11 April 2024 | Jonathan Taylor

What is inclusive leadership and why is it important?

Inclusive leadership is all about being able to draw out the skills, perspectives and experiences of a diverse workforce and unite them as a high-performing team with a shared vision.

There are numerous models of leadership out there – transformational, authentic, servant, situational, ethical … the list goes on.

But if we push past the various models and definitions, at its core, leadership is all about enabling others and unlocking performance. For people to perform, however, they need to feel safe, supported and able to be themselves and everyone needs to have access to the same opportunities. Bring all of this together and you have high engagement, wellbeing and productivity. Your team will want to build their career with you because they are in a workplace where they can be their authentic selves, feel that they belong and know that their contribution is valued. So when we break it down, effective leadership is inclusive leadership.

Building a culture of inclusion

Inclusive leadership involves promoting a culture that incorporates differences without eliminating them and where people can both flourish individually and unite as a high- performing team. There are two important components to this.

Valuing difference

Many organisations focus on attracting diverse talent. However, without conscious efforts around diversity, equity and inclusion, team members who feel different to the majority will typically start to feel pressure to conform, or at the very least to not draw attention to their difference. This may come from the subtle signals that they notice from others – the warmer response when things are said in a particular way, for example, or the subtle exclusionary behaviours they experience when they share a different opinion. Culture is defined as ‘the way we do things round here’ and individuals are expected to align themselves with the organisation’s values, norms and behaviours.

The irony is that many workplaces attract diverse talent only to seek to gradually remove those differences from those who join. If we genuinely want to unlock the value of diversity of thought, we first need to create the conditions where difference is actively supported and valued.

Creating cohesive teams


The second part of inclusive leadership is about team cohesion. Diversity without inclusion can lead to conflict and silos, and this is because if you bring different people together, with different lived experiences, professional backgrounds and personalities, they will naturally gravitate to people who are similar to them and ‘other’ those that are not.

You’ve probably noticed a bit of this in your own team, where some people tend to work more closely or socialise with certain colleagues more than others. Those who are similar cluster together, cooperating professionally and supporting each other socially, whilst others who are different in some way remain on the periphery.

Inclusive leadership involves valuing differences while at the same time bringing diverse teams together behind a common vision and fostering a sense of shared purpose and commitment.

What does inclusive leadership look like day-to-day?

Having worked with thousands of leaders globally, and through our ongoing research, we have identified the inclusive behaviours leaders struggle with, as well as three broad areas that differentiate inclusive leaders from their less inclusive counterparts:


As the very foundation of inclusive leadership, these leaders create an inclusive environment around them where people feel safe to speak up and to act, without fearing negative consequences for their reputation or how they are perceived. Similarly, others feel entitled to speak up and act, as they recognise the value that they add to the team. This is visible in how we introduce meetings, give feedback and onboard new colleagues.


Inclusive leaders are self-aware, recognising the impact that their biases can have on decisions and take responsibility for managing this. They are flexible in their thinking, seeking out new or unconventional solutions and being open to different perspectives to their own. This is important when making formal decisions (e.g. hiring, performance reviews) but also in day-to-day decisions, such as delegation of work.


Inclusive leaders invest time in getting to know each team member as an individual, and they manage the risk of favouritism and build diverse professional networks with people who are different to themselves. By doing so, they increase familiarity and trust between team members and unite everyone under a common purpose.

The impact of inclusive leadership


Research shows time and again that inclusive leaders have a huge impact both on those individuals around them and on the culture of the organisation as a whole. The benefits of inclusive leadership and diversity include:

When people feel included, they report higher levels of engagement and work attitudes such as job satisfaction and commitment to the organisation. (2, 7, 8, 9)

Career confidence
When people feel identity threat (that is, concern about being treated negatively because of who they are), they report feeling less confident that they will achieve their career aspirations, such as reaching a particular level of seniority. (9)

Belonging and retention
We each have a need for connection with others, to feel useful and a sense of belonging. Psychologists refer to this as one of our fundamental human needs that are ‘essential for psychological health and wellbeing and effective functioning in social settings’. When employees feel excluded, they are more likely to report intentions to quit and are less likely to recommend their profession to others. (1, 2)

When colleagues feel included and can express their individuality at work, they report higher levels of employee wellbeing. (3, 4)

Feeling excluded or not valued at work can create an additional cognitive burden and cause people to experience stress, and this can impair their performance. Conversely, when colleagues feel valued and safe to be themselves, they can focus their full cognitive resources on performing in their role.

Promoting psychological safety
Where people feel free to speak up, make suggestions and voice concerns – has been found to predict team performance better than adopting traditional leadership styles (e.g. Transformational leadership) alone. (2, 4, 5, 8)

Knowledge sharing and learning
Psychological safety has long been recognised as an important component to inclusive leadership. Many studies have found that teams who feel psychologically safe are more likely to share knowledge, engage in positive learning behaviours such as sharing and learning from their mistakes. (8)

Creativity and innovation
Creativity and innovation have long been associated with a diverse and inclusive culture and team environment. When we create the right conditions, we can unlock the diversity of thought that comes from having different experiences and perspectives. (8)

Ready to start developing your inclusive leaders?

Inclusive leaders are the key to unleashing your people’s potential and driving performance. Contact us today to find out how the Kandola+ Inclusive Leader programme can help you to develop inclusive leaders in your organisation and reap the diversity dividend.


1. Allen, K. A., Kern, M. L., Rozek, C. S., McInerney, D. M., & Slavich, G. M. (2021). Belonging: a review of conceptual issues, an integrative framework, and directions for future research. Australian Journal of Psychology, 73(1), 87–102.

2. Deci, E. L., Olafsen, A. H., & Ryan, R. (2017). Self-Determination Theory in Work Organizations: The State of a Science. The Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 4, 19-34.

3. Sutton, A. (2020). Living the good life: a meta-analysis of authenticity, well-being and engagement. Personality and Individual Differences, 153.

4. Frazier, M. L., Fainshmidt, S., Klinger, R. L., Pezeshkan, A., & Vracheva, V. (2017). Psychological safety: A meta-analytic review and extension. Personnel Psychology, 70(1), 113-165.

5. Schmader, T., Johns, M., & Forbes, C. (2008). An integrated process model of stereotype threat effects on performance. Psychological Review, 115, 336-356.

6. Korkmaz, A. V., van Engen, M. L., Knappert, L., & Schalk, R. (2022). About and beyond leading uniqueness and belongingness: A systematic review of inclusive leadership research. Human Resource Management Review, 100894.

7. Walton et al. (2015). Stereotype Threat in Organizations: Implications for Equity and Performance. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behaviour.

8. CIPD (2019) Building Inclusive Workplaces: assessing the evidence. https://www.cipd.org/globalassets/media/knowledge/knowledge-hub/reports/building-inclusive-workplaces-report-sept-2019_tcm18-64154.pdf

9. Von Hippel, C., Issa, M., Roslyn, M., & Stokes, A. (2011). Stereotype threat: antecedents and consequences for working women. European Journal of Social Psychology, 41, 151-161.