The missing link? Why diverse and inclusive leadership is key for innovation

Humanitarian Advisory Group (HAG) recently published Leading for Impact, a report which examines whether diverse and inclusive humanitarian leadership makes a measurable difference  to humanitarian practice. They have also released related guidance on this front. In this blog for ALNAP, research team members Pamela Combinido and Pip Henty share the study’s findings and explore some of its implications.

A lack of diversity within the humanitarian sector at leadership level has been identified as a major ethical and existential problem. Despite the growing evidence base around effective humanitarian leadership, the connection between this and diversity and inclusion at the leadership level had not yet been fully tested, until now.

Over the past 12 months, Humanitarian Advisory Group (HAG) has set out to address that gap. Building on research in the private sector, our team undertook a study to examine whether diverse and inclusive humanitarian leadership does indeed make a measurable difference to practice. We looked at the team profiles and organisational practices of 13 humanitarian organisations across the Philippines, Indonesia and Bangladesh, to identify whether organisations with more diverse and inclusive leadership teams performed more strongly against key performance indicators, specifically:

  1. innovation promotion; and
  2. risk management in relation to prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse (PSEAH)

What we found

When looking at innovation culture, we found a strong correlation between more inclusive leadership teams and more innovative thinking and approaches. For example, inclusive leadership teams were better able to foster new solutions to navigating innovation barriers such as bureaucracy, limited funding or buy-in from the headquarters. Innovative thinking and approaches were applied, for example, in pivoting to new ways of implementing programs to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic or developing new strategies in getting the support and trust of stakeholders in conflict-affected areas.

The chart below shows that as scores in inclusive leadership increase, so too do the scores in innovation.

In fact, we found that humanitarian organisations with inclusive leadership scored 25% higher on innovation promotion than organisations with less inclusive leadership.

Chart from the HAG report showing a correlation between scores in inclusive leadership and innovation.

Why is this so? One key factor that could explain this is the vital role of leadership in boosting staff confidence to take risks. Where innovation requires a high degree of uncertainty and vulnerability, we found that, for example, leaders who intentionally promote platforms for dialogue or create mechanisms that challenge internal silos and hierarchies, enable staff to feel comfortable embracing new ideas. For example, some leadership teams restructure both their team, as well as their approach to staff engagement, creating safer spaces to explore ideas and engage in robust discussions.

Another factor is that inclusive practices by leadership create spaces for staff to influence key decisions. This was particularly obvious in operational decision-making. In some interviews, field staff described their leaders making time – despite strict deadlines – to seek their ideas before project proposals were submitted. In others, we heard that decisions mostly came ready-made from technical advisors and management teams. In one organisation, a hard lesson was reinforced:

top-down decisions resulted in projects less likely to meet the needs of affected communities, such as the provision of culturally sensitive infrastructures that support water, sanitation, and hygiene. 

Community members ended up not using the WASH infrastructure according to staff.

However, the results related to the prevention of sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment (PSEAH) were far less conclusive. Our test could neither confirm nor reject whether organisations with more diverse and inclusive leadership have stronger risk management regarding sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment. This was a surprise, especially as recent analysis and commentary in the humanitarian sector has tied lack of leadership diversity to shortcomings in PSEAH, and private sector research has linked diversity and inclusion to responsive risk management.

In the report, we discuss the factors that may have interplayed here and hope that by doing so, we can problematise existing approaches to PSEAH. Could it be that PSEAH has become one of the boxes to tick, reducing the extent to which diverse perspectives can inform (and even challenge) organisational practice? Over time, investment in PSEAH has led to the production of definitions, standards, guidelines, and so on. Donors and some other organisations have strict expectations of policies, training, monitoring and reporting on PSEAH, compliance with which may have implications for contracts.

What we learned

As the first study of its kind, we are mindful that our approach may have influenced the results. There is scope for more research to challenge, extend and enrich our findings, but that is also what makes the work so exciting. We hope the study will help to shift the sector’s knowledge base on the importance of diverse and inclusive leadership in supporting staff confidence, creativity and decision-making.

The comparison between PSEAH and innovation was also illuminating. While innovation is always ‘more than just luck,’ PSEAH is undeniably more institutionalised, with rigorous (if not always fully socialised) standards and guidelines. This raises questions that may help the sector improve both leadership and performance, such as the relationship between institutionalisation and good practice, the role of different levels of leadership, and the potential benefits of improved diversity and inclusion throughout different parts of an organisation.

Now more than ever, the humanitarian sector needs leadership teams that can respond ethically and effectively amidst increasingly complex crises and overstretched response systems. We hope that the evidence provided in the report will help move the conversation on inclusion and diversity in leadership from “whether” to “what if” - giving us a glimpse of what those possibilities can look like. As a sector, we are steps further along in understanding how diverse and inclusive leadership can bring about change. The question then remains, what limits us from reshaping this benefit?