This blog was originally published by the King’s Fund (August 2019).
Tracie Jolliff, Director of Inclusion at the NHS Leadership Academy, explains how inclusive leadership and cultures require personal dedication.
Speaking truth to power, we have
some work to do on inclusion. At times it appears that we’re not all on the
same page about what is meant by ‘inclusion’ and, importantly, what we should
expect to see as evidence of inclusive practice from leaders. There are
currently no clear or shared expectations that leaders will possess inclusive
leadership qualities, and inclusive leadership capability and practice
standards seem at best arbitrary, if demanded at all. The only people who are
expected to ‘get’ inclusion, appear to be those most impacted by exclusion.
Those in the most senior positions across health care, are generally not
from historically marginalised groups, meaning they are unlikely to have to
navigate persistent inequity in the workplace themselves, and might also not
notice subtler and more pervasive forms of discrimination, including where
their own practices are falling short.
However, we cannot ‘force’ leaders to be inclusive. History tells us
that such draconian approaches end up with minimal levels of compliance that
change nothing. It is by choice that leaders step into inclusive practice.
However, this does not mean that inclusion should be relegated to an optional
extra. Discrimination is harmful and these forms of ‘institutionalised harm’
cannot ethically simply continue without consequences. The NHS is a people
business, and all people should therefore matter equally.
It is still all too common for those who complain to then be dislodged from their workplaces for speaking up or become so ‘weathered’ by their experiences that they simply have to leave. This is in stark contrast to those in positions of power, who may have abused that power, as they seem to fall upwards.
Time and again the data paints a picture that disparities are the norm,
which means that discriminatory practices and therefore harm persists. We hear
these stories constantly from participants on our programmes at the NHS
Leadership Academy, where they feel safe enough to share their distressing
accounts. Currently, however, these incidents occur with little proper
acknowledgement from leadership teams, no apologies and little or no
organisational learning, and with the individual managers involved receiving
guidance from HR professionals. It is still all too common for those who
complain to then be dislodged from their workplaces for speaking up or become
so ‘weathered’ by their experiences that they simply have to leave. This is in
stark contrast to those in positions of power, who may have abused that power,
as they seem to fall upwards. Deep work is needed to address these inclusion
fault lines, which are often compounded by entrenched and uncontested negative
stereotypes about those audacious enough to complain.
A further obstacle to progress is the tacit acceptance that leaders are
delivering on inclusion simply because they are now talking about it – learning
a few more inclusive terms sadly looks as if it is enough evidence for some.
But if inclusion is about fundamentally changing the nature of the relationships
people have in the workplace across similarities and differences, and
progressively eliminating discrimination in all of its forms, this effusive
game of words is just not good enough.
So how should leaders be different? A start would be to create safe
spaces for people to openly speak about discrimination and exclusion, producing
the knowledge that would provide a critical foundation for leaders to begin to
‘know’ what to do. If this single activity is not present in our organisations
and teams, we are simply deluding ourselves by concurrently making claims that
inclusive progress is being made – progress according to whose knowledge and
lived experience? There is much to learn from this solitary paradigm-shifting
activity, as those who face discrimination cannot simply choose not to.
Organisations need to be clearer about leadership accountability, with
the ‘lived experiences’ of their own staff being the most important indicator
of inclusion at organisation, department and team levels. Great quality,
evidence-based, life-long inclusive leadership development and support for
leaders should also be a given and, most importantly, those who understand and
experience exclusion, should be leading initiatives to bring about change
across HR, organisational development and all other functions. Focusing change
strategies around the knowledge created by lived experience is the only
approach that can ensure that inclusion initiatives are relevant, effective and
Organisations need to be clearer about leadership accountability, with the ‘lived experiences’ of their own staff being the most important indicator of inclusion at organisation, department and team levels.
HR has the potential to be a change enabler for inclusion. The role of
HR professionals across systems that have consistent disparities (for example,
between BAME and white staff) should therefore be examined. HR approaches and
practices urgently need to be updated in light of what we currently know about
the lack of inclusion across the system, with the goal of having no policies or
practices that do not support systemically just and equitable outcomes.
Once safe spaces and organisational processes have been established,
leaders can then apply themselves to life-long learning, continually asking
themselves how to listen to the experiences of those impacted by discrimination
- How can I hear without making negative judgements about those who are courageous enough to speak their truths?
- How can I hear without denying the messages that are being communicated?
- How can I hear without placing covert pressure on people to only tell good news stories?
- How can I hear, while asking myself ‘what does this story tell me about the culture here, and how can I lead in ways that will transform the lived experiences of my staff’?
- How can I hear without assuming there is nothing new that I need to learn?
Listening with humility and humanity is the first and most important
attitude shift that must therefore take place.
Speaking truth to power is only one part of a very important equation,
the other part is the examination of how power responds to truth. We need to
embrace innovation on inclusion, this is what the NHS Leadership Academy’s
Building Leadership for Inclusion strategy is all about, transformation through
leadership development. How ready are we now to learn?
Find out more about Building Leadership For Inclusion.