The Steinhoff Saga Management review - University of Stellenbosch Business School

January – July 2021

Ways in which leaders can create a culture of inclusion

By Dr Lize Booysen and Dr Priscilla Gill

  • JAN 2021
11 minutes to read


It’s about the people

“Consciousness and mindfulness of interactions and reactions provide opportunities for deeper understanding.”

This is one of the conclusions from the chapter titled “Creating a culture of inclusion through diversity and equity” from the book called Management and Leadership Skills for Medical Faculty and Healthcare Executives. This chapter is co-written by Dr Lize Booysen, Professor Extraordinaire at USB. Although the book is aimed at health care professionals, the learnings from this chapter on inclusivity apply to leaders in all kinds of workplaces.

There are various reasons why inclusion, equity and diversity make business sense as well as moral sense. When the potential of everyone employee is optimised and when there is employee engagement from a multicultural workforce, this leads to better services and outcomes. In the health care industry, this has a measurable effect on patient outcomes. What’s more, harnessing the full potential of all employees can lead to competitive advantage, return on investment, and bottom-line profit. One study has shown that companies with diverse management teams have 19% higher revenues due to innovation.

But diversity alone does not translate into success. The leadership also needs to be inclusive. If leaders cannot engage and create in people a sense of belonging and psychological safety, then the employees will disengage.

“Consciousness and mindfulness of interactions … provide opportunities for deeper understanding.”

What does it take to be an inclusive leader?

The authors believe that leaders require four very specific competencies – namely engagement, enablement, empowerment, and the ability to recognise talent – to make inclusivity work.

Engagement in this context refers to the way leaders relate with others. Do they acknowledge, respect and value differences? According to the authors, leaders need to “live well with everyone”, which means they need relational integrity. While leaders are fostering inclusion, they also need to be aware of power dynamics, and avoid siding with only one group’s point of view.

Enablement means to create an environment in which people can flourish. Such environments are built on trust, connection and inclusion because this makes it easier for people to engage, exchange ideas, take risks, cooperate and compromise with the greater good in mind.

The authors believe that empowerment in the workplace happens when people are given decision-making power and responsibility. This goes beyond participation and involvement because employees are now called upon to take ownership and accountability of a job. This opens up the way to the partnership model of leadership where there is joint commitment and where people bring complementary skills to the table. The authors explain that this is “probably one of most effective ways to create mutually empowering relationships in the workplace”.

Attracting top talent is another important task of inclusive leaders. People can indeed give organisations a competitive advantage in a world where innovation is key. Importantly, talent management practices need to be aligned with good equity, diversity and inclusion practices otherwise organisations will not retain this talent. Special attention needs to be given to the development of women, people of colour, and other minority groups because “diversity does not stay without inclusion”.

How does one build a culture of inclusion?

For a diversity of employees to stay, they need to feel welcome, heard and valued. This can only happen if an inclusive culture has been be woven into the everyday operation of the organisation, and into its mission, vision, strategy, systems, structures and leadership practices. Inclusion needs to be institutionalised, with rules and regulations that help to ingrain this into the organisation’s DNA. This also applies to policies drawn up to address discrimination and harassment, procedures put in place to deal with conflict management, and codes of conduct aimed at ensuring fairness and inclusion.

And yet, from time to time, insensitive behaviour, biases, discrimination and harassment can surface in even the most well-intentioned organisations. Interdisciplinary or cross-functional teams often require diverse groups of people to work together. Therefore, it is not uncommon for conflict to erupt based on fault lines, subgroups, hierarchy and power dynamics – all of which can trigger unfairness, inequity and exclusion.

One such trigger is assimilation, which is an extreme form of acculturation. This happens when normative group members expect others to adopt the dominant culture and act like them – referring to, among others, values, lifestyle, dress, religious practices and professional practices. This can be seen as intolerance of differences. Another trigger is when people have different values or beliefs, and where one group’s “right” is another group’s “wrong” – for example when people prefer not to collaborate with colleagues with an LGBTQi lifestyle or certain religious background.

Leaders should be aware of such triggers and put systems in place to mitigate and manage the inequities and insensitivities. Organisational context, commitment, consciousness, and courage – this is what leaders need to embrace if they want to create a culture of inclusion through diversity and equity. Here, organisational context refers to having a clear mission and vision to use as guideline, and creating and maintaining a culture that encourages employee engagement at all levels. Commitment to inclusivity calls on leaders to keep on learning in an ever-changing environment, which underlines the role of the leader as learner. When leaders approach these “learning moments” with the right mindset, it will increase the awareness (consciousness) and growth of all employees. Lastly, leaders need grit to influence inclusivity because it will require some courage to dismiss an employee guilty of inappropriate behaviour.

Overall, the aim of managing diversity is to co-create an organisational culture where all employees feel valued and respected, have a sense of belonging, and have the opportunity to be their uniquely selves.

When the potential of everyone employee is optimised and when there is employee engagement from a multicultural workforce, this leads to better services and outcomes.

Guidelines for an inclusive work environment

Lastly, the authors provided guidelines on how to create an environment conducive to inclusivity. These are shared below.

  • Find the original publication here: Booysen, L.A.E., & Gill, P. (2020). Creating a culture of inclusion through diversity and equity. In A.J. Viera, & R. Kramer (Eds.), Management and Leadership Skills for Medical Faculty and Healthcare Executives,
  • Dr Lize Booysen is an internationally recognised scholar-practitioner in the field of leadership, culture, and diversity, with 36 years of experience in leadership development and research. She is a leadership professor at the Graduate School of Leadership and Change, Antioch University; and Professor Extraordinaire at the University of Stellenbosch Business School. She holds a doctorate in Business Leadership, and master’s degrees in Clinical Psychology, Research Psychology, and Criminology.

Related articles

Sep 14

13 minutes to read

Inclusion at the workplace: An...
Sep 14

13 minutes to read

Gender inequality at work

Join the Management Review community

Subscribe to receive an email alert for new content on Management Review.