Organisational Change is the BEST time to invest in Inclusive Leadership

15 April 2024
Latest Insights From Symmetra, Employee Wellbeing, Knowledge

Leveraging Inclusive Leadership During Organizational Change: A Strategic Imperative for Success


Often, when an organisation goes through significant change, it is extremely disruptive to DEI efforts, particularly work aimed at developing inclusive leadership and teams. There are often seemingly good reasons for this – people are very worried about their future and may not be interested in development; leadership is preoccupied with financial outcomes and strategic alignment; teams are reforming, and it is not clear who one’s teammates might be in a few weeks’ time.

But you will actually be missing a golden opportunity to both embed inclusive leadership behaviours AND make your change project more successful.

Maximising Your “Change Power”

The commonly cited business case for DEI is that it makes companies better at problem-solving, innovation, and adaptation. As such you should expect companies who score well in DEI to be better at internal change – and this is exactly what the research shows.

For every 0.1 points increase in DEI ratings, their change power increased by an absolute 13%.

Further research shows that organisations that are diverse and inclusive are much more likely to underscore a learning culture, and “the flexibility afforded by learning cultures can be invaluable in navigating today’s exceedingly uncertain business environment.” Inclusive leaders will embrace a learning mindset to drive change in themselves and their teams, and exhibit boundary spanning behaviours to form new networks, relationships and connections within a new structure far more readily than leaders who are less inclusive.

The fact is that organisations which drive inclusive behaviours before, or during times of change, are much more likely to achieve a better outcome.

Making Change More Human

The research is clear that empathy (defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of others) is critical during times of change. It builds trust, improves communication, promotes collaboration, and makes employees more likely to stay.

A major broadband telecommunications provider we worked with, was undergoing a major change as they moved from their “build” phase of constructing a massive new network, to their “run” phase of operating it. This meant major downsizing and reorganization of teams over a 12-month period. Our work on inclusive leadership was limited to one particular division, which led itself to a wonderful natural experiment. Independent observers (the Head of the Division and the HR team managing the change) reported that managers who had been through our inclusive leadership program were notably more empathetic in their communications and engagement with their teams, leaving people feeling more heard, more positive about the future and reduced the unintended loss of any desirable talent during the transition period. These were the higher performing teams during the disruption.

So, rather than being a distraction or a luxury, investing in inclusion during a major change period returned significant dividends.

Making Inclusion Feel Relevant to all

People will want to learn something new if they see immediate personal benefit. In fact, any leadership development program worth its salt recognises that people won’t try new things if they don’t feel they are relevant and useful. The challenge is that as a starting point, many leaders think DEI is fluffy or nice-to-have and secondary to their core leadership responsibilities.

Enter the disruptive change – be it restructure, merger, downsizing etc. Leaders are anxious about maintaining performance in their team, about having difficult conversations, about ensuring the well-being and engagement of their teams, and about bringing newly formed teams up to speed quickly – while portraying both authenticity, vulnerability and confidence. They are at this time more open to trying new skills and approaches that will enable them to navigate these changes effectively.

The right positioning of inclusive leadership – a model that defines it as leadership that values diverse perspectives, that is open to new ideas, that creates psychological safety, and that adopts a learning mindset and agility – will make leaders feel empowered and encouraged to use it. All of a sudden, inclusion will feel extremely useful, role-relevant, and beneficial, raising adoption levels significantly!

If you are reading this dismayed at the thought of a major restructure setting back your DEI efforts – rather see this as an opportunity to pivot. Inclusive behaviours can provide a strong and solid foundation for agility, adaptability, and effective change management, which then gives you a springboard from which to tackle other equity and diversity challenges when the dust finally settles.