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The Inclusive Workplace: Leading by Learning

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Joe Jarret
December 2, 2022


When pondering today’s public sector workplace, we can’t ignore the verifiable research that inclusion in the workplace is one of the most important keys to retention. Public sector entities that value workplace inclusivity generally enjoy higher productivity, increased morale, the increased ability to recruit a diverse talent pool and greater employee retention. Conversely, when employees don’t feel that their ideas,  contributions or very presence are truly valued or taken seriously by their organization, they will eventually leave. Although public entities are increasingly taking a fresh look at the benefits of an inclusive workplace, it is essential that inclusion is viewed as a process that ensures that everyone has an equal opportunity to contribute to, and influence, every part and level of a workplace—while also ensuring that everyone feels safe and secure enough to bring their full, unique selves to work without fear of criticism or alienation.

Organization Culture

When viewed in the abstract, an organization’s culture is essentially the collective perceptions and social norms that people share with one another in the workplace. An organization’s culture can either create bonds between employees, or polarize them. In today’s increasingly diverse and complex public sector environment, the often prevalent, bureaucratic mindset of “That’s the way we’ve always done things around here,” or the ancient saw, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, fails employees on multiple levels. Such attitudes by leadership are less about understanding the common set of behaviors, beliefs and underlying mindsets that shape how employees interact, and more about control. This is where cultural competence comes in.

The Office of Minority Health, a Federal Agency dedicated to improving the health of racial and ethnic minority populations, describes cultural and linguistic competence to be a set of congruent behaviors, attitudes and policies that come together in a system, agency or among professionals that enables effective work in cross-cultural situations. “Culture” refers to integrated patterns of human behavior that include the language, thoughts, communications, actions, customs, beliefs, values and institutions of racial, ethnic, religious or social groups. “Competence” implies having the capacity to function effectively as an individual and an organization within the context of the cultural beliefs, behaviors and needs presented by consumers and their communities. Cultural competence is a crucial factor that separates high-performing public entities from the rest. When a prospective employee asks, “What’s it like to work here?”, they are often exploring the cultural competence and inclusivity of an organization.

The Vulnerable Leader

After having spent 10 years on active duty service, and over two decades as a state and local chief legal counsel/managing attorney, it never occurred to me to value vulnerability as a necessary leadership trait. However, author Jennifer Brown makes the case that vulnerability is an underrepresented talent. In her book “How To Be An Inclusive Leader,” she argues, quite convincingly, that “Showing vulnerability does not detract from a leader’s capacity to inspire people, rather, it augments it.” She supports this argument by pointing out the obvious: None of us are perfect. Not only can attempting to appear perfect be exhausting, “it’s also unrealistic and inauthentic” She maintains that, by showing others our vulnerabilities, we’re not diminishing our ability to lead or inspire others, but rather, we’re augmenting those skills by being truthful and confident enough to share our foibles and some of the hard lessons we’ve learned on our journey to leadership. Dr. Jodie Lowinger suggests that “A leader who expresses vulnerability is someone who does not feel compelled to be the first to answer or come up with an idea. Being vulnerable as a leader involves a change in mindset that enables you to see through the eyes of the people you lead. By doing so, you invite them to become the drivers of the conversation. The result is that people become more involved and invested. “

Creating the Inclusive Workplace

The University of Tennessee (UT), Office of Human Resources, Learning and Organizational Development, in collaboration with the Office of Diversity and Engagement, offers UT employees to participate in the Inclusive Leadership Academy (UTILA). This academy is designed to embody the mission, vision and values of UT while reinforcing the leadership behaviors that are essential for advancing diversity and inclusion. The purpose of the UTILA is to provide a thoughtful and intentional learning experience that will equip leaders with the content knowledge, leadership behaviors and support to effectively lead our diverse workforce and create a culture of inclusion. I am presently participating in this program, and thus far, it has proven to be a most liberating and enlightening experience, primarily because of the fact that my fellow Cohort members continue to challenge me, and my long-held beliefs on how successful leaders should behave in the workplace.


My research and personal experiences as a leader have convinced me that public entities that remain interested in only certain groups of people will underperform, and experience low morale and high turnover, while entities that truly strive to be more inclusive as well as cultivate their people’s differences will thrive, and as such, better serve the public their entities for which they were designed. 

Author: Dr. Joseph G. Jarret, Ph.D., is a public sector manager, attorney, and mediator who has served four different governmental entities as chief legal counsel in Florida and Tennessee. A former United States Army Armored Cavalry Office with service overseas, and public risk manager, he lectures on behalf of the Master of Public Policy and Administration program in the Department of Political Science, and the Education Department at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is the past-president of the East Tennessee Chapter of ASPA.

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