Inclusion Is the Key Ingredient to Innovative Leadership
What does it take to be an innovative leader? In this interview series, I’ve talked to leaders from a range of companies who inspire and catalyze innovation on their teams every day. For Ruchika Tulshyan — author, speaker, and founder and CEO of Candour, a diversity and inclusion strategy firm — the No. 1 trait among innovative leaders is simple: inclusion.
Tulshyan has dedicated her career to teaching leaders how to implement diversity and inclusion practices that actually have an impact. As a Singaporean woman who has lived in five different countries and worked on four continents, Tulshyan brings a valuable perspective to the equity and inclusion conversation — a perspective she shares in her new book, Inclusion on Purpose (MIT Press, 2022).
I spoke recently with Tulshyan about how in her writing and consulting work she hopes to open the lens of inclusion for leaders.
MIT Sloan Management Review: You’ve shared the observation that women, particularly women of color, often experience a sort of paradox: They’re told to negotiate harder but also told not to be aggressive. You’ve also talked about how imposter syndrome blames the individual woman for not feeling like she’s showing up in the way that she “should” — even as it ignores the system dynamics. How do you help people recognize and address these contradictions?
Ruchika Tulshyan: The imposter syndrome narrative hasn’t been challenged in 50 years. Even when research showed that men experience it just as often as women, and when there was research to show that people of color actually experienced it more often than White people, that never really took off.
A woman — or a woman of color — might show up in the workplace and she might feel like she doesn’t belong. I think to immediately blame her for those feelings without accounting for the cultural, social, and environmental contexts — the conversation lacks nuance.
I, too, have been conditioned with the gender schema. Sometimes when women show up in the workplace or show up in my interactions with them in a way that runs counter to the gender schema, even now, I have to catch myself doing it and ask myself, “Why did I immediately think, ‘She’s aggressive,’ or, ‘She’s unlikable’?”
I do think that this work begins with us, in many ways, decolonizing ourselves from oppressive systems.
It all starts with awareness, no matter what level you’re operating at. When it comes to pushing the dialogue ahead, there’s often a lot of fear involved. How do people advance the conversation without alienating or vilifying people in positions of privilege?
Tulshyan: That’s another part of this issue that’s really hard to capture. People are afraid. They’re worried not just about “What if I get something wrong?” but also “There have been so many times where I had good intentions, and I got called out, so I don’t want to engage.” What’s missing is self-awareness.
Two people can have good intentions, but only one might demonstrate awareness. I have so much compassion in that situation, and largely, the women of color I interviewed also have compassion in those situations. My hope is, with this book, that more of us can develop that awareness. So even when we make mistakes — because we’re going to — we have the wherewithal to recognize it and improve.
How do we think about making space for people to learn from those mistakes? How do we properly hold the line of accountability for behavior?
Tulshyan: This is why I talk about my own privilege. I talk about what it means to graduate from two top universities without ever incurring student debt and being able to walk away from a workplace that wasn’t supportive to me as a woman of color.
I’ve had to think about my role as a non-Black, non-Indigenous, non-Latinx woman of color who has privilege. What is my role? Where do I fit into this discussion? And honestly, if I think about how, if I were having this conversation in Singapore, for example, just based on my identities, I’d have a lot more leg to stand on, because Singapore is a place where Indians experience various forms of marginalization.
Here, I’ve really had to stop and think to understand where my voice is important, where it carries impact and needs to be heard, and where I need to step away and make room for others. I think about it all the time, knowing that, while I engage in this work — because I see the urgency of it, I feel the urgency of it — there’s a lot of room for error and mistakes. And indeed, I have been in situations where I have made mistakes, where I have been called out, where I have been told that perhaps I shouldn’t engage or this isn’t really my place. And I’ve had to sit with that.
Part of what I think gets me engaging again and again is the recognition that we’re all learning. We can make meaningful progress by being OK with making mistakes, learning in public, and demonstrating humility.
Failure is a big part of psychological safety — failing but still being respected and valued.
I have developed a deep belief that so much of what’s happening in the world right now is the result of unexamined, unhealed trauma. The world is safer than ever, the standard of living has risen — and yet, we still feel this separateness, and I think it’s because, even if violence is down, our ability to process trauma is locked up.
Tulshyan: Right, and we’re lonely. We’re overwhelmed.
We are on this earth so briefly; why spend it separating each other?
I think about psychological safety as incumbent on leaders to listen up rather than incumbent on people to speak up. You need people with power to start to say, “Hey, we’re not getting this right. And we need to broaden this conversation.”
Tulshyan: Exactly. For me, it goes back to dismantling these issues from a systems approach. It’s about getting intentional as leaders and thinking about, how do these systems that we operate within reward us for being racist, for being biased, for being exclusionary, and for being discriminatory?
When we started this conversation, I was having this very human moment that I shared with you: My kids were home sick, and I needed to finish making their mac and cheese. And in this moment, I’m aware of the privilege I bring to this conversation. As a man who cares for my kids, I’m given credit for that. But a woman who does the same thing will often be met with the critique that she’s not serious about her work.
Tulshyan: First, thank you for modeling that it’s safe to talk about one’s children at work and being open to that vulnerability. Having a child has been a big part of why I’ve made it my life’s mission to focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion work. I want to create a better world for future generations; we are dealing with so many challenges that have carried over from previous generations, and the urgency is clear. But I will admit that when I was working in an organization, I was very careful about mentioning that I had a child. There was a calculation I had to keep making. I’ve been asked by women, “If I’m pregnant and I’m going through a job interview, should I say something?” Very sadly, very painfully, most of the time, my advice is, “No, don’t say anything.” A lot of people advise women to just do it, and if the employer doesn’t like it, if you’re not getting the reception that you need, then it’s time to walk away. And of course, that statement is loaded with privilege — the assumption of being able to make that choice.
Systems of professionalism are essentially coated in Whiteness. The proximity to Whiteness, the proximity to what we’ve been shown is the global standard of professionalism, has been created around Eurocentric heteronormative culture. If you grew up and identify differently, you have to switch. Often that helps you amass wealth, privilege, and power, but it’s really exhausting.
When leaders — male leaders, White leaders — model what it’s like to be open and vulnerable, my hope is more of us can feel safe to speak up. I envision a world where we can be very open about these things and be met with support, empathy, and connection.
I have been lucky to consult with leaders who really get this, who have a lot of privilege, and it is clear that there’s no one waiting with a cookie or an award. Unfortunately, in fact, the more you do this work, the more you start to recognize your own mistakes. My hope in my writing and work with leaders is that when they get to the end, a part of them clicks so they can’t unsee it either. That’s the lens that I want folks to develop.