✍🏽 Your feedback matters - Let us know what you think
Give feedback

Set the Tone at the Top: Speaking Up about Inclusion

Support leaders in using their position and voice to advance inclusion.

Brief Summary

Status and role can impact who feels comfortable speaking up about inclusion in the workplace. In every encounter of two or more people, a hierarchy exists, whether this is a socially based hierarchy (the most popular / vocal / knowledgeable person) or a structured hierarchy (the most senior person, the boss, the coach, the clergy). It can also be influenced by demographics (e.g., the most senior person in the room may be a woman but if she’s a distinct minority, she may not feel comfortable speaking up to make a case that can be perceived as self-advocacy).

In each case, the person at the top of the “food chain” will set the tone for engagement. The environment we find ourselves in will dictate whether employees are vocal, cautious, or muted. When you find yourself in the middle or at the bottom of the hierarchy, what do you do then?


A person’s particular status or role in the organization can afford leeway or prevent them from sharing their beliefs on inclusion. Also, this status or role changes in different contexts, groups and  environments.

Before an employee speaks up, they will assess the environment and understand the hierarchy. This helps them determine the level of intimidation or support they can expect for expressing their beliefs. The real challenge comes when the leader isn’t prone to model the right behaviors.

This dynamic can lead someone to comply or stay muted when a viewpoint is stated and then express their authentic belief in a different context.


The dominant person in the room sets the tone for whether only views that are in agreement with theirs are shared, whether sharing an alternate viewpoint means you have to be ready for a debate, or whether dissenting viewpoints are thoughtfully considered.

If you are top in the hierarchy (social, positional, or demographic), recognize your critical role. Do not misconstrue silence for agreement.  Conflict avoidance is not progress toward inclusion. Only authentic and constructive dialogue will advance progress toward the company mission and values.

dei progress

Proposed Actions

  • Demonstrate advocacy. Advocate for others in the room. Reinforce their comments when you agree with them and build a connection. This will also demonstrate how advocacy work is done.
  • Reinforce and validate opinions that aren’t mainstream. Even if you don’t agree with them, you can summarize them by saying, “so, what I think I hear you saying is…” Done early and often, this can disrupt immediate pushback and model what active listening looks like.
  • Frame vulnerability as courage. Reinforce acts or statements of vulnerability, by simply thanking them for sharing, or following up with your own vulnerable statements.
  • Make room for the quiet ones. Avoid calling someone out directly. Ask an open question, e.g., “did everyone who wanted to add something have an opportunity to do so?”

Valued Guidance

Implementation Plan

Save it for later!

Download the PDF version of this DEI Initiative

Thank you for the feedback!

Your feedback matters!

Is this content useful?

Discover More Practices