In Daniel Goleman’s now classic HRB article ‘What Makes a Leader?’ he makes two key statements, Firstly, the one thing that all good leaders have in common are high levels of emotional intelligence (EQ,) and secondly, there aren’t emotionally intelligent leaders, without empathy.
Empathy is a key ingredient to developing insight, which in our new report Inclusive leadership by Design – The 6 Traits of Inclusive Change Makersis a critical leadership competence. So, what is insight and how do leaders gain insight?
Insight, or more specifically, insight into the experiences of diverse groups, is facilitated by curiosity and perspective taking. As stressed by the behavioural scientist, Francesca Gino, curiosity helps leaders to make new discoveries and to seek new experiences, exploring, fresh ideas and innovative business possibilities. Unfortunately, Gino also points out that too many of today’s business leaders stifle curiosity in two key ways:
- 1. They have the wrong mindset about exploration: Too many leaders believe that allowing for curiosity will lead to disruption and messy decision-making. They also believe that it will lead to harmful disagreement, which creates conflict and slows down decision-making.
- 2. They seek efficiency to the detriment of exploration: Over focusing on efficiency stifles innovation and creativity.
- Our research has shown that curiosity leads to greater empathy amongst leaders and those leaders with high levels of curiosity find it easier to gain greater insight into the thoughts, feelings and perspectives of diverse groups due to the adoption of a growth mindset. Fixed mindset leaders bunker down into bias thinking.
Gaining insight is a doing thing. It’s an actively that leaders need to facilitate through perspective taking and by connecting with others. Perspective taking requires leaders to recognise that they see and judge the world thought their own narrow frame of reference, which is infested with a wide range of cognitive and social biases. Leaders are designed to judge. Seeing the world from someone else’s perspective can help leaders to mitigate their biases.
This process can be supported by what social psychologists call the ‘contact-hypothesis’. Put simply, when different groups connect, particularly for a common goal, prejudice is broken down. In our work we see leaders practicing the ‘contact-hypothesis’ through the design of office architecture and having diverse groups work on common business tasks and goals. Our research on inclusive leadership has found that leaders who demonstrate insight do so in a number of ways. Firstly, insight is underpinned by two key features:
Perspective taking: This is the ability view things from someone who is different from us. Aligned to perspective taking is empathy – putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Research has shown how perspective taking is a key ingredient in bias reduction.
Learning: Learning about difference through openness and curiosity is a fundamental feature of inclusive leadership. Learning about difference had two key outcomes. Firstly, this approach helps to break down stereotypes and biases about people who are different from us. Secondly, the learning process, through strategies like positive-contact increases a leaders’ cultural competencies, which is a critical skill when managing diverse teams at both local and global levels.
From our research, here are 5 things that inclusive leaders do to promotes Insight:
- 1. They walk in the shoes of others: To gain insight into the experiences of others leaders need to walk in their shoes. This requires high levels of empathy and the desire to see the world from alternative perspectives.
- 2. They actively listen to the voices of organisational outsiders: To many organisational leaders operate within their own echo chambers, as they surround themselves with like-minded individuals. The inclusive leader is the one who pro-actively moves beyond their inner circle and reaches out to diverse groups by attending network events and talks, with the specific aim of connecting with and hearing the voices and experiences of diverse colleagues.
- 3. They use 360 feedback loops to solicit feedback on personal biases: Inclusive leaders recognise that they, like all humans, are prone to a set of cognitive and social biases. They seek to develop insight into their own ways of working by using 360 feedback loops. These tools can be powerful in breaking blind-spot biases.
- 4. They seek data that shines a spotlight on the feelings and experiences of organisational outsiders: Unconscious bias is relatively easy to detect, simply because it results in organisational patterns. Inclusive leaders are those who look for patterns in ‘hard’ data sets covering areas such as recruitment and performance reviews, as well as what some consider to be ‘soft’ data sets, such as employee engagement survey results. Data from such surveys can provide powerful insight into how different groups experience their work environment.
- 5. They actively seek ideas on business goals from organisational outsiders, as well as insider groups: Inclusive leaders don’t get hung up on unnecessary titles or hierarchy; they see these as barriers to employee connectivity and business innovation. Inclusive leaders tap into the thoughts and ideas of diverse stakeholders by using employee resource groups as innovation labs and places of ideation.