A coaching style shifts DEI

14th March by Mark Powell

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Tackling diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) head on has some merits and also has drawbacks as it can generate unintended systemic reactions. A jolt to any system will generate a reaction, and we can’t always be sure if it will be aligned with the intentions.

We do believe that raising the bar on education and dialogues around DEI is critically important, However, so is the change in leadership style that will nurture and support a new inclusive organisation.

There is a way of tackling DEI that works through a focus on shifting the style and sensemaking of leadership to tackle a whole range of new complexities, including but not limited to DEI.

It is both less challenging and with a much larger potential payoff for all concerned. The current challenge of leadership is highlighted by complex issues such as DEI and so we suggest that the focus should be on a developing new approaches to leadership that will better align with this complexity. This indirect approach to DEI may just be what is required.

Many organisations are now waking up to the power of coaching as a leadership style, not just as a development tool. Inherent in the coaching style of leadership is connection, adaptiveness, resilience, flexibility, innovation, wellbeing and an ability to embrace broader systemic perspectives. And some of the core skills of leaders who coach, are ideally suited to embracing DEI without even needing to make it a headline.

And the good news is that these core skills, as the foundation to a coaching style of leadership, are trainable. And they will enable leaders to tackle complexity and change including, but beyond the DEI challenges.

However before we discuss these, let’s look at what we know from 20 years of neuroscience, as this forms the science behind the case for change.

We are unconscious and emotive decision makers

Our fast brain is our middle brain including the Limbic system which connects emotionality to our experiences. We are constantly experiencing and feeling without conscious awareness. We are at forming an impression of the world that is unconscious and emotive.

Then our slow brain, or the cognitive executive functions of our brain, makes stories out of our unconscious processing. We develop “the story” that we tell ourselves and we use this story and others like it, to make sense of the world both in reflection and in prediction.

This helps explain the idea of unconscious bias. We can’t help but be unconsciously biased as our brains are wired for it.

The struggle for DEI practitioners has been how to tackle these neuroscience discoveries.

Tackling unconscious bias “head on” has largely been ineffective. Partially because it is asking us to do the opposite to what comes naturally, and partially because it has little perceived benefit or relevance to the rest of our work.

Making sense vs connecting

It is probably not a surprise to know that the part of the brain that makes sense of things, and the part that is heightened when we mirror accurately another, are different regions and are not in sync. When we “park” our judgements and listen with a genuine intention to mirror and experience another, our brain will be consumed with the other’s story. Brain scans tell us that if we really listen in to someone, to their story, then the parts of our brain that fire up, are mirrors of what is going on in the other person’s brain. The mirror neurons are a remarkable human phenomenon.

Sensemaking however, is often so tightly tied up with our identity, that we block or judge or interpret another through our identity attachments. We are judging before we are mirroring, and this creates the illusions of either sameness or otherness. It is this tension that can be felt by an “other” when they are concerned about their place in the team or group. Then there is also the tension that is felt by members of the team to keep conforming to sameness, and hence group think. As the leader we could imagine this is “cohesion” when in reality it may be apprehension and in trepidation.

So what are our pathways forward?

Listen first

If we are too tied up with our own identities, before we listen, then we are at risk of stepping straight into unconscious bias and judgment. So one of the core ingredients of building inclusivity is retraining ourselves to listen and mirror first. As we learn to listen and mirror we will find our own sensemaking frameworks shift. We build skills of connection that are critical for leading a business of any scale.

Now this doesn't mean that we are “giving up” our identities or our values. It means that we are just opening up to another’s.

In some psychological approaches to relationship counselling the first step is to ask one partner to actively listen and withhold judgment whilst the other talks. The “test” of active listening is the playing back to the talker both words and meaning. The second step is embracing how it must feel to be in your partner’s shoes. Again without judgement. A real test of empathy.

Mirror and witness to connect

One relatively simple but highly effective skill for inclusive leadership is that of mirroring and or witnessing. By mirroring we mean we copy another in a natural unforced way.

We get in sync with their energy as we speak; we may copy some of their gestures; we may shape our mouth and eyes like them; we may nod and move our upper bodies in a similar cadence. And in this way we really tune into the other. Their identity doesn't matter. You don't have to agree with their values; however you can start to understand their world. This is a fundamental difference that is critical to inclusive leadership. And if mirroring is too much of a stretch, then at least start witnessing them in detail. Witness how they speak and how their body changes as their story develops. Witness the expression and then share your observations back to them.

Synthesising and story telling

We synthesise what is important based on our perceptions through the senses, and how this matches our memory. Our motivations play a core part – what is it that we are really listening for? To make synthesis more constructive, we need to make it more intentional. And this is something we as coaches learn. There is almost a need to “collapse” our own motivations to better synthesise another’s.

And when we emotively connect with another’s story then the stronger the mirroring. We need some reasonable level of comprehension to engage in mirroring in the first place and our comprehension will increase through the quality of the story telling.


DEI is a subset of a broader range of complex challenges facing organisational leaders and their OD advisors. A coaching leadership style is well suited to tackling these complex issues. There are some specific core skills in coaching that when used well, could provide a significant shift to more inclusive teams and organisations. As a leader or peer, your ability to first encourage the diverse stories and then intentionally listen, then mirror, and then synthesise, could be critical to building engagement across your diverse team.