Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

What Does it Take to be an Inclusive Leader?

Each year, the Leids Universitair Fonds (LUF) awards grants to research and educational project in various academic fields. In 2019, dr. Tanachia Ashikali received a grant to conduct an in-depth study into the determinants of inclusive leadership in public organisations: What does it take to be an inclusive leader? Unravelling determinants of inclusive leadership in public organizations.

2019 - 2021
Tanachia Ashikali
Leids Universitair Fonds (LUF) Leids Universitair Fonds (LUF)

With the diversity in society and organizations, much attention is paid to ensuring inclusiveness in organizations: a work environment valuing individuals’ unique contribution and treating them as insiders in the team and organization. A crucial factor that can contribute to inclusiveness is inclusive leadership. Inclusive leadership focuses on stimulating the appreciation and exchange of different backgrounds, perspectives and ideas that team members have. In addition, an inclusive leader ensures that there is a safe environment in the team where everyone can participate and their voices are heard. Previous research shows that inclusive leadership is crucial for supporting an inclusive work climate in ethnic-culturally diverse teams. However, we do not yet know under which conditions inclusive leadership is established and what is necessary to further develop it. Therefore, this project aims to gain more insight in the antecedents of inclusive leadership. 

From previous scientific research we know that both personal traits as well as contextual factors affect leadership. For this project, the focus will be on gender, ethnic cultural diversity, and managerial diversity beliefs. Organisational influences such as structure, culture, and organisation of work will also be taken into account as possible explanatory factors. 

In a first phase, approximately 30 in-depth interviews were held with public managers spread across two central government organizations (a ministry and executive organization). The aim was to find out what motives managers have when it comes to diversity and inclusiveness and what role the organizational context plays in this. 

Based on this qualitative study, in the second phase a questionnaire was sent via Flitspanel and distributed among a representative group of managers within the central and local government sectors. This survey included the various obtained personal and organisational factors that may impede or stimulate inclusive leadership behavior as well as an assessment of inclusive leadership. Using this data, the resulting propositions on the influence of various factors on inclusive leadership have been tested by using statistical analyses. 

What are determinants of inclusive leadership? The interview study among 30 public managers shows that a personal conviction of the added value of diversity is strongly related to inclusive leadership. In addition, managers are more likely to strive for an inclusive work environment when team members need to work together to achieve team goals. Managers who are themselves convinced of the added value of diversity (in a broad sense), also ensure that their teams are composed in a diverse way and they stimulate cooperation within the team. In such teams, leaders use self-tests to help team members understand their work attitudes and behaviours that play a role in the team. In addition, managers communicate explicitly that they are open to the voices of the minority. This helps them and the team to remain critical and prevent groupthink.

Managers often indicate that they define diversity is a broad sense (i.e. all possible aspects that make an individual unique, with a focus on functional background and personality). A number of managers actually spoke of specific underrepresented groups and the help they need to get started (people with a distance to the job market). The latter is often motivated by the role model function the government has and the pursuit of representation.

Different motives play a role for recognizing the importance of diversity and inclusion. Being a reflection of society and the exemplary function of the government are more often linked to the representation of underrepresented groups (e.g. women and people with a migration background). Societal challenges and responding better to a changing society and the complexity associated with it, is more related to the broad definition of diversity and in some cases also aimed at young people. Some public managers also said that as a manager you sometimes have to take risks and think outside of the box. At the same time, they also indicate that many of their colleagues do not so because they emphasize security and consistency with a focus on efficiency.

Findings from the quantitative part of the study provide more insight into the perspective of employees. Employees score their managers relatively high on inclusive leadership (an average of 4.7 on a scale of 7). Employees also score their managers high on humility with an average of 5.2. About 1 in 5 employees scores their direct supervisor lower than 3.5. Furthermore, the results show that indeed a leader’s humility is an important predictor of inclusive leadership. Additionally, a 'group culture' in which the team and personal development take a central position, also play a major role in stimulating inclusive leadership behaviour. 

However, there are also several obstacles arising from the organizational context. For example, it is more difficult for managers to enact inclusive leadership when the span of control is high. Span of control is about the number of employees that a manager is responsible for. In some cases, managers are responsible for teams that work in different locations and often in shifts (especially in the executive organization) or are responsible for more than 30 employees, often not with team leaders or coordinators as an intermediate layer. These factors make it more difficult for them to demonstrate inclusive leadership. Additionally, with little or no diversity in the team or the department, or when there is no concrete link between diversity and the team tasks, managers indicate that they are not consciously concerned with inclusiveness. For these managers, the subject of diversity and inclusiveness is more linked to improving the representation of certain groups of employees.

Check out the hand out (Dutch) of 'What does it take to be an inclusive leader?' over here.

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