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  • Writer's pictureSertrice Shipley

Leading Inclusively: How Senior Leaders Foster Inclusion through Respect

Originally posted on the Mattingly Solutions Blog.


I had the honor of speaking with Dr. Gena Cox recently about her background and her book, Leading Inclusion, and how she uses research and data to help leaders lead more inclusively. As a fellow industrial-organizational psychologist, I was excited to geek out with her over the intersection of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and data.


Gena Cox has spent most of her 25+-year career helping individual leaders enhance their leadership impact and guiding executives as they build psychologically healthy workplaces.


She has decades of experience in executive coaching, measuring and improving employee experience, and diagnosing and enhancing organizational culture. Dr. Cox has worked with leaders in Fortune 500 and other global companies. Her work has been featured in Harvard Business Review, Fortune, Fast Company, and more.


During our conversation, we discussed how we define inclusion and what it means in practice, how to use research and data to help leaders build the necessary skills to be inclusive leaders, and the tools available for those who are looking to learn how to best focus on respect in their leadership role.


What does inclusion mean?

In her work, Dr. Cox prioritizes inclusion above both diversity and equity. Without inclusion as a foundation, even if you hire a diverse workforce, they are unlikely to stay at your organization.


Dr. Cox defines inclusion as the day-to-day experiences of individuals as they work together in an org to accomplish some business goal. A major driver of inclusion is the behavior of leaders and the environment where an individual operates, along with their colleagues. In other words, senior leaders either create or do not create organizations that allows individuals to have experience where they can thrive.


In recent years, especially following the murder of George Floyd, organizations have increasingly emphasized diversity, often without the same effort towards improving inclusion and equity. Dr. Cox points out that diversity is just a fact in that it either exists or it doesn’t. It is imperative to therefore have inclusion and equity in your organization to ensure it continues.


What is the role of respect in inclusion?

Often, leaders fall short on improving inclusion because they struggle to conceptualize what it means to be more inclusive. Dr. Cox recommends, for those that don’t understand DEI, to instead focus on respect. The concept of respect is easier for people to understand, can be measured, and can be built into organizational values that can be understood by anyone in the organization.


This focus on respect came from a survey of working adults assessing what employees would like their employers to know about having an inclusive experience at work. Themes emerged from the survey, across races and ethnicities, around improving respect at work. Black employees in particular had a particular focus on specific outcomes, including access to promotions, pay, and decision-making. When these outcomes were not available to them, they felt disrespected.


Dr. Cox emphasizes that respect is a driver of trust and connection. Respect is about acknowledging others’ humanity, making space for their ideas, giving them credit and allowing their ideas to have influence, all in order to make sure they feel a part of what is happening in your organization.



Every human being deserves respect and if you are not mindful about ensuring that you are putting respect first in every interaction, it is so easy to be careless, which leads to subtle acts of exclusion and harm to others.


What can organizations do to help create Better Humans @ Work?

If you are on the journey to improving inclusion, it is critical to focus on the outcome of respect. As an inclusive leader, you should require it in everything you do in the organization and as a core value. It should be required of leaders and managers with both their internal teams and their external clients and customers. It should be required of employees when they work with each other.


All people at work deserve to be seen, heard, and valued. We are all humans first and there is nothing more to improving inclusion than treating each other as such with respect.


For more information about Dr. Cox and her work, connect with her on LinkedIn.


Looking to advance DEI through data-driven insights in your organization? Contact us at Plan to Action today to drive meaningful change, together.

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