inclusive work culture

Intelligence Lesson: How do leaders influence for an inclusive work culture?


4 minute read

Our guest blog this month is by Emma Dutton MBE, an associate and friend of Caffeine. A former Specialist Military Intelligence Officer in the RAF, if anyone knows how to influence, it’s Emma who served five tours of Afghanistan using her influence skill set and methodology in interactions with the Taliban.

Most of the world has known for some time that diversity matters, but we’ve now shifted into an era where the business case is loud and clear. A seminal moment for me was reading this McKinsey white-paper, ‘Why Diversity Matters,’ which, for the first time, uses McKinsey-grade data to show the link between diverse organisations and financial success and market share.

Shortly after reading this report, my Applied Influence Group colleagues and I were listening to Jan Gooding, Global Inclusion Director at Aviva, speak on a panel at The Foundation Forum. Jan said something that sparked an idea amongst us: “diversity is an output of inclusivity.” Meaning, if we focus on being inclusive in our workplace culture, we will naturally create a more diverse organisation leading us to financial benefits. It’s worth noting that without a supportive culture, recruiting a diverse workforce is pointless. If minorities do not feel listened to, respected, and given opportunities in equal measure, you will never realise the financial success that comes with building a diverse business.

If diversity cannot be achieved without an inclusive culture, then how do leaders go about cultivating inclusivity? More importantly, can we encourage organisations to be inclusive in their everyday decision-making?

The good news is, yes, we can. It’s in our make-up to like those that are most similar to us; a concept enshrined in two of Dr Robert Cialdini’s principles of persuasion:

  1. Liking. We’re more easily influenced by those we like, but also by those that are ‘like’ us in terms of physical appearance or shared hobbies.  
  2. Unity. We’re more easily influenced by those with whom we share a sense of identity. So strong is this built-in bias that we’re more likely to be influenced by someone who went to the same university as we did.

The concepts of the Ingroup and Outgroup, and the resulting Inter-group Anxiety also explain much of the natural biases all humans possess. One of the most frequently studied negative effects of Inter-group Anxiety is prejudice toward the Outgroup, and an unwillingness to communicate. We all experience a level of anxiety when communicating with people we perceive to be from a different group to us (this could be status, class, intelligence, ethnicity, accent, profession). It is understood that the origins of these selective preferences lie in disease prevention; a ‘protective prejudice’ that evolved to help us avoid diseases our bodies weren’t immune to.

“Recognising the biases inherent in ourselves and others is crucial to overcoming them, while being aware of your unconscious reactions is the first step to resisting them.”
These in-built tendencies can be consciously overridden, and inclusivity CAN be broken down into a set of skills that can be learned and improved. Here are 4 of them that you, as a business leader, can develop to create a more inclusive culture:

  1. Self-awareness:

The first step to combatting our hard-wiring is simply to be aware of it. Recognising the biases inherent in ourselves and others is crucial to overcoming them, while being aware of your unconscious reactions is the first step to resisting them.  

Similarly, being aware of what emotional state is starting to form inside of you can give you an advantage over people who cannot recognise their own emotional state. Having the ability to acknowledge your emotions will invariably assist you in being able to manage and use them.

  1. Managing your emotions:

Having the ability to regulate your own emotions as they arise improves your ability to make decisions when under emotional stress, reducing the likelihood of making ill-judged or impulsive decisions. Effective self-management techniques will vary greatly from person to person; but some of our suggestions are:

Trigger Words:

This is a word or phrase that is associated with a professional, detached emotional state.  If used regularly, phrases such as “Game Time” or “Switch On” can become highly effective in regulating mood in a short space of time. The All Blacks rugby team adopted the use of Red Head/Blue Head as a commonly-agreed trigger word to describe whether a player was being led by emotion or rationality.

Perspective Altering:

We all view the same event in entirely different ways. A variety of factors can affect the way in which you view situations, such as inherent values, past experiences, traits, life scripts, belief systems, culture, current situation and childhood experiences. But taking the conscious decision to understand another perspective can help to alter our pre-existing emotional state. Rising above the situation to see the bigger picture, otherwise known as the ‘helicopter view,’ is a good technique to help you arrive there sooner.

Distraction/Refocusing Techniques:

Finding something to distract us or refocussing our mind onto a different emotional situation can help greatly in self-management. Athletes visualise the finish line during difficult parts of a race, for instance, which helps drive away negative emotions. Similar techniques can also be used in business situations.

  1. Empathy:

Empathising with someone else’s emotional state can help us fully understand their perspective and identify areas of conflict. Although our ability to show empathy is largely set by the time we reach adulthood, there are ways to develop our empathetic skills. In our everyday lives, chatting to the bus driver or the person who serves you coffee can be great ways of practicing understanding people that might not otherwise have been in our focus.  

By that same token, understanding how you’re likely to be perceived by another person is fundamental to the process of inclusivity. You might think that you’re not an enemy, but you might well look like it to another person. Cultivating this awareness, however strange and unfamiliar it feels, can immediately improve your ability to communicate.

  1. Effective Listening & Elicitation:

One way to understand a different perspective and build empathy is to ask the right questions. At Applied Influence Group, we’ve learned that narrative questions are the best way to gather someone else’s perspective on an issue and understand what’s at the forefront of their view. Open-ended questions like: ‘tell me’, ‘explain to me’, ‘describe to me’ will lead to a much more detailed response.

If diversity is an output of inclusivity, as Jan Gooding taught us, then following the steps and skills laid out in this piece will help cultivate it in a sustainable way. Learning to improve them in yourself and your team will only help encourage a more diverse and included workforce. Just watch that market share move.

(c) Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

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Emma Dutton MBE

Managing Director at Applied Influence Group
Emma initially served as an Engineer Officer in the RAF but was quickly drawn to the influence capability of Military Intelligence. Over five tours of Afghanistan, Emma was placed in leadership and governance roles, leading teams to collect life-saving information. She found herself using the same influence skill set and methodology in her interactions with politicians and military commanders as she was with the Taliban; a realisation that led to the founding of the Applied Influence Group. She was honoured with an MBE in 2015 for her work in Afghanistan.
Emma Dutton MBE

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