Taking Inclusive Leadership from Buzz to Action

Inclusive leadership is a journey that requires dedication and continuous learning. Patrycja Riera provides actionable tips – beyond buzzwords and policy mandates – for leaders to create inclusive organizations.

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These days, there’s quite a bit of talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace, driven primarily by social pressure and organizational strategies. Yet, despite this attention and despite an increased investment in training programs, genuine inclusivity, or anything close to it, remains elusive. Many organizations have diversified their workforce, but it’s important to note that mere diversity does not automatically translate into inclusion nor its associated benefits such as improved retention, career advancement, and fruitful collaboration within teams.

Leadership itself is facing a paradigm shift, thanks to rapid global and technological changes and disruption – and this is evident in how traditional methods of engagement are proving insufficient: Gallup’s 2023 engagement report shows that a staggering 59% of the global workforce is disengaged. So, how do we lead and engage individuals amidst such complexity? This is where inclusive leadership emerges as the pivotal style that not only acknowledges the diverse nature of contemporary workplaces but also shapes behaviors that foster engagement and drive results. According to Deloitte, teams with inclusive leaders are 17% more likely to report high performance, 20% more likely to say they make high-quality decisions, and 29% more likely to report behaving collaboratively.

Yet, there remains a discrepancy between the buzz of inclusivity and the practical understanding of it – and this is particularly evident in leaders who, even after participating in diversity training sessions and adhering to organizational performance indicators, find themselves grappling with the day-to-day implementation of inclusive practices. Thus, it is clear that the key to making diversity work lies in a genuine understanding of what inclusive leadership entails.

The concept of inclusive leadership was highlighted in 2006 by Ingrid Nembhard and Amy Edmondson thanks to their work regarding healthcare teams. They defined leader inclusiveness as “words and deeds by a leader or leaders that indicate an invitation and appreciation for others’ contributions.” This leadership style combats low engagement by placing people at the forefront and acknowledging the unique traits and capabilities of individuals to yield results. In this way, inclusive leadership supports diversity through behaviors that foster engagement, empowerment, and a sense of belonging.

Research and organizational studies have highlighted four key behaviors associated with inclusive leadership:

  1. Recognize and Utilize Uniqueness: By nurturing individuality within their team, leaders create an environment where people feel understood and acknowledged as integral parts of the team.
  2. Create a Sense of Belonging: Inclusive leaders not only tolerate but foster equity, which strengthens relationships, promotes shared decision-making, and enhances team cohesion.
  3. Appreciate Who People Are: Inclusive leaders recognize the holistic value of each team member, beyond task-related achievement, and thus promote a culture that celebrates personal attributes.
  4. Support the Wider Organization: By challenging norms and participating in company-wide efforts, leaders can reinforce the importance of inclusivity throughout the organizational framework.

This might all sound simple enough, but the effective implementation of inclusive leadership demands intentional effort, maturity, and consistent practice – and, let’s be honest, that is not always prevalent in the workplace. Establishing an inclusive environment goes beyond policy mandates; it requires a genuine shift in mindset – of the leader – to an understanding of placing people at the center of organizational practices.

While learning platforms, media, and management conferences are filled with advice about inclusive workplaces, not that much space has been dedicated to the practical and tangible ways that leaders – from the senior vice president in a global company to an HR professional in any industry or a team manager in government – can lead inclusively, regardless of context. Here are some recommendations:

Cultural Accommodation: Bridging the Gap in Management Styles. When a leader enters a new environment, for example they join a new company or take the helm of a new team, they must decide between molding their personal, established ways of working to fit the new culture or vice versa. The challenge lies in striking a balance between the two and avoiding cultural missteps while upholding organizational values.

What Can Leaders Do?

  • Set clear boundaries for (un)acceptable behaviors and ensure accountability. Be transparent with your team about what you expect from them (for example, honesty, no gossiping) and their outcomes.
  • Shifting the focus from Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), which measure output, to Key Behavior Indicators (KBIs), which track inclusive behaviors. This holds individuals accountable not just for what they produce, but also for how they work and behave.
  • Walk the talk. Demonstrate the team’s core values through your own actions and exemplify the behaviors that create psychological safety, engagement, commitment, a sense of belonging, and recognition.

Gender Equity: Breaking Barriers and Promoting Diversity. Professionals today actively seek workplaces that champion and advocate for gender equality. Furthermore, the influence of gender equity isn’t merely social – research consistently demonstrates that it impacts the financial performance of organizations.

What Can Leaders Do?

  • Consistently communicate the importance of gender equity. Take every possible occasion to embrace gender equality in your organization, focusing not only on pay or general representation numbers but also on the fact that every gender deserves to be heard, and ideas represented.
  • Mentor women and other genders across the organization to prepare them for leadership roles. Match high-potential individuals with more senior executives who can serve as a sounding board, mentor, or sponsor, and identify projects that will expose them to the broader organization.
  • Challenge biases and beliefs. You can do this by showing that no matter our beliefs about various diversity dimensions, we should respect and honor those who are different. Inclusion is not about agreeing but respecting each other, regardless of our own personal beliefs and values.

The Straight White Man: Redefining Inclusion for All. Incorporating historically marginalized groups into a predominantly non-discriminated environment presents unique challenges, such as navigating long-held perceptions and prejudices. It is therefore imperative that men take on the role of change agents within organizations and proactively redesign workplaces to be more inclusive.

What Can Traditional Male Leaders Do?

  • Don’t take it personally. The “old” workplace may have been designed for and run by men, but this does not mean that the traditional male executive does not have a vital role in the creation and success of the new, inclusive workplace.
  • Actively challenge stereotypes and misconceptions. For example, if you see the promotion of a woman not going through because she is pregnant or has family obligations, address it immediately.
  • Encourage open dialogue and understanding, even when it might be personally uncomfortable. The worst thing leaders can do is avoid a problem in the hopes it will disappear. Don’t be afraid to let people express their experiences and feelings, either in a group or a 1:1 conversation. They will feel heard, your understanding will expand, and a solution will arise.

Relationships: Investing in Understanding and Connection. Beyond tasks and deliverables, Leaders must also recognize the unique strengths, talents, and passions of their employees – building a genuine connection that will unlock the team’s full potential.

What Can Leaders Do?

  • Dedicate your time. Create space for you to get to know your team members on a personal level, beyond their job description. Small coffee breaks or lunch together, for example, can strengthen your connection.
  • Prioritize individual uniqueness over task-oriented objectives. Recognize your team members for who they are. For example, what kind of impact do they want to have on the team and organization? What life experiences and passions contribute to the how and the why of their work?
  • Cultivate mutual respect and trust. Ask each team member what good leadership looks like to them, and you will begin to understand what type of relationship they need from you, and in turn, be able to strengthen trust and rapport.

Fostering Diverse Team Synergy: Nurturing Collaboration in Multicultural Teams. Diversity does not equate with inclusivity – and can even challenge it in the short term. As a team becomes more diverse, it introduces a myriad of cultures and experiences, each with unique perspectives and backgrounds, and this can be challenging because people’s expectations and perceptions of an effective team can vary from one individual to another.

What Can Leaders Do?

  • Respect the cultural values of team members. When you have a team of individuals from different cultural contexts and values, it’s important to help team members understand how these cultural differences might affect their interactions, communication, and ways of dealing with conflict.
  • Celebrate diversity and foster curiosity. Create an environment in which team members not only feel comfortable contributing their voices and opinions, but call on others to do the same. Do not allow team members to “judge” the various opinions in the room as right or wrong. Instead, push individuals to ask questions that help increase understanding and a broadening of perspective.
  • Implement collaborative processes such as design thinking. By using a framework or models to foster creativity and innovative thinking, you will give your team tools that they can employ when working together.

Inclusive leadership isn’t just an end goal, it’s an ongoing journey that demands dedication, empathy, and continuous learning. It is a call to delve deep into our human essence and embrace the diversity of experience, thought, and background that makes each individual invaluable to a team and organization. Being an inclusive leader transcends the confines of a job description. It is a commitment to cultivating an atmosphere where diversity is not just acknowledged but celebrated, where equity is not just a buzzword but a lived reality, and where each team member, regardless of their background, feels a genuine sense of belonging.


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