Diversity & Inclusion, Learning & Development

Leadership Is a Behavior, Not a Title — And It Can Make or Break Inclusion in the Workplace

Have you noticed how life at home often mimics lived experience in the workplace? Much like adults set an example for younger people (knowingly or not), leaders shape the behavior of employees in an organization. 

leadership diversity inclusion

A perfect example of this point happened many years ago when my husband and I were babysitting the three-year old child of a close friend. We were cooking dinner in the kitchen while she was playing with our dogs (one called Penny and one called Twinkle) in the other room. Out of nowhere came this tiny, angelic voice, “For f**k sake, Twinkle, eat the biscuits!” I turned to my husband and said, “Where the f**k did that language come from?” 

Similar situations happen in the workplace all the time, just not quite as ironically hilarious. As humans, we’re born to emulate the behavior of the people we see as leaders. It happens with both so-called “bad” behavior and “good” behavior. Because of this, leadership can make or break the lived experience of the workplace. 

The Difference Between Cultural Fabric and Company Climate 

An organization’s cultural fabric is a set of intentions, wishes, or desires that a company articulates to describe the type of company it is and the vibe it wants to create for its people. Those intentions, wishes, and desires are then put forth in the form of a mission statement with core values that set expectations for behavior in the workplace.  

This cultural fabric created by the leadership is sewn throughout the organization. It influences every aspect of the workplace including product design, supplier choice, customer experience, decision making, conflict resolution, and performance. 

Despite the all-encompassing aspect of cultural fabric, a company’s climate is far more powerful. The climate represents the actual lived experience of the employees. It’s based on the rhythms, rituals, and day-to-day relationships that people experience at work. Climate is developed through the way people speak about each other when they’re not in the room. It also includes the way conflicts are resolved and the manner in which decisions are made. 

In an ideal world, a company’s cultural fabric and climate would overlap entirely so that the intentions match the reality of the outcome. Unfortunately, that ideal world rarely exists. As mere humans, we’re all flawed to some extent. Although the company may list a set of values that they’d like every employee to emulate, it’s up to those in positions of leadership to ensure that employees are made aware of the core values when onboarded.  

Yet every employee brings preconceived notions, ideas, and experiences to the workplace. Sometimes these variances among workers mesh and other times they don’t. The more congruence that exists, the better the climate will be in the organization. 

How Leadership Can Shape Climate 

How does an organization create congruence between the vision for employee experience and actual employee experience? 

One way is to look at the term leadership as a behavior, not a title. True leadership is non-hierarchical and doesn’t require a fancy title. It’s not defined by pay grade but by followership. If you’re influencing the thoughts of others successfully, this is a sign that you’re a leader.  

The epiphany with my adventures in babysitting symbolizes the part of our ingrained humanity that emulates the behavior of those we see as holding power in a relationship. This part of our DNA extends well past childhood and into adulthood. As adults, we take it with us in our homes, in society, and in the workplace. Groups of people, whether at home, at work, or elsewhere, will model the behavior of others they see as leaders. Awareness of this tendency is especially important when trying to build a workplace of inclusivity — one that not only talks the talk but puts the term into action. 

If a leader in the workplace exhibits non-inclusive and objectionable behavior, many people in that group will follow. As a result, the organizational climate will be shaped by the worst behavior the company is willing to tolerate in its leaders. However, the opposite cause and effect is also true. If people see their leaders exemplifying inclusivity and integrity, they will adopt that behavior as well.  

Why Inclusion Matters 

Leadership can make or break the extent to which inclusion becomes an actual experience for employees. When not modeled by leaders, inclusion becomes an idyllic fantasy land that exists only on its web page’s listing of hypocritical corporate values. 

When leaders upend social conditioning and bring people from diverse backgrounds with new thoughts and ideas that challenge the status quo, people start to feel included. When people feel included, they take pride in their organization and feel compelled to deliver their best performance. Inclusive companies experience lower attrition in their workforce, achieve better results in their bottom line, and enjoy a happier, healthier climate. 

Remember, leadership is more than a f**cking title! We all have the power to encourage inclusivity and create positive outcomes. I’m grateful to our friends young child (who has recently graduated high school), for providing such an impactful lesson. 

DDS Dobson-Smith is the Founder and CEO of SoulTrained, an executive coaching and leadership growth consultancy. They are a licensed therapist, author, executive coach, speaker on leadership and growth and Reiki master — all in service of helping others grow and become who they are. Their new book is You Can Be Yourself Here: Your Pocket Guide to Creating Inclusive Workplaces by Using the Psychology of Belonging.