Inclusive Leadership

There are a number of leadership styles, each uniquely emphasizing different points of focus, frameworks, or actions and behaviors. Transformational leadership, empowering leadership, servant leadership, authentic leadership, and leader-

member exchange are some of the most researched models. But when it comes to diversity, inclusive leadership as conceptualized by a team of business and management researchers stands apart as a means of enabling the most effective functioning of diverse work groups in ways the other models do not. 

In “Inclusive Leadership: Realizing Positive Outcomes Through Belongingness and Being Valued for Uniqueness,” the team led by Amy E. Randel of San Diego State University offers a theoretically-grounded view of  inclusive leadership that includes a framework for understanding factors that develop and then result from inclusive leadership within work groups. 

First and foremost, they see inclusive leadership as a “set of positive leader behaviors that facilitate group members perceiving belongingness in the work group while maintaining their uniqueness within the group as they fully contribute to group processes and outcomes.” Those positive leader behaviors are most likely to be manifested, they note, when a leader espouses pro-diversity beliefs, humility, and cognitive complexity. 

“As organizations become increasingly diverse, leaders need to understand how to perform their roles in ways that not only take advantage of this diversity and maximize the performance of their work groups, but that also realize these goals through behaviors that are inclusionary of all group members. Encouraging inclusive leadership behaviors holds promise for improving the work experience of all work group members and the effectiveness of their groups and organizations,” they wrote in the journal Human Resource Management Review

Goals like improved performance and retention can be accomplished if employees perceive they are esteemed members of a work group or organization as a result of treatment that satisfies belongingness and uniqueness needs. 

The framework noted that inclusive leadership occurs through specific behaviors that facilitate belongingness and indicate value for uniqueness. First, five categories of inclusive leadership behaviors are identified that facilitate group members’ perceptions of inclusion. This leads to member work group identification, psychological empowerment, and behavioral outcomes like creativity, job performance, and reduced turnover, in the pursuit of group goals. 

The five categories include three for belongingness and two for uniqueness. They are based upon reviewing and extending theory within the literature on inclusive leadership and on inclusion more generally. For each category, consideration was given to how inclusive leaders can influence members directly, as well as how they can create a context in which members experience a sense of inclusion. The five inclusive leadership behavior categories are: 

  • Supporting group members involves leaders making members feel comfortable and communicating that they have the members’
    best interests in mind 
  • Ensuring justice and equity allows inclusive
    leaders to demonstrate fair treatment of group members and thus to indicate to members that they are a respected part of the group
  • Shared decision-making with an emphasis on sharing power, broadening consultation on decisions, and helping decide how work
    is conducted is important to creating a sense
    of belongingness 
  • Encouraging diverse contributions is important
    to creating a sense that uniqueness is valued 
  • Helping group members fully contribute
    indicates value for uniqueness by encouraging
     individuals who otherwise might not feel that
    their contributions are welcome 

These behaviors are meant to point toward employee perceptions of inclusion in terms of belongingness and being valued for uniqueness. “In turn, inclusion perceptions lead to member work group identification and psychological empowerment and behavioral outcomes,” the researchers wrote. 

The research also offers a series of propositions that define how diverse work groups can be led effectively through leader individual difference factors specifically related to inclusive leadership. 

Proposition 1a: 

Leader pro-diversity beliefs will be positively related to inclusive leadership

Proposition 1b: 

Leader humility will be positively related to inclusive leadership 

Proposition 1c: 

Leader cognitive complexity will be positively related to inclusive leadership 

Proposition 2: 

Inclusive leadership (leadership that facilitates belongingness by supporting individuals as group members, ensuring justice and equity, and utilizing shared decision-making and that values uniqueness by encouraging diverse contributions and helping individuals fully contribute) will be positively related to member perceptions of inclusion

Proposition 3: 

Member perceptions of inclusion will be positively related to behavioral outcomes like creativity, job performance, and reduced turnover indirectly through work group identification 

Proposition 4: 

Member perceptions of inclusion will be positively related to behavioral outcomes like creativity, job performance, and reduced turnover indirectly through work psychological empowerment

The research also noted that inclusive leadership has little overlap with existing concepts of leadership and that the primary tenets of inclusive leadership are not fully realized by other leadership styles;: 

  • Transformational leadership focuses on motivating and developing members based on the organization’s needs, while inclusive leadership is focused on accepting members for who they are and allowing them to contribute their unique abilities and perspectives. 
  • Empowering leadership relies on the sharing of power, teaching, and coaching, whereas inclusive leadership fosters belongingness and a sense that the individual can contribute based on what
    makes them unique. 
  • Servant leadership focuses on developing and creating success for the members but not necessarily on tending to member needs
    for work group belonging or uniqueness. 
  • uthentic leadership relies on authentic leader actions and behaviors. In contrast inclusive leadership is focused on ensuring the members experience acceptance and are able to contribute their unique talents and perspectives. 
  • Leader-member exchange focuses on facilitating the positive exchange of resources
    and support between leaders and members. In contrast, inclusive leadership creates feelings of belongingness and a sense that the individual’s ability to contribute his or her uniqueness is valued and welcomed by the organization. 

Specific characteristics exist with the potential to increase an individual’s likelihood of engaging in inclusive leadership behaviors, like pro-diversity beliefs, humility, and cognitive complexity. “Although these three individual differences are distinct from one another, they share in common the tendency to perceive opportunities to increase a sense of belongingness among team members as well as to view uniqueness as having the potential for creating value even when the perspectives resulting from uniqueness may be counter to prevailing norms or the leader’s own opinions,” the researchers reported. 

Inclusive leaders can serve as role models who mentor others in ways that facilitate inclusion experiences among organizational members. By encouraging diverse contributions from group members, leaders ask for information and perspectives that make group members unique and thus create perceptions that group members are valued for what makes them different from other group members. By facilitating a discussion of divergent viewpoints, inclusive leaders are able to encourage members’ perception that unique perspectives and contributions  are welcome. 


Randel, A.E., Galvin, B.M., Shore, L.M., Ehrhart, K.H., Chung, B.G., Dean, M.A., Kedharnath, U. (2018). Inclusive Leadership: Realizing positive outcomes through belongingness and being valued for uniqueness. Human Resource Management Review, 28, 190-203.  


  • Steve Chaplin

    Steve Chaplin is managing editor of ACUI’s The Bulletin and manager of the ACUI College Union and Student Activities (CUSA) Evaluation Program. A former newspaper writer, editor, and manager, he has volunteered as a student mentor as a member of the National Association of Science Writers, and received awards for his writing and reporting from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, the Kentucky Education Association, and the Kentucky Press Association.

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