added support for a tendency that we've seen plenty of times before--that women, on average, are penalized more than men when they show the same assertive behaviors.

But what was particularly eye-opening about these findings was the fact that women were only disparaged more than men for direct forms of assertion--particularly verbal forms like taking a dominant position during negotiation. Expressing assertiveness in nonverbal ways, however, did not carry the same high penalties for women. More effective forms of assertion for women were discovered to include things like striking expansive bodily stances/poses, physical proximity, and even speaking louder or interrupting to get a point across, since the latter involve paraverbal cues.

Shaking Things Up in the Boardroom
How can we move beyond these gender-based stereotypes that hold women back at the leadership level and keep us from having all voices on deck? It's important for men to play an important role in creating inclusiveness. They can do so first by recognizing that these types of inequities do still exist, and they are exacting a heavy toll on our high-potential female leaders. The recent findings by the Stanford and Emory professors clearly suggest that women either must moderate their verbal assertiveness to be taken more seriously as leaders, or else suffer the consequences for using the same direct, assertive actions that men use to achieve leadership success.

Men can also help challenge these gender stereotypes when they see them playing out, whether in the boardroom or the leadership pipeline. To go back to the senior tech executive's point mentioned at the start of this post, move beyond your comfort level and the status quo. If you see something, say something to disrupt outdated thinking patterns. For example, if you notice that John's verbal proposal is greenlighted by the executive committee after Mary's similar proposal--when delivered convincingly and assertively--was questioned, call this behavior out. Point out that Mary had already suggested those same points, yet her proposal was rejected.

While the assertiveness findings are just one piece in a much larger puzzle, they highlight the fact that there is still plenty of work to be done in opening the doors for everyone to have an equal chance to become true, authentic leaders. To open the doors for women to lead--and to create greater inclusiveness in all arenas across the leadership suite--we need everyone's voice to be heard at the table.

What steps can you take today to build a more inclusive leadership culture?