The Importance of Inclusive Leadership

Posted On March 17, 2020

In this foundational blog, we highlight the key traits of an inclusive leader, as well as the steps everyone can take to increase belonging at work.

In uncertain times, leaders that commit to values of inclusion, equity, and diversity position their brands for success and build trust among employees and customers for years to come. The current pandemic has brought about innumerable changes, highlighting how important strong, inclusive leadership is when it comes to uniting your workforce and customers, as well as showcasing your values.

Creating a work environment where employees report a sense of genuine belonging is more than just a feel-good initiative. The human connections amongst employees, as well as a connection to the company mission, are crucial for businesses to thrive in today’s economy. A diverse workforce does little, however, without an inclusive leader who can leverage the diversity of people, thoughts, and experiences. Organizations with inclusive leaders are more likely to attract and retain top talent, create innovative solutions, and appeal to changing markets. 

The good news is that if you’re committed to inclusion, equity, and diversity work, you’re on the path to becoming a more inclusive leader. Inclusive leaders offer all stakeholders a sense of purpose, by connecting their organization’s values to those they lead, and leveraging the collective wisdom of the group. In that sense, they lead from the center, or to put it a different way, they lead from the heart. Inclusive leaders know that good things happen when you make people feel significant.

In this foundational blog post, we’ll outline the six traits of inclusive leadership, using Rhodes Perry’s book, “Belonging at Work,” as a guide. In the end, we list immediate actions everyone can take to become an inclusive leader, no matter their job title.

Researchers have identified six key traits associated with inclusive leaders:

Inclusive leaders are committed to inclusion, both inside and outside the office. They intentionally include the ideas, perspectives, and lived experiences of others in all decisions they make. They reflect and engage in personal development often; they constantly come back to these six C’s and encourage the same in others.

Self-work isn’t easy; going against the status quo isn’t easy; daring to do things differently isn’t easy; putting yourself in an uncomfortable situation isn’t easy; educating others isn’t easy. The work of an inclusive leader takes strength and the ability to think long-term.

Inclusive leaders are self-aware, having put in the work to evaluate their own unconscious biases. They also recognize that self-work never ends, and continuously educate themselves via research, as well as through feedback from others.

Inclusive leaders always remain open-minded and humble, constantly asking questions, actively listening, exploring spaces they’ve never inhabited, and educating themselves. They solicit feedback and input on work, as well as their own behavior.

Inclusive leaders know that teamwork makes the dream (of a thriving workforce and a healthy bottom line) work. To this type of leader, everyone’s ideas are equally worthy and occupy the same amount of space.

Cultural Intelligence
Inclusive leaders are aware of cultural differences and how those differences manifest in working styles, experiences, identities, or beliefs. They’re also aware of the cultural norms that are unique to their workplace and do their best to ensure new hires are too.

Inclusive leaders can differentiate between these four elements of cultural intelligence:

“Motivational,” or your energy and interest in learning about, and engaging in, cross-cultural interactions

“Cognitive,” or your knowledge of relevant cultural norms, practices, and conventions

“Metacognitive,” or your level of conscious awareness in real-time during everyday interactions

“Behavioral,” or your use of verbal and nonverbal actions in cross-cultural

What Inclusive Leadership Looks Like

Inclusive leaders start by educating themselves regarding their own biases, using tools such as Harvard’s Implicit Bias Tests. They take the time to learn what microaggressions look like, study the difference between equity and equality, and put themselves in situations where no one in the room looks like them or has a similar background. Inclusive leaders share their journey as well as resources with employees.

After you’ve begun your own internal work, it’s time to lead others in it. If you’re in the position to do so, solicit an organizational survey. Ask questions and get to know people’s individual backgrounds and communication styles. For one person, speaking in public during a meeting may cause social anxiety; another, who can’t stop talking in meetings, may have been raised in a home where that’s the only way they could get a word in edgewise. Inclusive leaders are aware of, take into account, and encourage the diversity of others.

In all inclusion work, you’ll sometimes be engaging with people one-on-one, while other times you’ll be doing so in a group setting. One of the most important things an inclusive leader can do in any setting, is to intervene when they witness microaggressions or discriminatory behaviors. This means speaking up when you observe behavior that goes against inclusion, respect, and belonging. It also means introducing equitable business practices.

An easy way to stay the course as an inclusive leader is to remember the Platinum Rule: Do unto others as they would want done to them. We do this by working with each employee and colleagues to support their specific needs.

Practices to Avoid

→ Don’t make assumptions.

→ Don’t expect colleagues from under-represented groups to educate you regarding their experiences, background, traditions, etc.

→ Letting others avoid or dismiss inclusion, equity, and diversity work (this may require connecting with them one-on-one).

→ Don’t lose patience! Negative behavior often comes from a place of ignorance or lack of understanding, and how you react can push others away.

→ Be consistent when it comes to your words and actions. For example, don’t talk about inclusion and belonging work, and then get upset when someone sees a situation differently than you.

→ Don’t spend too much time trying to convert resisters to your inclusion commitment. Above all, we lead with our actions.

Everyday Actions to Take Today

→ Everyone has a role in encouraging a sense of belonging and inclusion at work. Be realistic with what you can accomplish, but also push yourself in what you hope to accomplish. The following are suggestions to foster a sense of belonging and build a culture of inclusion at work:

→ Solicit the opinions of teammates who aren’t actively participating in a conversation, making sure everyone’s voice is heard.

→ Ensure the appropriate person receives credit for an idea or job well done.

→ Commit to being a sponsor (i.e. advocate publicly) for someone who’s talented yet underrepresented

→ Communicate the business case for workplace inclusion, as well as DEI success cases, often.

→ Get involved with workplace inclusion, equity, and diversity efforts. Join or start an employee resource group, share your knowledge, and help cultivate an atmosphere of open dialog.

→ If you see microaggression, say something.

→ Be a conscious listener–if you feel your mind wandering, bring your thoughts back and focus on the person speaking. Make eye contact and provide affirmations (Some examples: “Okay,” “I see,” or “Makes sense.”)

→ Educate yourself on what it means to be an ally for underrepresented groups and then become one.

→ Share your own story, such as what you learned about your own unconscious biases or a time where you might have veiled important aspects of yourself in a work environment.

→ Cultivate a sense of empathy–really learn about the issues that are important to your team members.

→ Listen to and elevate the stories of others. Listening to The Camber Outdoors Podcast is a great place to start.

→ Every day, say hello to someone that’s visibly different than you and if possible, engage them in conversation.

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Brian Shaughnessy

About Brian Shaughnessy