Why inclusive leadership matters in a crisis

September 20, 2023

The world is in crisis.

COVID-19 presents the biggest social, economic and political shock to our way of life since World War II. Despite stimulus from central banks and national governments, the economic impact of COVID-19 will be severe. A recent report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development estimates a slowdown in the global economy wiping $1 trillion off pre-COVID-19 growth estimates. With economic activity in lockdown predictions for a global depression should be taken seriously.

More importantly the human cost of a such an economic freeze should not to under-estimated. The loss of wages together with enforced isolation, particularly for society’s most vulnerable groups will be severe – in the short-term we will see psychological harm in the form of increased anxiety and stress. Long-term, we may see emotional trauma, resulting from the dual impact effects of social isolation and economic inactivity.

In such times, leadership matters now more than ever. Many employees, contactors and self-employed workers will not doubt be feeling the immediate stress of a reduction in wages.

In a recent article by the global consulting firm McKinsey and Company, (Leadership in a crisis: Responding to the coronavirus outbreak and future challenges), they identify 5 leadership practices and related behaviours for dealing with our current challenges. Of these they stress the needs for leaders to balance “deliberate calm” – the ability to detach from a fraught situation and think clearly about how one will navigate it – with “bounded optimism,” a combination of confidence with realism. These principles align to our research on inclusive leadership.

In the current crisis leaders should practice these 7 core principles:

Respect for difference:

Research from social psychology tells us that leaders, like all human beings have a natural tendency to gravitate towards like-minded individuals. In times of crisis, leaders find similarity of working and thinking comforting. However, prioritising the ideas and thoughts from in-group members creates blind-spots in leadership behaviours and decisions. Inclusive leaders are mindful of how these biases play out and put respect for difference at the heart of their decision-making. In this context respect for difference includes widening decision-making circles – ensuring colleagues from diverse groups are represented around the virtual decision-making table, and that their views are valued in equal measures to others. Respect for difference also includes allowing colleagues to be authentic; virtual communication and social isolation demands leaders to respect different work styles and patterns of communications.

Collaboration in decision-making:

Research by Scott E. Page, Professor of Complexity, Social Science and Management at the University of Michigan has demonstrated how the power of collective wisdom leads to more inclusive, informative and intelligent decision-making. By drawing on the collective wisdom of diverse groups, leaders can learn to mitigate human mind-bugs and the associated business risks. To helps business to navigate the current crisis leader should amplify different voices by reaching out and connecting with as many views as possible, as this is likely to foster more inclusive decision-making and fairer business outcomes. Additionally, leaders should now more than ever work to break down silo working and seek to promote authentic social bonds. They can do this by letting go of ego driven leadership which is focused on the collection of grand titles and positions of power. They should seek to remove these barriers through first name term practices and genuine virtual open-doors policies.

Practice EQ and Cultural Intelligence (CQ):

Emotions, as stressed by Daniel Goleman are contagious. The problem is, many of today’s leaders have traditionally been taught that showing emotions is a sign of weakness. The standard doctrine goes, ‘in tough times, we need tough guys’ (and they are usually guys) who can make tough decisions. In the current crisis leaders should let go of this out-dated leadership notion and instead practice radical empathy. This means leaning into their own feelings. It means recognising that they experience and feel the world from their own frames of reference. They should seek to experience the moods and emotions of those around them by developing active questioning and active listening skills. Leaders should also share with others: Inclusive leaders don’t hide behind an invisible body armour like traditional leaders. They view sharing, not as vulnerability, but as a practice of fostering human connectivity. They are happy to share their own anxieties as well as plans for navigating these uncertain times.

Empowering others:

It is times of crisis and uncertainty, effective leadership requires speed and clarity of decision-making. What is important however is the need to involve and empower all employees in the decisions that may affect them. Traditional leadership decision-making is often support by command and control and top-down business structures and operates under the leader-knows-best attitude, and thus leaders tend to make decisions for and about diverse employees, but not with them.This current crisis will end, but in the mean-time it will test the psychological contact between business leaders and employees. Empowering employees through involvement in decisions which impact them is critical firstly to maintain open communication and honest dialogue, and secondly to ensure any adjustment to working patterns meet the different physical and emotional needs of diverse workers.


Having true insight into one’s own motivators, drives and ways of working is a key inclusive leadership competency. However, insight into one-self alone is not enough to create meaningful and inclusive teams. It is simply one side of a two sided coin. Inclusive leaders are also required to gain insight into difference – that is, the thoughts, life experiences and ways of working of individuals and groups who are unlike them. In this context leaders will require high levels of perspective-taking. As stressed by Gillian Ku, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School (LBS): perspective-taking is “the active cognitive process of imagining the world from another’s vantage point”. Perspective-taking, stresses Dr Ku, should not be confused with empathy. Whereas empathy is about connecting with another person’s feels and moods, perspective taking is a cognitive –thinking – process. To build perspective taking leaders should seek feedback from employees on their own behaviours. 360 degree loops, reverse mentoring and coaching are useful leadership insight tools. Inclusive leaders also have a natural curiosity for things that sit outside of their immediate cultural hemisphere. They take a genuine interest in other people’s personal circumstances and seek to build insight by getting to know colleagues on a personal level through conversations over virtual coffee or lunch.

Psychological Safety

As stated by Amy C Edmondson - Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School - psychological safety is the belief that the environment is safe for interpersonal risk taking. People feel able to speak up when needed — with relevant ideas,questions, or concerns — without being shut down in a gratuitous way. Psychological safety is present when colleagues trust and respect each other and feel able, even obligated, to be candid. In the currently global crisis, leaders, now more than ever need to promote psychological safety. They can do this by stressing to their employees that as the situation moves, they may make mistakes and errors of judgement. Inclusive leaders own and admits their mistake to others. They are also forgiving of the mistakes of others. When we all need to work in a new way, inclusive leaders promote ideas shares and innovation through trial and error. The inclusive leader encourages all team members – not just those in their in-group –to offer alterative perspectives to a leaders’ own views. Finally, leaders who promote psychological safety respond professionally when team members bring up problems and tough issues. They view this as a team strength that helps to promote social bonds in times of isolation.

Trust building

Think of a leader that you fundamentally mis-trust. What is it about his or her behaviours that have led to your perceptions of such a leader? My guess – based on research, would be something like this: The say one thing and yet they do something contrary, they lie, they talk down to people or have little respect for people who are less like them. Now think of a leader that you trust. What values do they hold? What behaviours do they demonstrate? According to David M. Long, assistant professor of Organisational Behaviour at the Mason School of Business at the College of William & Mary, there are three pillars that create bonds of trust between leaders and followers – one of them is integrity. This aligns to our research on inclusive leadership. Inclusive leaders promote trust-based relationships by aligning their personal behaviours with organisational values. These leaders work with the principle of congruence. In time is crisis and uncertainty, inclusive leaders understand the power of role modelling everyday macro and micro behaviours that align with stated organisational values – even under times of stress. This alignment generates team bonds and trust building through integrity. Supporting this, inclusive leaders always tell the truth; they are radically open and transparent in their communications to all employees – even when the message may be difficult.

Author: Dan Robertson Director of VERCIDA Consulting. Widely regarded as a subject matter expert on workplace diversity & inclusion, unconscious bias and inclusive leadership.In 2019 Dan was named by Hive Learning as of one the top 50 D&I influencers globally.