What Does It Really Mean to Be an Inclusive Leader?
Inclusive leadership is critical to support your organization’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) strategy. It’s the way leaders behave and the actions they take that drive success in embracing diversity in the workplace.
But how will you know your leaders are truly embracing diversity? And how do you recognize embracing and inclusive behaviors in yourself and in others?
With all your company’s efforts to create a DEI workplace, it can be hard to know how well your leaders are doing and understand the progress your company is making on this journey. Because yes, like change, and like leadership, DEI is a lifelong journey.
To begin or continue accelerating diversity and inclusion in the workplace (wherever you are today), it’s important to first understand your people. How are they experiencing your current DEI strategy and culture? What ways can your leaders cultivate an environment where their teams feel included, valued, and can be their authentic selves? What role do your associates have in inclusion?
Knowing your leaders’ and teams’ perceptions provides valuable insight to help you consciously chart a way forward.
One Leader’s Story of Realizing the Value of Diversity
In a coaching conversation, a leader told me they learned, “by chance,” that someone new in their team had an interesting perspective on the department’s change plan. They overheard the new idea in a heated debate between two of their team members. This idea changed a business decision this leader then went on to make for the better.
The reason they didn’t know their team member’s perspective is because they didn’t ask. The leader reflected on their leadership and realized one of the ways they lead is wanting to mentor the team and coach by sharing their own experiences. But this leader does not seek the perspectives of others. Or when this leader does, they rely on a similar set of people who are like them (known as their “trusted advisors”). This is common behavior, particularly in leadership roles. And research shows that 55% of leaders don’t invite ideas from others.
There are many layers to this story that highlight challenges leaders face when embracing diversity in the workplace. It is a human tendency to seek out people who are like us or have similar perspectives. And different ideas can bring conflict. And conflict can be perceived as disruptive and leave us with the feeling that our teams are not working. So, we avoid it.
But the workplace is rich with diversity, and where the value of different perspectives can be realized. Conflict is part of every relationship and is natural because we are all unique.
So, when you next notice tensions rising in your teams perhaps due to opposing views, realize that it is your role as a leader to invite those in and unlock that value. Because when different ideas are welcomed and the discord is managed in a healthy way, it will pay off. For example, when different ideas are welcomed, organizations see increased discovery and innovation. These benefits also signal that workplace diversity is being embraced.
Embracing Diversity Is to Embrace All the Ways We Are Unique
Diversity often refers to the visible differences that are recognizable upon first impression. These include differences such as (but not limited to) gender, age, race, or physical disability. But there are many differences that are not as easily seen or understood.
Examples of the types of differences that are harder to see can include someone’s personality, experiences, cognitive thoughts, disabilities, sexual orientation, identity, and ethnicity. Ultimately, to embrace diversity is to embrace all the ways that someone is unique — the diversity that is seen, not seen, said and unsaid, or not invited due to potential escalating conflict.
For the leader from my coaching conversation, that moment sparked action. They committed to doing better. That meant starting a conversation about how their team could leverage more of each other’s perspectives. They wanted to get to know their people on a personal level to deepen appreciation of the individual differences. They started to listen more, lean in, open up to learning from others, and ask more questions.
Benefits of Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace
For companies, making decisions based on similar perspectives presents risk. Scott Page, author of The Diversity Bonus, showed when you solve problems from predominantly one perspective, your impact will be limited — it adds an error rate of about 30%.
Page’s research also shows us that when groups of people who are diverse come together, they can outperform groups of like-minded experts. This brings more innovation, better engagement, and better financial results. And these results can go beyond impacting diversity and inclusion goals. According to DDI’s Diversity & Inclusion Report, companies that are more inclusive tend to be stronger at attracting and retaining all types of talent and are much more likely to be ranked as a “Best Place to Work.”
Additionally, when we asked leaders to rate their organization on several key factors tied to advancing diversity and inclusion, only 27% felt that inclusion is a strong part of their organization’s culture. As a result, many companies may not be achieving the full benefits of having a diverse perspective or an inclusive culture.
Strategies for Embracing Diversity in the Workplace
There’s no one silver bullet strategy, but what’s important is that you and your leaders begin that forward motion that will sustain success. Here are eight strategies for embracing diversity in the workplace:
1. Start the conversation.
It’s sometimes difficult to find the right way to start. Leaders need to open the door, set the tone, and send the message that DEI is something to be discussed and acted on. Like the leader I referred to earlier did: reflect on your own experience and consider what there is to gain from leveraging more diversity in your teams.
What was your moment when you realized you have an opportunity to embrace diversity? Or perhaps you have observed or experienced excluding behavior? What impact did it have? Use that momentum and your authentic experience to drive you forward.
2. Increase accountability and transparency.
Without transparency and understanding of what you are doing to increase DEI, teams will not feel that there is enough being done to make improvements. Additionally, a continuing transparent conversation ensures efforts are aligned to the most important areas.
Consider who has the most critical role in driving diversity, equity, and inclusion at your workplace. (Hint — it’s your leaders.) How explicit is it that your leaders are accountable?
3. Develop inclusive leadership skills.
Do your leaders know what to do? Being aware of unconscious bias or the business case for DEI is not enough. Awareness is an important step, but it doesn’t automatically lead to action. Leaders need a holistic approach to learn the tools, frameworks, and skills to bridge the gap between theory and practice.
One of the keys to doing that is teaching your leaders how to create an inclusive environment. There are innovative and blended learning approaches you can use to engage leaders, head and heart, with diversity, equity, and inclusion. Examples of these approaches include virtual reality, microlearning, and facilitated sessions.
However, too many companies divorce inclusion from everything else as a separate skill or additional thing to do. And yes, while it needs a focus, inclusion isn’t something to apply in certain situations but not others.
It can be woven into the actions leaders and associates take each day. I encourage you to reflect on this mantra: Great leadership is inclusive leadership.
4. Notice the diversity during discussions and decisions.
While anyone can be disadvantaged because of unconscious bias, those who are disproportionately harmed include women, people of color, people with disabilities, people who speak with an accent that’s different than the majority, introverts, and members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Bias has very real consequences that affect hiring decisions as well as performance management, delegation, and succession decisions. To embrace diversity means to pay attention to who is at the table and then create a diverse table.
Leaders need to create the conditions where diverse viewpoints are represented, be purposeful in seeking out people who have opposing views, delegate equitably, and proactively identify development opportunities for all.
5. Pay attention to how all people are treated.
Hybrid and virtual working highlights growing challenges for our DEI efforts. Some minority groups have reported virtual working to be a relief where home became a safer place with reduced discrimination and microaggressions (whether indirect, subtle, or unintentional) during the pandemic.
Another inequality is felt by introverted people. When asked, they report feeling lost behind their screen which can make them feel unsupported and compromise neurodiversity.
We know flexible working brings huge benefits, but it also risks widening the diversity gaps and creating new ones. To embrace diversity means paying attention to how all people are treated.
Similarly, leaders must be intentional. And this means being intentional in engaging and acknowledging each person and their value through microaffirmations (both in what they say and their nonverbals).
So above all, consider what you can do to create a psychologically safe work environment where everyone feels safe to speak up, be heard, and bring their authentic self.
6. Act as a vocal ally.
Being an ally is like being a catalyst for change. Have you ever observed disrespectful or excluding behavior? Ever seen an opportunity to improve DEI? Do you intervene when you notice unfairness?
Embracing diversity in the workplace is to advocate on behalf of others and contribute to creating fair conditions for everyone. Acting as an ally becomes even more critical when supporting historically excluded groups that face unique challenges.
For example, inequality is experienced by women who struggle to advance up the leadership ladder. Women benefit tremendously from having allies to support in ways such as building networks, increasing their visibility, amplifying their voice, and ensuring credit is assigned fairly.
In summary, allies find ways to hold people accountable for fostering a high level of inclusion and respect and redirect a conversation to be more inclusive.
7. Reflect and commit to change.
Part of enhancing a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion is to look inwardly. In addition to learning about leadership practices and strategies, consider your own leadership strengths and opportunities as they relate to these behaviors and practices.
It’s not enough to learn. Inclusion is about taking action. Use these self-insights to make a commitment and ask for feedback.
8. Build your platform on empathy, feedback, and psychological safety.
Taking action to embrace diversity requires everyone — it is an individual, team, and organizational effort. If socializing calling-in behavior becomes important, be mindful that this can feel uncomfortable at first. It can also be tough for teams if feedback is not yet effective or part of the culture.
Teams can experience a fear of being punished or have concerns about the reactions from others when speaking out. This is hard, so all involved should be extremely considerate of others by maintaining their colleague’s self-esteem and demonstrating empathy. After all, some microaggressions are not intentional. Empathy is key.
On this improvement journey of striving for equality, your teams are likely to be doing their best. But as leaders you can spread the message that they can always be doing better. Leaders must role model the behaviors they want to see in their teams and develop their own feedback receptivity. Embracing diversity in the workplace is making the development of psychological safety a key priority in teams.
Embracing Diversity Is Realizing You Are Better Together
Embracing diversity in the workplace requires you to continue this dialogue. Fostering a diverse, equitable, and inclusive culture might look different for you and should be connected to strategic goals. So, it’s important to discuss what your business and teams specifically need. And it’s important to remember that organizations who get this right will need to experiment, get things wrong, and learn.
Recognize that what you are trying to do can be hard and involves disrupting deeply engrained habits and biases. So, I offer you this moment now to acknowledge all the ways that you and others are showing up already to embrace diversity. Create the spaces to celebrate efforts and acknowledge progress as well as challenge yourselves and others to be better together.
Learn how DDI can help you foster diversity and inclusion in your organization.
Katy Freeman is a senior consultant with DDI Europe. Each day gives her an opportunity to apply her love of psychology to help employees and leadership teams achieve their aspirations for leadership. She enjoys leadership programs, coaching, and feedback. Right now, you can also find Katy feeling festive and getting excited about the food markets, mulled wine, and lights sparkling around London during the run-up to the holiday season. Connect with Katy: https://www.linkedin.com/in/katyfreeman/