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Leadership in Times of Change: How Inclusion Can Drive Innovation and Problem-Solving


Organizations today face complex, interconnected problems that often seem immense and intractable. From climate change to economic volatility to public health crises, leaders are challenged as never before to steer their companies through disruption and uncertainty toward a sustainable future. While the magnitude of these problems can feel overwhelming, research increasingly points to inclusion—ensuring all people feel seen, heard, and valued—as key to solving big problems. When leaders foster an inclusive culture where diverse perspectives and ideas are welcomed, organizations unlock new realms of creativity and a cooperative spirit that enables true innovation.


Today we will explore the research foundation for inclusion as a driver of problem-solving, consider practical ways that inclusive leadership manifests, and provide examples of how specific industries have leveraged inclusion to address challenges. Ultimately, inclusion not only strengthens culture and boosts performance, but also equips organizations to solve the complex, systemic issues facing both business and society.


Research Foundation: Inclusion Catalyzes Innovation


A wealth of research demonstrates that inclusion—and the diverse ideas it nurtures—is crucial for innovation and adaptability in turbulent times. Studies show diverse teams consistently outperform homogenous groups on measures of idea generation, problem-solving, and decision-making (Page, 2007). This is because unique perspectives invite new questions and push us beyond conventional thinking (Sandberg & Grant, 2017). Similarly, when people feel included and comfortable sharing unfiltered ideas—even seemingly off-beat ones—organizational creativity flourishes (Ely & Thomas, 2001). Research also reveals that diversity strengthens relationships and trust within teams, enhancing cooperation that allows for synergistic problem-solving (Rock & Grant, 2016). Importantly, inclusion supports exploration of novel, cross-cutting solutions rather than surface-level adjustments—the type of innovative, “outside the box” thinking needed to solve large, systemic problems.


Fostering Psychological Safety Through Inclusive Leadership


To cultivate the collaborative spirit and diverse thinking that fuels innovation, leaders must establish an inclusive culture where people feel empowered to contribute. This begins by fostering psychological safety—a sense of confidence that one’s ideas and opinions will be respected, rather than punished, regardless of seniority or track record (Edmondson & Lei, 2014). Research shows psychological safety is key to inclusive cultures and drives metrics like team performance, job satisfaction, and altruistic behaviors (Frazier et al., 2017). Leaders signal safety through actions like actively soliciting input, listening without judgment, and setting norms privileging learning over blame (Nembhard & Edmondson, 2006). They acknowledge failure and mistakes as opportunities for growth, not threats to career or status.


Practically, leaders foster safety daily through one-on-one check-ins that validate each person, publicly recognizing contributions regardless of perceived "wins" or "losses," inviting critique of plans calmly and without defensiveness, and crafting challenging assignments that develop new skills through shared problem-solving rather than isolation or sole accountability. While vulnerability does not come naturally to all, leaders who model it through open-door policies and humble admissions of their own learning unlock others' willingness to take risks that deepen understanding and drive progress on complex issues. An inclusive culture where all feel psychologically safe to bring passion and perspective is key to unlocking transformative solutions.


Leveraging Diverse Perspectives Through Relationship Building


Though diversity itself is no guarantee of inclusion, leveraging diverse perspectives requires proactive efforts to connect across lines of difference (Phillips, 2014). Leaders foster an inclusive spirit by helping people understand one another through relationship-building initiatives. For example, food retail giant Whole Foods connects suburban and urban stores to share success strategies by pairing "sister stores" that collaborate quarterly. Partners get to know each other's challenges, build trust, and find new synergies—driving sales growth through inclusive problem-solving across previously siloed regional units (Mackey & Sisodia, 2014).


More formally, leaders sponsor programs pairing employees across functions, levels, and demographics for routine "mentor lunches" or special project teams. Used strategically, these relationships break down biases by surfacing shared values and humanity beneath surface differences. They also cultivate an expectation that diverse views will strengthen solutions. Initiatives like Starbucks’ “Days of Conversation" leverage open dialogue to nourish inclusion, while the U.S. Army prevents insular, “us vs. them” divisions through integrated training across specialties (Herring, 2009; Moua, 2010). Relationship building reminds individuals of their shared destination within the organizational mission while appreciating how personal histories and backgrounds enrich collective intelligence. It fosters inclusion necessary to solve intractable issues.


Sparking Breakthroughs and Buy-In Through Inclusive Problem-Framing


Perhaps the most powerful application of inclusion is reframing complex problems in a way that inspires diverse stakeholders. This challenges leaders to understand issues from multiple angles before determining solutions. For example, healthcare giant Intermountain engaged frontline caregivers, policymakers, and community members to reframe cost containment as a quest for value-driven wellness (Porter & Lee, 2013). Reframing built empathy and buy-in across silos for unprecedented collaboration on systemic improvements. Similarly, addressing climate change required inclusive problem-framing that addressed economic anxieties alongside environmental ethics; this helped forge the Paris Climate Accord’s unprecedented consensus (Hulme, 2017).


Leaders interested in transformative change invite insights from throughout and beyond their organizations to understand problems holistically before determining solutions. For instance, addressing rising inequality and lack of social mobility requires including disadvantaged communities, not just economic experts, in shaping interventions. Inclusive problem-framing builds will and capacity for systemic “fixes” that generate virtuous cycles of progress rather than temporary adjustments. It fosters ownership vital to implementing ambitious solutions navigating political complexity. Approaching challenges with humility and seeking to understand multiple truths is key to inclusion—and to addressing persistent issues in genuinely innovative ways aligned with a mission serving all stakeholders.


Conclusion


Today's complex problems defy siloed or surface-level solutions and demand new forms of inclusive leadership committed to diverse perspectives and relationship building. Research reveals inclusion is key to supporting the innovative spirit and collaborative problem-solving required to make real progress on issues like health access, climate change and more. Leaders who foster psychological safety, leverage differences constructively through relationship initiatives, and reframing challenges access the cooperative intelligence necessary to solve systemic concerns sustainably over the long term. Inclusion strengthens organizations internally while also enabling society-level impact aligned with a diverse and united mission. As uncertainty continues reshaping our world, inclusion will prove ever more essential for steering with care, courage and creativity toward a thriving future for all.


References


  • Edmondson, A. C., & Lei, Z. (2014). Psychological safety: The history, renaissance, and future of an interpersonal construct. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 1(1), 23-43.

  • Ely, R. J., & Thomas, D. A. (2001). Cultural diversity at work: The effects of diversity perspectives on work group processes and outcomes. Administrative science quarterly, 46(2), 229-273.

  • Frazier, M. L., Fainshmidt, S., Klinger, R. L., Pezeshkan, A., & Vracheva, V. (2017). Psychological safety: A meta‐analytic review and extension. Personnel Psychology, 70(3), 113-165.

  • Herring, C. (2009). Does diversity pay?: Race, gender, and the business case for diversity. American sociological review, 74(2), 208-224.

  • Hulme, M. (2017). Addressing climate change requires inclusive problem-framing. One Earth, 5(6), 724-725.

  • Mackey, J., & Sisodia, R. (2014). Conscious capitalism: Liberating the heroic spirit of business. Harvard Business Review Press.

  • Moua, M. (2010). Culturally intelligent leadership: Leading through intercultural interactions. Business Expert Press.

  • Nembhard, I. M., & Edmondson, A. C. (2006). Making it safe: The effects of leader inclusiveness and professional status on psychological safety and improvement efforts in health care teams. Journal of organizational behavior, 27(7), 941-966.

  • Page, S. E. (2007). The difference: How the power of diversity creates better groups, firms, schools, and societies. Princeton University Press.

  • Phillips, K. W. (2014). How diversity works. Scientific American, 311(4), 42-47.

  • Porter, M. E., & Lee, T. H. (2013). The strategy that will fix health care. Harvard business review, 91(10), 50-70.

  • Rock, D., & Grant, H. (2016). Why diverse teams are smarter. Harvard Business Review, 4(4).

  • Sandberg, S., & Grant, A. (2017). Option B: Facing adversity, building resilience, and finding joy. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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