I’ve noticed that when things in the world feel particularly fragile, we tend to look for ways of avoiding conflict. There are so many painful and complicated issues that seem to be demanding we take a stance or form an opinion. Yet, there is more evidence that the risk of getting it wrong far outweighs any benefits of engaging at all.  

One thing that feels clear, however, is that the pressure on leaders across sectors to respond to these societal tensions and geo-political conflicts is only going to grow. So, as I’ve learned over my years facilitating across contested spaces, conflict is unavoidable.

I’ve been working with companies following the Hamas terrorist attacks of October 7 and subsequent War in Gaza to help leaders navigate the intense emotions and deep challenges showing up across the workplace.

More often than that, I’m partnering with DEI teams to deliver this delicate, nuanced work. But leading through conflicts and crises is the responsibility of all leaders. Not because of any moral imperative – that’s not what this article is about. Rather, the quality of inclusion and generative conflict across organizations ties directly to the health and resilience of your business.

Conflict avoidance vs generative discomfort 

My biggest takeaway in doing this work is that the default corporate culture of niceness and acting like a ‘workplace family,’ where conflict avoidance is a stronger skill than working through generative discomfort, is inhibiting the true power of inclusion and is one of the biggest risks to business success. 

Of course being nice is a prerequisite for inclusion, but true inclusion requires much more from us. It requires us to go through difficult things together. Instead of looking for safe spaces as the hallmark of inclusion, we should be creating challenging spaces, where there is psychological safety for real conversations about the things that matter in the world and in business.   

I’d like to share some learnings from our work at Leaders’ Quest, and some of the ways we help people acquire the tools and language to better foster inclusion.

Why now?

The intensity of the current geo-political situation has brought our attention to which voices get heard when there are multiple powerful, and seemingly conflicting, perspectives. The same principles apply within businesses, and skills which used to be considered ‘soft’ such as deep listening, empathy, and seeking out different perspectives, are now top leadership competencies.

Inclusion is about making sure people feel like they belong in a system; providing access to the tools and information they need to act from a place of belonging and shared value. I think of it as a design principle for resilient systems. When the force of inclusion is released, it’s powerful: catalyzing radical collaboration, and transformative innovation.  

Meaningful inclusion (as opposed to performative inclusion) enables organizations to be more efficient, decisive, courageous and healthy. Organizations are more connected and in flow – and inclusion becomes a renewable resource inside the organization, rather than something that takes energy from it. 

But while inclusion is a non-negotiable in terms of future-fitting culture and weathering disruption, there is sometimes an aversion to conflict within organizations that erodes the potency of what it could really foster. 

To move beyond this, we need to build our collective capacity and courage. Our work is focused on equipping people with the language and tools to engage and the space to build a deliberate leadership practice fit for the future.

Releasing the power of inclusion

I’d like to share my three takeaways from this work:

  • Engagement is crucial and shouldn’t be taken for granted. Even if you don’t get it right, have the difficult conversations. There is a transformative power in listening to someone without judgment and there are simple, effective tools like Marshall Rosenberg’s structure for nonviolent communication that help people to create these important spaces. We’ve been working with teams and companies to facilitate sessions that allow people to connect, question and engage with deeply challenging issues ranging from Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia to the future of Democracy.
  • We need to go to the edges of our comfort zone and create generative conflict to move towards inclusion. This is an individual and organizational muscle that must be exercised consistently. We’ve partnered with incredible leaders from across our global community whose lived experiences grant them wisdom about how we go through contested space. They include CORO based in India and Chance for Life based in Detroit (at the end of the article I’ve included a link to learn more about their work). 
  • Ownership across teams and leaders is fueled by inclusive cultures, where people have permission to lead and where empowerment is woven into the incentives and processes, not just the lexicon. Organizations have an opportunity to accelerate inclusion by looking at where there are structural and procedural barriers. It shifts the ‘burden’ of inclusion away from the individual and signals to your workforce that an inclusive culture, where people have access to what they need, is a business priority.  

The head, heart and hands of inclusive leadership

Inclusive leadership requires a mix of awareness, skill and courage. Sometimes I describe the capacity building work we do as falling across head, heart, and hands. We give people access to information so that they can build their knowledge in spaces that are non-judgmental and allow for curiosity to match convictions. We connect people to their shared humanity and activate their compassion, even when facing issues or perspectives that they deeply disagree with. And we have a duty of care to provide leaders with the tools to show up skilfully in situations of heightened tension and conflict. 

At Leaders’ Quest, the experiences and wisdom of our community play a huge role in the journey towards inclusion. If you’re interested in hearing from some of them, visit Celebrating Female Leadership on International Women’s Day.

It can sometimes be hard to describe what we do at Leaders’ Quest. One of the things that we do with deep skill and care is help leaders have better conflicts about the things that deeply matter – as individuals who want to be good ancestors for our children to business leaders looking to do good and do well. The skill of inclusive leadership and value of generative conflict will only appreciate in our challenging, yet beautiful world. 

More about what we do

At Leaders’ Quest, our community plays a huge role in the journey towards inclusion. If you’re interested in hearing from some of the incredible people in our global network, and how their work fosters inclusion…