· 8 mins · Management Skills

Inclusive leadership: What you need to know

Nearly two thirds of leaders aren’t considered inclusive by their team. We need to do better. Learn more about how to practice inclusive leadership to create a better work environment for everyone.

Avatar of Anita Chauhan Anita Chauhan

Diversity, equity, and inclusion — or DEI — is no longer a nice-to-have but an imperative for businesses to invest in if they want to succeed. Despite many positive outcomes from investing in DEI programs and, more importantly, embedding it into company culture, many still aren’t prioritizing it.

Creating a diverse, equitable and inclusive work environment isn’t only the right thing to do for employees— it’s also a driver of more effective teams. When teams from diverse backgrounds and experiences work together, we can find innovative ways to approach business challenges. It’s clear that companies that have inclusive leaders encourage diversity of thought and can uncover blindspots that may go undetected. 

The most impactful and effective change comes from the top. It’s the leadership’s responsibility to blaze a trail towards more inclusive workplaces. In this article, we’ll explore:

What is inclusive leadership?

According to BetterUp, an inclusive leader fosters an environment where each team member feels, “seen, valued respected and able to contribute.” Ultimately, leading to a feeling of belonging.

Inclusive leaders inspire workplace change with a people-first mentality, using a mix of empathy and understanding to guide them. By listening to all voices within the organization at every level, these leaders take a collaborative approach, are self-aware and operate transparently to unlock the potential of their teams. 

To be an inclusive leader you must be aware of your own biases and have the courage to challenge them. It means learning to consider different views and perspectives from your own, and how they may help drive innovation and better decision making. 

Why your team needs an inclusive leader 

According to BetterUp, 1 in 4 employees lack a feeling of belonging in the workplace. This amount doesn’t even specifically account for members of underrepresented groups. 

When your employees don’t feel included, they don’t show their whole, authentic selves. They may not participate or share their true feelings. And that’s a problem. Without unique, diverse perspectives, personalities, backgrounds, and interests, you’re missing half of the story. 

The cost of this? BetterUp research found those without a sense of belonging are 25% less productive on upcoming tasks, have a 50% increased risk of churn, and are less willing to work hard for their team.

On the flip side, according to a study by Deloitte, teams that do have inclusive leaders are:

  • 17% more likely to be high-performing
  • 29% more likely to be more collaborative
  • 20% more likely to make high-quality decisions. 

Unfortunately, A scant 31% of employees consider their leaders inclusive— meaning that just a third of employees believe their seniors see their value and potential. We need to do better. Below are some tips to consider if you want to be a more inclusive leader for your team.

6 keys to practicing inclusive leadership

Being an inclusive leader takes commitment and intentional practice.

Here are 6 ways you can be a more inclusive leader:

1. Be self-aware and vulnerable

Inclusive leaders are first and foremost self-aware. This means being aware of their biases (conscious or unconscious) and shortcomings, and not being afraid to be vulnerable. 

Exceptional managers share one thing: they go above and beyond when stretching themselves and their curiosity. This means leading with depth and vulnerability, thereby allowing employees to ask more challenging questions to help create a thoughtful and diverse workplace.

According to this study, successful inclusive leaders exhibit the following six traits that center on a high level of self-awareness: 

  1. Visible commitment to diversity 
  2. Humility
  3. Awareness of bias
  4. Curiosity about others
  5. Cultural intelligence
  6. Effective collaboration

Be curious and make an effort to learn about different perspectives on your team. Make sure you show your appreciation and that you value the contributions your reports bring to the table — not despite them being different than your own, but because they’re different than your own. 

Taking on a more people-focused management style doesn’t have to be complicated. Check out our blog on the affiliate leadership style

2. Listen to understand

Inclusive leaders listen to understand. That means that when someone’s speaking, you’re not thinking about how you’re going to respond — you’re truly listening.

When used correctly, active listening is a powerful tool to have and can help you uncover important facts, as well as any underlying feelings and values your employees may hold. 

By listening to understand, managers can better appreciate what challenges their team is facing — and the root of those challenges. Effective listening is also a key component of promoting psychological safety at work.

Psychological safety goes hand in hand with inclusion. If your employees don’t feel included, it’s unlikely they’ll feel psychologically safe.

This multi-year Google research project found that the most important factor for a team’s success doesn’t solely rest in the hands of its highest IQ or most traditionally talented members. Success comes from providing your team with psychological safety. This concept is vital to high-performing teams, where employees can be vulnerable and share freely.

Google project Oxygen Top Manager Traits - Psychological safety is number one

But the key is to go beyond active listening and listen with empathy. As a critical part of allyship, empathetic listening can bridge the gap between you and your employees, increasing trust and nurturing a sense of belonging. 

3. Engage in authentic, honest conversations

When it comes to DEI efforts, leaders must seek ways to have tough conversations and learn not to avoid them. There’s no other way to reach a higher level of understanding and cultivate empathy than through sincere, honest dialogue. 

A big part of this means encouraging healthy discourse from all levels and team members. Inclusive leaders don’t shy away from hearing different perspectives, even ones that may challenge their authority. It flows both ways: inclusive leaders must be comfortable giving and receiving necessary feedback while being kind (we share more about how to approach this in our blog on the Lettuce Pact).   

Take time to approach conversations and interactions with an open mind. It can dramatically shift how you engage with employees. A Kellogg study entitled Better Decisions Through Diversity, explains:

“…Diverse groups outperform more homogeneous groups because diversity triggers more careful information processing that is absent in homogeneous groups.”

Better Decisions Through Diversity, Kellogg Study

Providing the space for your employees to safely express their honest opinions increases belonging and drives innovation. 

4. Practice inclusive meetings

As a staple of the modern workplace, meetings can easily be a point of contention. We often hear about a lack of inclusion in these spaces, such as women and people of colour not being heard or feeling recognized. And now, with remote and hybrid meetings, this may be even more true.

Here are some quick pointers to help make meetings more inclusive

Give ample prep time: Providing a structure by way of a shared meeting agenda can help people prepare remarks and thoughts in advance, opening the door for those who generally may not feel comfortable sharing. 

Check out our extensive library of 1:1 questions and agenda templates to promote thoughtful feedback and honest interactions with your team. 

💙Make space for everyone: Encourage every team member to speak in a meeting. Inclusivity means making room at the table. You can include the quieter employees by actively asking their opinions or thoughts on a topic. Help steer the conversation back on track if an employee is interrupted, and advocate for them to finish before moving forward. 

📢Amplify voices: Unfortunately, there are times when some voices don’t get heard and acknowledged to the same extent as others. Here’s how you can work to fix this as an inclusive leader.
– Give credit and recognition, and amplify voices from underrepresented groups.
– Acknowledge when a good idea is shared and give appropriate credit for it.
– Reinforce the hard work and the strong voices of your diverse team members by visibly and verbally acknowledging and encouraging their contributions. 

5. Create a culture of transparency

At the heart of all DEI initiatives is the element of transparency. Leaders can build a transparent culture by establishing platforms for employees to share comfortably and safely. The goal is to create an environment where others feel empowered to speak up for each other, raising issues without hesitation. 

A transparent organizational culture emphasizes accountability and forgiveness. When difficult conversations arise, it’s only natural to assume people are going to make mistakes. As a leader, you have the power to encourage your team to take responsibility for their actions by first understanding that impact, not the intent, matters most.

Keep the feedback flowing and make sure it’s on a regular cadence – go beyond the quarterly review and be generous and frequent. 

6. Invest resources

The most innovative organizations know fostering inclusive leadership requires thought and mindfulness, along with an investment of resources. Inclusivity doesn’t happen with a wave of a wand. It’s important to commit time and money to your efforts. Despite upfront costs, investing in DEI initiatives will bring robust returns by way of employee innovation, engagement, and an increased ability to respond and adapt to complex challenges.

This BCG study revealed nearly 75% of employees identifying as underrepresented (including women, racial and ethnic minorities, and LGBTQ) rarely feel they’ve been personally impacted by their companies’ diversity and inclusion programs.

Go beyond the platitudes by identifying specific steps and DEI OKRs your team can hit to drive DEI initiatives home. Invest the time and resources needed to build an inclusive workplace — you’ll be glad you did.  

Top tip: don’t forget to monitor your impact and check in on your progress! Find ways to look for indicators that you’re making an impact. Put initiatives in place that can help you get feedback, whether upward or otherwise.

Committing to inclusive leadership

Inclusive leaders can bring untold benefits to their organizations by fostering authenticity, psychological safety and drawing unique perspectives and contributions on their teams to build on differences effectively.

Creating an organizational culture of inclusive leadership should be core to any leadership development efforts.

It takes commitment to be an inclusive leader, but it most certainly pays off in the long run for you, your employees, and your business as a whole. 

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