The Key to Inclusive Leadership: All You Need to Know

As an employee, have you ever felt left out, unheard or just dissatisfied with decisions being made in the company? If yes, you know that being left out and not included is not pleasant. It slowly turns into disdain for your employer and unwillingness to give your best and participate in significant events.

In a recent study, researchers at the University of Ottawa found that feeling left out or not included is worse for employees than if they were being harassed.

However, what does it mean not to feel included? Why does it matter so much?

In this article, we will try to go through all of it: what inclusive leadership is, why it matters so much in modern-day organizations, how one can become more inclusive in his own company, and the daily actions one needs to take to inspire a more inclusive community within the organization.

With that said, let’s get started.

What Does It Mean to Have an Inclusive Company?

If a company has “diversity”, then having diversity and inclusion leadership is what will make that mix work. Inclusiveness in today’s world is not just something nice to have on a piece of paper, and in fact, it has become essential for achieving a real competitive advantage over other companies in an industry. An organization can capitalize on having diverse employees only if it’s able and willing to listen to different viewpoints and take them into consideration when making decisions.

Recent research shows that inclusion has a direct impact on employee performance. We see that teams that work under inclusive leadership are 17% more likely to show great results, 20% more likely to make smart decisions, and 29% more likely to work well in collaboration.

All that goes to show that organizations can get a real performance boost and a true competitive advantage thanks to inclusive leadership. A company that has a reputation for inclusiveness will become a place that attracts top talent from various corners of the world, as the next generation of employees will be even more diverse. In turn, this selection of employees from different backgrounds will help the organization make more creative decisions and thus become more innovative.

Nowadays, having an inclusive company means the company is willing to go forward. It means hiring people from diverse backgrounds and exploring creativity. It shows a desire for a more unique and innovative workplace. The road to get to that is long.

Moving towards becoming an inclusive company can be a long and challenging process, even for leaders who truly embrace the business case and are believers in the idea of diversity and inclusion. Often that’s because people don’t know how to start – they’re wondering what to do first and how they can bring inclusiveness into the whole organizational structure, and so they get lost even before they’ve begun. That’s why below, we will take a look at some of the starting points for becoming an inclusive leader and, along with that, the small things that a leader has to do on a daily basis to ensure that this new way of leading is truly immersing all employees.

How Can Leaders Demonstrate a Behavior that Fosters a More Inclusive Environment?

As we already mentioned, creating an inclusive culture takes time and deliberate effort. The beginning always has to come from the leadership team. They are the first people in any organization who have to make the cultural shift by changing the way they talk and the things they do on a daily basis.

Let’s take a look at five ways to get started on the path to inclusivity.

Seek Input

The simplest way to get started is by asking for input. It’s a great way to make colleagues and employees feel more included. Leaders don’t need to do anything fancy to begin. They can just take a normal meeting, and instead of talking and never asking anyone questions, they can start seeking input from the employees that are present. Listening to their opinions and taking them into consideration shows that employees are valued and demonstrate to everyone else that they are encouraged to express their thoughts on the subject.

Take on Diverse Experiences

Only hearing about the benefits of “inclusion” is a lot different than actually experiencing them. When it comes to developing empathy, experience is key to understanding what it “feels” like to be excluded from a group or feeling left out. Along with that, experience helps people understand the impact that diverse thoughts and viewpoints may have on innovation. Above all, it helps people learn that diversity has various facets, and it’s not just about gender, race, and age. There are differences in personality and cognitive abilities.

If a leader genuinely wants to have an inclusive company, then he needs to have a more nuanced understanding of what diversity is. The best way to do that is by having different experiences such as

  • Working with international teams that feature people from different cultures and nationalities
  • Being part of a team or leading one that has people from other age groups
  • Working on a short project with a new team as a way to learn to quickly adjust to a diverse number of thinking styles and personalities
  • Being a part of a cross-functional team within a company
  • Fighting discomfort and hiring people with diverse talents

Nurture Strengths, Instead of Focusing on Differences

Leaders often tend to overcompensate and focus too much on “differences.” That’s why it’s worth mentioning that inclusion is about embracing differences AND recognizing the strengths of having such in an organization.

That essentially means that leaders shouldn’t put too much emphasis on what the differences are. Instead, they should focus on the individual skills and strengths of each employee and how they make the company better.

Learn More About Different Cultures

There’s a big chance you’ve heard the quote, “The wise man knows he knows nothing. The fool thinks he knows all.” It has lived on for centuries and for a good reason.

For inclusive leaders, it’s vital not to become fools – they should never assume they know it all or that they understand it, especially when it comes to different cultures and backgrounds. In order to function as an inclusive leader, a person needs more than just a mental map of different cultural frameworks. Part of inclusivity requires a person to recognize how his own culture impacts his world view and the biases and stereotypes he believes in. At an even deeper level, the idea of inclusivity should motivate a person to want to learn more about the cultures of others and to try and put himself in their specific situations.

Keep Learning

Active self-reflection is a vital part of becoming an inclusive leader. Taking the time to draw a breath, reflect and adapt is crucial for long-term success, as the world is ever-changing. Here are some questions that one can ask to help reflect on experiences and the way he benefits from them:

  • What are the skills I have learned by working in a diverse environment?
  • What are the differences between me and my colleagues/employees that are making me uncomfortable? How can I get past the discomfort?
  • Have I made any decisions based on stereotypes or cultural biases recently?

Answering these three questions will help a person adjust the way he behaves in the workplace and will help him improve over time. Remember, it’s impossible to be perfect.

Six Things Every Inclusive Leader Needs to Do

After the difficult start, it’s essential to keep working on bringing inclusivity to the workplace, and that takes effort and commitment. In order to sustain it, every inclusive leader needs to do these six things on a regular basis. They are the so-called “keys of inclusive leadership,” as these everyday actions are at the core of any company that wants to leverage diversity and promote inclusion.

Show Vulnerability and Self-Awareness

Inclusivity demands vulnerability, and in order to get people to trust a leader, he first needs to show them a weaker side of his personality. That means showing awareness of his own personal biases and a willingness to admit his mistakes or lack of knowledge on a subject.

It’s a false belief that people want a leader who is perfect. People want a leader that’s relatable and real. They want someone who’s not afraid to admit he’s scared or uncertain or sorry. Let’s take a financial crisis as an example. If people know that things in their industry might go bad, do they want a leader telling them he has the answers to everything, or do they want someone who’s able to admit the situation is difficult and is actually willing to listen and consider the input of the employees?

Along with that, showing genuine care for the employees and their opinions, as well as owning up to mistakes, are crucial parts of being an inclusive leader.

Listen and Try to Understand

Often listening can have a bigger impact than talking. An inclusive leader needs to be able to listen carefully when someone is talking. The leader should pay attention to what someone is saying instead of thinking about how he’s going to respond. In fact, active listening is one of the most powerful tools of any good leader – it shows that the leader values his employees, and it also sends a message that he’s willing to hear the opinion of everyone around him.

Along with that, by listening carefully, a leader can learn more about the challenges his teams are facing so he can be better prepared to face them. Effective listening also promotes psychological safety at work, which goes hand in hand with inclusion. Basically, a leader is giving his employees the feeling that they can voice any of their opinions without worrying about his reaction.

With that said, it’s important to remember that in order for a person to be an excellent active listener, he first needs to be empathetic. Showing care and empathy is what may bridge the gap between a leader and his employees and so increase their sense of trust and belonging.

Take Part in Authentic and Honest Conversations

In order to become a good leader, one needs to be able to have tough conversations instead of trying to avoid them at all costs. After all, tough conversations remain the only way to actually have an honest, sincere dialogue, where a leader gets to know his colleagues and employees better, and so he builds trust and empathy.

A big part of this starts by encouraging team members to have healthy discourse. As an inclusive leader, one shouldn’t be afraid to hear different opinions and perspectives, even ones that challenge one’s authority. In reality, things float both ways – inclusive leaders need to be able to provide and receive feedback, while remaining kind and understanding.

Hold Inclusive Meetings

Meetings are a staple at any modern workplace, and so they can turn into a point of contention. It’s not rare to hear that people find meetings to be places where inclusion is lacking, and people of color or women are rarely being listened to or getting recognized. Nowadays, as more and more meetings are held on Zoom, this is even more true.

An inclusive leader needs to work on creating and driving a more diverse atmosphere in all meetings. Here are a few pointers:

  • Give people time to prepare for the meeting. Share the agenda beforehand and let employees collect their thoughts and write their remarks.
  • Encourage every member to speak and voice their opinions. If there are more introverts on the team, try asking them questions or inquiring about their input on certain topics. If the employee gets interrupted, be the one to steer the conversation back on track.
  • Give credit to those who speak up, especially if they don’t do so frequently.
  • Make sure to acknowledge all the ideas that are getting suggested.

Have a Transparent Culture

Transparency is at the heart of every diverse and inclusive culture. A leader can help build openness by allowing employees to share their thoughts and feelings safely. The main goal is to have an environment that makes people feel empowered and encouraged to speak up about issues without hesitation.

Along with that, accountability and forgiveness are keys to establishing a transparent culture. It’s vital for employees to know that even when difficult conversations arise, their mistakes and opinions won’t be held against them. This will encourage them to share their mistakes and take responsibility for their actions instead of trying to cover them up.

Invest Resources

Before one gains from something, he needs to first invest in it. The same applies to inclusive leadership. All innovative organizations know that they need to invest in resources. Inclusivity won’t happen with a flick of the wrist – it’s vital to commit both time and money. Otherwise, it would take a long time to actually start seeing any results.

Make a Commitment to Inclusive Leadership

There are a ton of benefits from having inclusive leaders. They help foster empathy, diversity, authenticity, and psychological safety, which helps make their teams more effective and happier in the long run. Creating a diverse, inclusive environment has to be a priority for any modern workplace that wants to be innovative and creative and leave a mark on its industry.

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