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Why does this matter to Canadians today? 

“Becoming a truly inclusive organization requires courage. Organizations must choose to fundamentally change their culture – their way of acting and being.” 

Deloitte, 2016 

The need for recognition of Inclusive leadership in our workplace today didn’t arrive of its own accord. In order to understand the importance and influence of this style of leadership, one needs to explore the workplace and Canada’s history. This is often difficult because some people aren’t inclined to acknowledge the link between the workplace and Canada’s history, where certain ugly incidents still have generational impact on some racialized groups. 

Consequently, if we are to achieve inclusive leadership in organizations, everyone has to take responsibility, listen actively and intently to those who have experienced historic harm, and be prepared to take action. But first, under-represented people must feel they are heard, their concerns validated and apologies met with strong conviction to bring about changes that are beneficial and sustainable.  

The terms diversity and inclusion are often used interchangeably, but they’re two distinct terminologies. Diversity is the presence of difference in our population, workplaces and communities. These are the parts that make up who we are, such as “race, culture, gender, sexual orientation, social and economic status, age, ability/disability, religion and more.” (Harvard, Human Resources).  

Diversity includes communities that evidence a variety of individuals from different cultural, ethnic and social backgrounds. They bring different working styles, ideas, histories and lived experiences, and this generates a dynamic, creative, innovative and productive workforce. 

Inclusion is a continual state of operating in which diversity is leveraged in creating a fair, healthy and high performing organization. This ensures all are treated with respect and dignity. Staff members need to feel they’re making a valid contribution to the organization and are seen as such by management. They want a work environment with a sense of belonging where they can be their authentic and best selves. 

The conversation about diversity and inclusion must also include equity. Equity is present where people feel valued and respected. Equity is rooted in fairness, with access to opportunities for those who are under-represented and have faced structural and systemic barriers. 

Belonging means full membership of the workplace community, where workers are individually invited to participate at every level and not excluded. This is regardless of their difference (race, gender, identity, sexual orientation). 

Studies by Deloitte say, “Progress in diversity and inclusion can be hard-won, frustratingly slow, and fraught with uncomfortable and even painful conversations.  

“It is time to move from optics to outcomes.” (Deloitte, Canada 175, 2016). 

Diversity and Inclusion goes far beyond these characteristics, but it must also recognize “every one of us is so complex that it makes no sense to assume you know someone based on what’s visible, but people make assumptions about each other nonetheless.” (Brown, 2019). 

Employees are wrestling with all sorts of things that are never discussed but that are steering their lives, their engagement, and their productivity.” (Ibid)  

To become an inclusive leader, individuals must take into account all the personalities and different identities people present. This is known as intersectionality, a term coined by Kimberly Crenshaw more than 30 years ago. 

“Intersectionality refers to our multiple identities that intersect, such as gender, race, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, ability, work styles, political views, etc.” (Perry, 2019).  

It means these identities often intersect and some people experience privilege while others experience oppression. These identities make us who we are and what bring out the best in individuals. 

Diversity and inclusion are key to Canadian businesses achieving their competitive advantage, supporting economic prosperity and creating a culture where all employees are engaged, welcomed and feel valued in their workplace. 

To achieve a diverse and inclusive workplace, business owners and leaders have to be courageous. They need a change in mindset to address institutional bias. Employers must challenge the status quo to confront racial discrimination, power and privilege, build allyship and create a sense of belonging. 

However, employers and business leaders must take a critical look at Canadian history and acknowledge their role in colonization and cease to deny the existence of its ugly past. Many diverse communities have been impacted by racism and systemic/institutional discrimination. The barriers continue to exist and produce generational and intergenerational trauma even today. 

As we take a look back at our history, there are moments when dramatic changes occurred by force of circumstance. These were critical to increasing the pace of change towards a more  open and inclusive society. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in our constitution in 1982, the redress settlement in 1988 to Japanese-Canadians for confinement during the Second World War, and the legislation in 2005 allowing same sex-marriage are just some examples. 

Many racialized people continue to face discrimination and are excluded from fully participating in the workspace. They don’t have a voice and aren’t reflected throughout the levels in their organizations. 

We share a collective history with shared and different identities, and it’s important to understand how this impacts our ldaily lives. 

In 2016, Deloitte conducted research and reported that in Canadian businesses, “Diversity and inclusion will not be achieved until our approaches aim to change the organization at its core, not just on the surface. Building an inclusive culture is critical. Uniting to include must be embedded deeply into the way of being as individuals, as organizations and as a nation.” 

Many companies have realized well-intended strategies have failed because they don’t address the underlying causes and sources of exclusion. Organizations need to move beyond diversity training or measuring success in numbers only. They need to be intentional about inclusion. 

Organizations must develop “inclusive leaders who have the ability to effectively leverage the diversity of people, thoughts and expectations,” to remain relevant in this current environment. “By doing so, the organization gains an advantage when it comes to innovating solutions and appealing to changing markets.” (Perry, 2018). 

“Leaders must create a culture of belonging where everyone can thrive in countless ways,” in order to build an inclusive organization. (Brown, 2019).   

“Inclusive leaders bring more of themselves to the workplace than other leaders, believing that through their own vulnerability and authenticity, they can create a space in which others can be the same.” (ibid). 

  • An inclusive leader must champion the causes of diversity and inclusion.  
  • They must take a courageous stand to change the outdated practices and ways of doing things. 
  • Organizations have to address institutional/systemic racial discrimination in the workplace and take critical action when such behaviors are reported.  
  • Leaders at the highest level must be willing to listen, learn and teach others to take responsibility for their actions and to be accountable to the organization. 
  • They must invest more time into making the organization more inclusive by fostering inclusive behaviour and thinking. 
  • An inclusive leader understands the value and contributions each person brings to the organization. This includes a diverse board of director and other stakeholders. 
  • An inclusive leader is committed to good communication and being courageous. They collaborate with others and use their emotional Intelligence (EQ) and Cultural Intelligence (CQ) to appreciate the differing ideas and perspectives of individuals immersed in their backgrounds and lived experiences. 
  • A leader who is inclusive takes time to recognize employees at all levels in their organizations including the custodians and frontline staff who are the face of the organization. They’re often the most abused and more diverse. 

These concepts are the essence of an inclusive workplace. Leaders must embrace their self-awareness, understand unconscious bias, be open to continuous learning from individuals who come from different backgrounds, bring their cultural difference into the workplace and not hide their true selves. This will lead to a truly inclusive workplace for all, including those who are engaged in remote and virtual workspaces. 

Achieving inclusive leadership won’t happen overnight. All concerned will have to value everyone’s voice and bring them to the table so their perspectives can be heard. 

I have seen evidence in my own personal engagement with leaders in recent months where leaders have taken the time to listen to their employees, challenge their behaviour, examine their biases and allow employees to bring issues they feel are important to the awareness of their leaders. Some of these issues were tough to listen to and the conversations weren’t easy to begin and follow through, but we have begun to raise the level of awareness and discourse. This is a journey of self-discovery and continuous learning for all. 

Ann Divine

Ann Divine, founder and CEO of Ashanti Leadership and Professional Development Services. Her consultancy provides extensive services in Leadership Development, Cultural and Organizational Change Management through Diversity and Inclusion lens.

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