Inclusive Leadership

Practical ways to foster an inclusive environment

Richard McLean
6 min readJan 16, 2021

At Elsevier, we place strategic importance on having inclusive, engaged and agile teams. Therefore we value having an inclusive environment for our teams to operate in where everyone is treated fairly and respectfully, has equal access to opportunities and resources, and can contribute fully to the organization’s success.

An inclusive culture enables a high-performing and engaged set of employees, where people feel valued and can bring their whole selves to work. A culture of inclusion increases diversity while also improving innovation and team / business performance.

Leaders have a key role to play in fostering an inclusive environment. Whether we are senior executives or managers, leaders’ behaviours can drive up to 70 percentage points difference between the proportion of employees who feel highly included and the proportion of those who do not —a phenomenal difference.*

All of our product leadership team recently completed a training course with the NeuroLeadership Institute on inclusive leadership, in order to help us embed habits and behaviors that will help to shape such an environment. Following the training, I read Anna Shipman’s post on an inclusive leadership course that she had attended, and that sparked me to do something similar, in order to help me to distil, remember and embed what I learnt.

(Of course, what I’ve written here represents only a fraction of what we covered in the training course — three 90-minute workshops and assignments in between — and I’ve included bits I’ve picked up from other reading I’ve done recently on the subject — which I’ll publish as a separate reading list.)

The SCARF model (R)

The course introduced me to the SCARF Model (a registered trademark of the NeuroLeadership Institute), which is a way of describing and understanding social threats and rewards and how our brains respond to other people’s actions:

For an overview on The SCARF Model (R) and the effectiveness it has in the workplace, you can read this blogpost or this one or this one by Itamar Goldminz, or watch this video:

The theory is that what motivates us socially is different for each of us. That is, we are all sensitive to these five domains — but to different degrees. For example, some people may particularly value ‘status’ (eg getting credit for a job well done), while other people crave ‘autonomy’ (a sense of control over the work we do, and not being micromanaged). Some people are more sensitive to threats relating to ‘fairness’ (eg a lack of equity/equality in social interactions), other people are more sensitive to threats relating to ‘certainty’ (eg when roles or responsibilities aren’t clear) or ‘relatedness’ (eg feeling different from others or excluded).

As an aside: if you want to understand which domains of social threat and reward matter most to you, you can take an assessment at the Neuroleadership institute’s website. Note this assessment is for individual use. If you wish to use the assessment with your team or organization, contact the institute.

By being sensitive to these five domains, leaders can help meet the needs of the people on their teams. How we act and behave can impact each domain and thereby lead people to feel more or less included and valued.

Finding Common ground

Relatedness’ is the sense that we belong. Leaders can do many things to foster strong relationships and to help create a feeling of common ground among colleagues. For example:

Leaders can use language such as “we” and “us” to promote that feeling, instead of language like “you,” “me,” and “they,” which signals a clear boundary between groups. [1]

Leaders can also:

  • hold regular 1:1s
  • check in regularly with team members, particularly remote workers
  • encourage time at the start of meetings for non-work conversations
  • look at the person speaking in a meeting, nod, and smile
  • offer words of empathy and concern to colleagues
  • look for shared experiences and similarities
  • ask for help
  • introduce buddy systems or mentoring arrangements

We are likely to work against people’s feeling of common ground and an inclusive environment:

  • if we are distracted when others speak
  • if we focus completely on business
  • if we focus on differences
  • if we talk about “resources”, when we mean people [source]
A tweet from Emily Webber about using different language instead of “resouces”.
Original tweet:
Actions to create an inclusive workplace
Actions to create an inclusive workplace (from Catalyst):

Lift people up

Leaders have a particular role to play in maintaining fairness and have a disproportionate impact in building other people’s sense of status at work (eg through recognition and reward).

Leaders can go a long way in promoting fairness through acts of transparency. For example, when making decisions, leaders can communicate their thought process behind making one choice over another. When employees don’t get the full picture, and start to invent alternate stories, it may increase the chance people feel slighted. [1]

Positive behaviours leaders can adopt to foster an inclusive environment include:

  • Seeing mistakes as a necessary part of growth
  • Admitting mistakes and apologizing
  • Seeking feedback, especially from more junior colleagues
  • Rewarding fresh thinking and taking risks
  • Inviting people to express concerns
  • Giving everyone an opportunity to contribute and actively encouraging more junior people to speak up
  • Being curious: listening without judgment, and seeking to understand
  • Regular giving positive feedback and showing appreciation
  • Sharing employees’ accomplishments to the wider team — or giving them the floor to do so themselves
  • Introducing a regular mechanism for everyone to share what they are working on and their achievements

On the other hand, leaders may erode employees’ sense of status:

if they squander new ideas or take credit for others’ work [1]

  • if they are tough on mistakes
  • if they stick with the status quo
  • if they give only corrective feedback
10 actions men can take to create an inclusive workplace (from Catalyst)
10 actions men can take to create an inclusive workplace (from Catalyst):

Create autonomy and clarity

People generally like to know what’s going on and to feel a sense of control over the work we do (‘autonomy’ is one of the three key elements in Dan Pink’s framework for workplace motivation):

When leaders involve themselves with every little detail of their team members’ work, they risk creating threats to those people’s autonomy. (This is why micro-managing feels so offensive.) However, when leaders give employees the time and space to do their work, unfettered by interruptions, they send a much more rewarding signal that they trust and value the person’s ability to get things done.[1]

As leaders we can help provide autonomy and clarity by:

  • being clear on what we expect from others
  • helping people to break down complex work into smaller, more understandable chunks
  • including others in decision-making
  • clarifying roles and responsibilities
  • clarifying objectives
  • allowing people to take on more responsibility, and to use their initiative
  • giving people the freedom to try out new ideas
  • ensuring that everyone who needs to know does know
  • sharing your thinking
  • having other people share their goals to ensure alignment

Conversely, we threaten people’s autonomy and sense of clarity by:

  • leaving people out of the loop
  • assuming everyone shares the same goals
  • keeping our thoughts to ourselves
  • allowing meetings to go on too long, without any clear end in sight

Other practical tools:

Other practical examples of how leaders can use the SCARF model:



Richard McLean

Chief of staff @ElsevierConnect (Academic & Government group). Mainly writing about getting from A to B, teams, & digital product stuff. Personal account.