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As leaders, we all have our favourites. Those team members who are easy to talk to, with whom we share common interests—the ones who make our workdays a little brighter. It’s only natural. But here’s the catch: while it’s okay to have favourites, it’s not okay to demonstrate them. Why? Because a significant part of creating a psychologically safe environment within our teams hinges on allowing everyone to be their authentic selves, without the need for shape-shifting or conformity.

The Long Shadow of Leadership

Leaders cast a long shadow. Our words and actions ripple through the organisation, influencing what others say, do, and believe. On a recent course, a colleague shared an interesting anecdote. A CEO was walking around the company premises, attending meetings, and making strategic decisions. A coach had asked them to carry a specific type of journal. Not to write in it, mind you, but simply to be seen with it. They placed it on meeting tables, rested it on lecterns during speeches, and ensured it was always visible. The result? Within just one month, 40% of the staff had purchased the same journal! The power of subtle cues from leadership cannot be overstated.

Who You Engage Matters

The purpose of this article to ask you to focus on, as a leader, who do you engage with most? Whose voices do you actively listen to during meetings? These seemingly small choices send powerful signals. When you consistently engage with the same inner circle, you inadvertently reinforce the status quo. But what if we intentionally broadened our interactions?

1. Seek Out the Unheard Voices

Start by seeking out team members who don’t usually speak up. Their perspectives are often fresh, untapped, and invaluable. Imagine the impact when you give voice to someone who’s been quietly observing from the sidelines. Encourage them to share their insights, even if it means paraphrasing their thoughts during discussions. By doing so, you create a more inclusive space—one where diverse viewpoints flourish.

2. Curiosity Over Comfort

Embrace curiosity. When you encounter colleagues who are different from you—whether in background, personality, or approach—lean in. Ask questions. Understand their motivations, fears, and aspirations. Curiosity bridges gaps and fosters empathy. It’s the antidote to assumptions and stereotypes. So, instead of always starting your evenings at the local pub with the usual suspects, consider branching out. You might discover hidden talents, unexpected connections, and fresh ideas.

3. Advocacy for All

Finally, champion those who might feel less included. Be intentional about advocating for team members who don’t fit the mould. When you actively support those with whom you don’t naturally click, you become a beacon of psychological safety. Your actions signal that everyone matters, regardless of whether they share your favourite hobbies or have similar backgrounds.

In Conclusion

Leadership isn’t just about strategy, metrics, and bottom lines. It’s about shaping culture, fostering trust, and creating an environment where authenticity thrives. So, carry your metaphorical journal—the one that champions inclusivity, curiosity, and advocacy. Let your shadow inspire others to do the same. After all, when leaders lead with heart, the entire team follows suit.

Remember: It’s okay to have favourites, but it’s even better to lead with fairness and an open heart.

What’s your leadership shadow saying today?

Amber Cabral 3 steps to better connect with your fellow humans | TED Talk

Inclusion strategist, certified coach and writer Amber Cabral shares three steps you can take to build connection — emphasising that even small, everyday actions can make a big difference to those around you.


Next steps:

The 5 Conversations programme from The Oxford Group features inspiring customer success stories, emphasises the crucial role of psychological safety, and links the programme to emotional intelligence. It also incorporates the latest research from neuroscience and engagement data, providing a robust scientific foundation. The programme now includes practical guidance on using 5 Conversations with customers, extending the benefits beyond internal teams. Explore 5 Conversations and start building stronger, more engaged teams. Receive the first two chapters of the book on us for a taster of what you can look forward to.

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