Blog Inclusion in Public Sector Workplaces

Why inclusive leadership is the right thing to do

by Dr. Tanachia Ashikali:

Increased inclusivity in public organizations is needed for organizations’ representation of minority voices and responsiveness to diverse needs in society. In an inclusive work environment, diverse employees are recognized, valued and their resources are used to inform work practices[1].

Despite the push for more workforce diversity, studies shows that increased cultural diversity does not self-evidently result in enhanced inclusivity. Previous research shows that fostering inclusivity in organizations is complex, and dependent on multiple factors of which leadership is an important one[2].

Leadership is generally understood as an influencing process towards others to guide, structure, and facilitate activities in groups or organizations. Although many studies show that leadership is important for achieving goals, improved motivation and performances, how leadership contributes to inclusivity and what determines inclusive leadership is less understood. Inclusive leadership is coined as a set of leader behaviors towards supporting individuals’ feelings of belongingness and uniqueness in a team setting[3][4]. Inclusive leadership fosters inclusivity through facilitating team members’ participation and contributions as well as stimulating team members to exchange, discuss and learn from different perspectives, expertise and backgrounds diverse members bring to work.

Leadership is, however a complex phenomenon, which can be affected by both personal and organizational antecedents[5]. However, previous studies into public leadership show that public managers have multiple conflicting and competing demands while managing their teams[6][7], of which inclusivity might not be prioritized.

So, what are determinants of inclusive leadership? Results of a recent study among employees and public managers of various Dutch public organizations, shows that leader humility is a foremost predictor. Humility is a crucial organizational virtue for leaders that have to deal with a dynamic and changing environment[8]. A diversifying society and workforce makes humility an relevant subject for public management and leadership research. Humble leaders view oneself accurately and display an appreciation towards others’ strengths and contributions. Moreover, humble leaders are more likely to learn from others by utilizing information gathered in interaction with others, seeking feedback, and acknowledging mistakes.

Another important determinant is the rationale managers and organization have to promote diversity in the organization. Inclusive leadership increases, when diversity is valued as a resource that is needed to create public value in addition to striving for more equity and justice. Furthermore, inclusive leadership is stimulated in an organizational context, in which teamwork, participation and development of human capital is central.

There are also some potential barriers that could limit inclusive leadership. In an organizational context with a focus on efficiency and control, public managers are not consciously occupied with fostering inclusivity. Furthermore, when the span of control is high, public managers are placed at a greater distance of the team. This makes it difficult for them to proactively manage team processes needed to foster inclusivity. There are some factors that might intervene, even given these limitations. Firstly, public managers do enjoy some discretionary room and autonomy. When intrinsically motivated, they create opportunities to foster inclusivity even when constraint by organizational context. Secondly, support from top management is important for creating an organizational setting in which diversity and inclusivity is valued. This will promote middle and lower level public managers to show inclusive leadership. The insights into personal and organizational antecedents of public managers’ leadership give us more understanding of how inclusive leadership develops and how it can be encouraged to promote inclusivity in public organizations.

[1] Nishii, L. H. (2013). The benefits of climate for inclusion for gender-diverse groups. Academy of Management journal, 56(6), 1754-1774.

[2] Shore, L. M., Cleveland, J. N., & Sanchez, D. (2018). Inclusive workplaces: A review and model. Human Resource Management Review, 28(2), 176-189.

[3] Ashikali, T., Groeneveld, S., & Kuipers, B. (2021). The Role of Inclusive Leadership in Supporting an Inclusive Climate in Diverse Public Sector Teams. Review of Public Personnel Administration, 41(3), 497–519.

[4] Randel, A. E., Galvin, B. M., Shore, L. M., Ehrhart, K. H., Chung, B. G., Dean, M. A., & Kedharnath, U. (2018). Inclusive leadership: Realizing positive outcomes through belongingness and being valued for uniqueness. Human Resource Management Review, 28(2), 190-203.

[5] Antonakis, J. E., Cianciolo, A. T., & Sternberg, R. J. (2004). The nature of leadership. Sage Publications, Inc.

[6] Hood, C. (1991). A public management for all seasons?. Public Administration, 69(1), 3-19.

[7] Van der Wal, Z., Nabatchi, T., & De Graaf, G. (2015). From galaxies to universe: A cross-disciplinary review and analysis of public values publications from 1969 to 2012. The American Review of Public Administration, 45(1), 13-28.

[8] Owens, B. P., Johnson, M. D., & Mitchell, T. R. (2013). Expressed humility in organizations: Implications for performance, teams, and leadership. Organization Science, 24(5), 1517-1538.

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About the author:

Tanachia Ashikali is an Assistant Professor of Public Management at the Institute of Public Administration at Leiden University. Her research expertise includes diversity management, leadership and inclusion in public organizations, with a focus on quantitative research methods and techniques. She teaches courses on public management and leadership. As a research fellow at the Leiden Leadership Centre, Tanachia acts as a speaker at practitioners’ seminars and engages in research collaborations on inclusive leadership with practitioners in various Dutch public organizations. As a member of the Faculty Governance and Global Affairs’ Diversity & Inclusion Taskforce she is involved in developing and implementing an action agenda to develop and maintain inclusive spaces for learning, working (teaching and research) and collaboration.