We can all think of a person whom we have regarded as a great leader.
When we analyse why, we might tell stories about how they always remembered people’s names, however junior; how they joined comfortably in the chat at the water cooler; how they took time to check if people were ok outside work; how they were always available even though incredibly busy. We might say they were ‘a natural people person’, ‘warm’, ‘engaging’, ‘personable’, ‘clubbable’, a ‘great mixer’ or similar labels.

Leaders with these characteristics make no distinction between the artificial notion of ‘inclusive leadership’ and just naturally being themselves – authentically and naturally good, inclusive leaders. Indeed, in our work with clients we have found that ‘inclusive leadership’ as a label can be confusing in the context of diversity dialogue, because they may think they have to do something different or artificial (experienced as inauthentic) outside their natural style, in order to tick the ‘inclusive leadership’ box.

So it makes absolute sense to these leaders, when we introduce a model approach to leading an inclusive culture where diversity can thrive and its value enhances business performance. We could say it ‘fits their style’ comfortably and so they embrace this additional knowledge positively and willingly add the extra characteristics to their leadership skills inventory because they strive for excellence and are open to continuous learning.

Understanding Relational Framing in Leadership
When we work with them on a more personal level, we tend to find that these leaders have a well-formed base or bank of lived social experience in their past or current repertoire, covering a wide range of different types of people. This bank of experience means that when they are faced with a ‘diverse encounter’, their ability to frame how they relate to that person is enhanced because they subconsciously have in their bank a balance of experience that helps them instinctively work out how to behave.

This ‘relational framing’ removes the difficult ‘managing difference’ paradigm in the established wisdom about inclusive leadership and replaces it with newer and more useful paradigm of relationships.  Relational framing is now core to any conversation about diversity, inclusion and leadership in Embankment’s work with clients. It takes the debate to the next level, building on earlier research in 2007 on Reframing Diversity.

According to Robin Ely's expert research, relational framing has important implications for diversity theory and measurement, and for understanding the conditions that influence whether diversity is valued as an organisational asset or liability.
"In our approach, while difference remains a defining feature of diversity, it is no longer the principal feature. Rather, our relational approach highlights the personal, interpersonal and intergroup dynamics that influence how people interpret and act on their differences. From this perspective, difference can also be a source of creativity and resilience."

So what about other leaders, for whom all of this comes less easily? If we think of other leaders whom we regard as not so great, we would perhaps tell stories about them appearing uncaring, self-centred, or competitively aggressive and we might use labels like ‘authoritarian’, ‘aloof’, a ‘command-and-control’ to describe their characteristics and leadership style. In parallel, they tend not to be regarded as good role models or exemplars for ‘inclusive leadership’ and the introduction of concepts relating to diversity and inclusion clearly makes them uncomfortable, both inwardly and outwardly.

Working on a 1:1 basis with these leaders, we find that inwardly they may be panicking or otherwise disrupted because they just don’t know what all of this means to them or how to handle the knowledge about a model leadership approach to inclusion – let alone how to apply it to their own situation. They feel far away from the concepts and behaviours generally cited as those that make good ‘inclusive leaders’ and can see this as a threat, leading them to shy away from the issues or just close down completely.

Relational Framing as a tool to inform leadership learning & development design 
Most leaders are not very used to not knowing what to do - it is often counter-intuitive in a culture where they must rule the roost and be seen to do so, to survive. So outwardly they may respond with a defensive or even aggressive posture, perhaps arguing with the principles or the inclusive leadership model, or closing their minds to the opportunity for continuous learning on this theme, because it forces them way out of their comfort zone. The message and model of inclusive leadership simply does not ‘fit their style’ and they can feel judged negatively, coerced and even victimised if they choose to remain what they see as ‘true to themselves’ (or authentic).

The conventional wisdom about working with leaders in this situation is often to attempt to ‘coach’ their apparent resistance to the notion of inclusive leadership out of them in some remedial way, and/or put them through fashionable ‘unconscious bias’ training in the hope they experience some kind of revelation that changes their personality. This can create far deeper problems, though.

Without understanding that their relational frame may be at the heart of their internal confusion (or cognitive dissonance) and outward resistance, trying to tackle the deep-seated cognitive dissonance that they are likely to experience through costly coaching and bias training may be neither helpful to their growth as individuals nor to their employer’s bottom line. Indeed, such an intervention may actually force them into deeper cognitive dissonance, simply aping or play-acting in the model behaviours in an inauthentic way in order to be seen to tick the inclusive leadership box. At least before such ‘treatment’ they were being authentic, therefore true to themselves…

Working on a 1:1 level conversationally with leaders in this situation, not in a ‘coaching’ mode, can be revelatory. We find that they cannot help but be open and receptive to the concepts of relational framing, because everybody has a bank of lived experience behind them and everyone relates to others in one way or another. And once this door is open, when they start to talk about their lived social experiences and how diversity has or has not featured there, we can start to uncover some of the reasons behind their apparent resistance and instead of making them feel isolated, seek to understand literally where they have come from and how their relational frame might be limited or otherwise affect their outlook for the future.

Towards sustainable leadership excellence
Within the more effective paradigm of relational framing, this conversation can take place without any reference to the terms of inclusive leadership or diversity. We are simply finding out about them as people, and how they see themselves relating to others, and how that has come about. At this point, we avoid difficulties and conflicts that can arise within the old 'diversity as difference' paradigm, and instead help our clients move beyond the narrow limitations of ‘inclusive leadership’ labels to a broader platform of sustainable leadership excellence based on rich and lasting relationships, where the relational frame collateral can expand and grow naturally, within a leader’s business consciousness, rather than artificially through training or coaching in some enforced remedial programme.

This is one good reason why, at the outset of all our client assignments, we generally conduct bespoke dispositional analysis individually with leaders, as part of our base-lining research, to help determine the levels of leadership predisposition from the outset. This in turn frames our own recommendations for designing strategic solutions. And we go on to score our findings numerically within the Leadership component of the ThinkDifference performance metrics system that helps organisations to evaluate how well they are leveraging diversity value for their business, and what further opportunities for improvement may lie ahead.

For a free consultation about how your organisation's leaders can leverage greater business results through relational framing, contact us.