You have probably heard about thirsty travelers wandering in the desert who see something that looks like water only to find out that what they so desperately wanted, and thought they had, never was. It was all just an illusion. The concept of the mirage is applicable to leadership.

One of the easiest yet dishonest things for leadership to do is pretend to give those under their authority a say in some important decision without really caring what feedback they get. This is what I call the mirage of inclusion – an illusion put forth by leadership to pacify their subordinates and maintain conformity to the hierarchical structure by pretending to give the majority group something when really they are giving them nothing. As leaders we need to be honest with the employees, volunteers or anyone else under our authority by giving them real tangible opportunities to shape the policies and plans that will be put forth.

There is the temptation within organizations to make executive decisions that specifically affect employees before asking them for their feedback, but only speaking to them about the situation after decisions have been made. When employees are told about the situation and decisions that were made without their input, they are allowed to give feedback; however their feedback is not constructively used to alter the decisions but simply disregarded. It turns out that meeting with all the suggestions was just an opportunity for employees to vent, not for leadership to learn from their staff members. Though unspoken, the message is loud and echoes throughout the organization – “We make all of the decisions and whatever you have to say even if it affects you professionally or personally doesn’t matter.” This is not inclusive leadership but an authoritarian approach masquerading as being inclusive.

I remember a situation I was in where the seating plan for the office was being changed. We were told about it in advance and had the freedom to give feedback, but in my opinion, we didn’t have the freedom to make an impact. Although this would affect our very quality of professional life for the many hours each week.

Wouldn’t it have been better to have had a general meeting before making final arrangements so staff would have an opportunity to give constructive feedback? Wouldn’t an even better approach have been meeting with individual departments and discussing the pros and cons of the planned changes? Of course, there may have been real, legitimate reasons for this lack of inclusion by management, but from my perspective, it seemed like a lack of consideration by those with formal authority.

When we are in the position of leadership, let us make a commitment to understanding the difference between decisions that need to be made unilaterally and those decisions that could benefit from the feedback of the group we’re leading. It may take more time and effort, but a good leader encourages consensus as much as possible without sacrificing the overall good of the organization or group. The successful leader fosters a spirit of willingness, not a feeling of compulsion among those being led. Real leaders get others to believe in the action or the cause and don’t just expect that they will follow because they have less authority or are dependent upon something like a paycheque.

True leadership is being able to lead those under your formal authority in such a way that they are mentally and emotionally invested in what is being done. Unilateral decision-making – while at times necessary – often does not foster such a commitment among those in the group.

For those of you who are leaders, I hope this straight-forward, common-sense blog post inspires you to practice building real bridges with those under your leadership. Let us no longer create mirages of inclusion but give those we lead real opportunities to help shape the organization’s or group’s plans and policies.

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