Close Your Perception Gap

by Frank Starling, CEO, Variety Pack

In 2015, the consulting company McKinsey published data demonstrating clear links between greater profitability and racial/ethnic and gender diversity within organisations. However they have also demonstrated in their research over the last 6 years that diversity on its own is not the differentiator. Diverse organisations which are also inclusive are the most successful, both financially and in creativity and innovation. Inclusive leadership and allyship is essential to drive this.

Employees thrive in organisations where they feel psychologically safe and valued for their diverse experiences and ideas, which benefits them and their employer. Critically for our current times, Diverse, Inclusive organisations are more likely to adapt and survive during upheaval, volatility and change. Leaders at all levels determine the culture of an organisation, whether they are senior leaders and board members determining strategy or first line managers leading a team. Everything you say and do in a leadership position influences how employees behave in the workplace and therefore your role is critical.

Organisations are still trying to adjust to the demands of 5 generations in the workforce which can sometimes present a clash in both values and working preferences. If you incorporate D&I into the business strategy; report D&I metrics in the same way as you report other business metrics; talk about inclusion at every opportunity; and then follow up with practical actions such as sponsorship of an employee resource group; allocation of budget to Inclusion projects; and Inclusion objectives for all leaders it can create more successful outcomes where your people become the centre of your future.

Encouraging ‘the ally mindset’ helps to foster confidence and trust. Whether you’re a team of 3 people or 300, becoming a visible ally is a must, it inspires others to become changemakers. According to research from the Accenture Getting to Equal Research report, 68% of leaders believe they are creating an inclusive and empowering work environment where only 36% of employees agree, this creates a perception gap. Leaders who demonstrate allyship are more likely to close that gap by centering culture as a key pillar to the future of business growth.


In the context of Inclusion an Ally is someone who “is aware of and uses their advantaged position to actively support people in less advantaged positions.” Payal Sahni (Chief Human Resources Officer, Pfizer).

It can sometimes be difficult to recognise you are in advantaged position. You might not feel as if you are advantaged. It is a fact however, that there are certain biases held at a societal level, meaning some people are treated less favourably than others because of their gender, ethnicity, physical or neurological disabilities, religion, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status.

So there will be situations where you have an unearned advantage and can act as an Ally to someone else. Ally is not an identity, or how you describe yourself, it is what you do. It takes sustained effort to practice Allyship and avoid Performative Allyship, which is when someone talks about being an Ally in a way that is unhelpful or even harmful, with the expectation of recognition or reward for being a ‘good person’. Being an Ally is not about ‘me’.

In the workplace, allies assist in creating a stronger more positive environment by being advocates for others, sharing their platform and supporting individuals who are underrepresented by sharing their privilege and challenging their own prejudice. The by-product is a culture of trust and confidence. Knowing that you have allies and are accepted regardless of your race, gender, beliefs or sexuality reduces worry and anxiety and allows individuals to be fully engaged in their work.

In order to be an ally you will need to take action. This can feel difficult and uncomfortable but remember some of your colleagues face discrimination every day and they don’t have a choice, you do. You can choose to speak up and make the workplace better for everyone.

Take action

Create an inclusive environment

An inclusive environment is one in which team members feel it is safe to speak up (their ideas won’t be ridiculed); they have value to add (they are entitled to contribute); and members of the team are working on behalf of each other (rather than just for themselves or the leader). Establish a baseline of where your organisation is now through independent surveys or focus groups and find ways you can evolve your culture over time by amplifying the voice of your employees and providing a space for them to be part of the process.

Psychological Safety

As a leader you can encourage a feeling of psychological safety by routinely asking for contributions and reacting positively; by encouraging others to challenge your own ideas and point out potential pitfalls and errors (and then reacting positively to the challenges); and by addressing interpersonal conflict quickly. Diverse teams are going to be more challenging (and more rewarding) to manage than a monoculture. If you have been using a command-and-control style of leadership ask for help in developing a more facilitative style. According to research by Amy Edmondson, organisations that are psychologically safe, outperform organisations that aren’t across every KPI. I’d recommend reading her book, The Fearless Organisation.


To encourage team members to work for each other, create a shared sense of team identity (purpose); ensure no-one is perceived to be a ‘favourite’; build trust that each team member is capable of achieving the job; and trust that they care about and have concern for each other. Create an environment of mutual support in the way the work is set up and reward this behaviour. If the team contains people of different nationalities pay particular attention to helping the team to understand cultural differences in communication styles.

Role model inclusive behaviour

Employees will pay more attention to what you do than what you say. Ensure you attend the same training as other employees and demonstrate Allyship. Learn appropriate language, practice humility and be open and apologetic when you make mistakes.


In order to be an Inclusive Leader you will need to make time and put effort in. This might feel like a lot to do on top of your role, however developing your people and creating a successful and high-performing team are both part of your job as a leader. The effort you put in will pay dividends in the long term, helping you and the organisation.

To help you become more inclusive think about the following questions:

How can I use my influence to make my workplace more inclusive?

How can I model allyship and inclusive behaviours?

How can I become more facilitative?

When is unconscious bias most likely to happen in my role and how can I overcome it?

How can I hear when my team members are telling me about discrimination and exclusion, without becoming defensive or judgemental?