What are the Limits of Inclusive Leadership? Striking a Balance

Categories: Diversity & Inclusion

This is the sixth in a series of insights adapted from the new book “Inclusive Leadership, Global Impact,” co-authored by Dr. Ernest Gundling and Dr. Cheryl Williams. 

We often hear the question, “What do you see as the limits of inclusive leadership?” This is a complex and difficult topic, and the response depends in part on one’s vantage point. Here are a few different perspectives on the limits of inclusive leadership: 

Inclusive Leadership is “Limitless”

For individual leaders, there is almost always something each of us can do to be more inclusive with colleagues at work. The five stages of inclusive leadership described in the Inclusive Leadership, Global Impact book have numerous specific behaviors associated with them. Building inclusive habits is a project that takes sustained attention and commitment—it is not a box to check and then declare, “I’m done!”

For instance, most people can identify ways to expand their network of contacts, get to know individual colleagues better, convert unintended micro-inequities into micro-affirmations, run more inclusive meetings, or support a capable person who might otherwise be overlooked. On a daily basis, we are likely to meet with both successes and with new challenges. Carol Dweck defines a “growth mindset” as the belief that one’s abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—this mindset is essential for cultivating inclusive behaviors as well. Another key inclusive behavior is applied curiosity, or being able and willing to learn something new when we encounter obstacles in our workplace interactions, staying alert for our own misperceptions or forms of bias. 

Divergence & Convergence

Teams that are very diverse, with irreconcilable differences (social, political, cultural, functional), or with leaders who are “inclusive” without enabling team members to come together and find shared solutions, are unlikely to perform well. Homogenous teams may actually perform routine tasks more effectively and rapidly than those that are highly diverse. Diversity must be managed skillfully, or it can lead to confusion, mutual frustration, and unproductive churning of ideas and conflicts without resolution.

Inclusive leaders must not only be able to invite various ideas from a diverse set of team members (divergence) but also to integrate different points of view and lead their teams toward alignment and a shared commitment to achieving common goals (convergence). Teams that are both diverse and inclusive have the potential to shine when carrying out tasks that require creative thinking and innovative solutions. This requires not only advocating for a point of view, but also serving as a “catalyst” for drawing out the combined experience and expertise of the team as a whole.

Social Justice & Business Performance

Striving for greater social justice is a worthy goal in itself for any institution, including business enterprises. In many ways, companies are best positioned to drive systemic changes that offer new access, opportunities, and forms of support to employees with unearned disadvantages; such changes can and should be part of an organization’s mission. To be truly meaningful, inclusivity should never be limited to “looking good” for public relations purposes, with pictures of a diverse workforce for the corporate website. 

At the same time, even the most inclusive organizations still have their own hierarchies with key decision-makers and the need to hit their performance targets. Inclusivity in the form of greater “equity” or “representation” must also be accompanied by the ability to make tough, timely decisions, and to accurately evaluate business performance while holding individuals and teams accountable for their results. Diversity and inclusion are commonly linked with higher performance, but each organization needs to make this happen in its own way while meeting the needs of key stakeholders: employees, customers, suppliers, creditors, shareholders, and so on.

Inclusive Ideals & Political Realities

In an authoritarian environment, particularly one characterized by fear and mistrust, it is difficult for inclusion to flourish. In many settings around the world, ethnic and/or religious minorities are regarded as a threat, elites are unwilling to give up jealously guarded privileges, and preferred forms of handling diversity are not through greater inclusivity but through exclusion, social control, repression, or even genocide. 

Employees in such locations are understandably more guarded and cautious about taking risks or even voicing their opinions. Rather than having a sense of psychological safety, based on their own hard-won life experience they often feel it is unsafe to venture beyond established precedents or explicit instructions. Leaders may find that inclusive techniques which have worked elsewhere are not so effective. They can strive to be inclusive and build greater psychological safety but may feel that they are swimming upstream in such an environment. Nonetheless, those committed to inclusion can almost always find an opening—for instance, addressing discrimination based on gender or generational differences—that is welcomed by employees and not threatening to political authorities or in violation of local laws.

So while the opportunities for building greater inclusivity are in one sense limitless, leaders must also be able to balance divergence with convergence, social justice with business performance, and inclusive ideals and initiatives with local political realities. 


About the Authors

Ernest Gundling, Ph.D
Co-Founder and Managing Partner

Dr. Gundling has worked with numerous Fortune 500 firms and is a sought-after keynote speaker and executive coach. He has lived in Asia and Europe, including six years in Japan. Dr. Gundling holds a Ph.D. and M.A. from the University of Chicago, and a B.A. from Stanford University; he also serves as a Lecturer in the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of six books, the latest co-authored with Dr. Cheryl Williams, Inclusive Leadership, Global Impact.

Connect With Ernie on LinkedIn

Dr. Cheryl Williams

Cheryl Williams, Ph.D., aims to reconcile global workforce requirements with the rapidly-evolving areas of inclusion, equity, and belonging. Her experience with cultural intelligence, gender equity, and race relations, serves as the cornerstone for her research and client work.  Dr. Williams is also Professor Emeritus at Concordia University, Irvine, California (CUI). She has worked in over eighty countries spanning Europe, Asia/South East Asia, sub-Saharan Africa/Southern Africa, South America, and North America. Dr. Williams holds a Ph.D. from Florida State University, and M.S. and B.S. degrees from Purdue University. She co-authored Inclusive Leadership, Global Impact.

Connect With Cheryl on LinkedIn