Inclusive leadership can make the difference between organization-wide engagement with diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and widespread indifference. But while there’s a fair amount of talk about inclusive leadership, there’s much less in the way of guidance on how to put it into practice. This makes cultivating and engaging inclusive leaders a sometimes unseen or little mentioned DEI strategy.
When a focus on inclusive leadership is combined with changes to structures and processes, this can be an especially effective way to cultivate and engage leaders. Most importantly, it can sow the seeds that make DEI an integral part of the leadership ethos, enabling this group to become an especially powerful force.
Let’s look at what makes leaders inclusive, how they behave, why they are so important and what you can do to cultivate this kind of leadership. This may just be the missing link to building greater diversity, equity and inclusion in your organization.
What is Inclusive Leadership?
Research indicates that leaders have a differentiating set of characteristics and behaviors. This starts with how they impart a sense of belonging that makes everyone feel like they are an important part of the organization. They know how to actively listen and show their own vulnerability in a way that engenders trust and supports employees to connect and share. They are culturally and emotionally intelligent and use empathy to create strong bonds, supporting others to do the same. They see challenges as opportunities to grow and learn, putting the focus on rewarding and upskilling their workforce. They make employees feel safe to present their whole selves in the workplace.
Inclusive leaders are fair, collaborative, respectful and kind. They understand the importance of having a sensible work/life balance and they model related behavior that encourages others to do the same. Their presence and the way they conduct themselves can make people feel motivated, inspired and ready to collaborate around a shared purpose.
They celebrate the many facets of diversity in a personal and outward way. According to research featured in Harvard Business Review, inclusive leaders also have “awareness of bias” in that, “They show awareness of personal blind spots as well as flaws in the system and work hard to ensure meritocracy.” In short, inclusive leaders embody diversity, equity,and inclusion in both thought and practice.
Why is Inclusive Leadership so Important?
So why is inclusive leadership so important to companies? One answer relevant to present times: change and uncertainty have been ruling the day, and inclusive leaders have an uncanny ability to create a sense of calm, security and trust. At a basic level, people need to feel safe, comfortable and know that their organization cares about them. Without that, their loyalty will be fleeting, and their attention will inevitably turn to opportunities outside of the company, leading companies to have poor retention and be unable to attract new employees.
Inclusive leadership helps create a healthy and supportive workplace culture that is nimble, flexible and able to withstand whatever challenges come speeding its way. Inclusive leadership enables employees to not just survive through change, but to thrive in it.
The Impact of Leadership on DEI
These types of leaders are among an organization’s strongest assets. A study aimed at examining the impact of inclusive leadership found that “greater team diversity does not automatically yield an inclusive climate. Inclusive leadership is needed to support an inclusive climate in which different team members are valued for what they bring to work practices.” Of vital importance, the study found that “Inclusive leadership is crucial for fostering inclusiveness in diverse teams.”
Inevitably, the reverse is also true. A lack of inclusive leadership can upend efforts to create a more inclusive culture. A Glassdoor survey indicated that 50% of people think their organizations are not doing enough to increase workforce diversity. Looking at why so many organizations are missing the mark on DEI, Kelly Lockwood Primus with the Forbes Human Resources Council had this to say:
Cultivating Inclusive Leadership and Creating Buy-in
There are some specific strategies that organizations can put in place to cultivate inclusive leaders and ensure that all leaders have the skills and knowledge they need to help create a more diverse, equitable and inclusive organization. In addition to putting a focus on education and training, many of these strategies are rooted in tweaking existing organizational structures and processes.
Educate leaders about inclusive behavior—Leaders will have varying degrees of experience with diversity, equity and inclusion, depending on their backgrounds and management experience. Just like anyone else, leaders need to uncover their biases, cultivate listening and sharing skills and learn what constitutes inclusive and exclusive behavior. Provide leaders with the training and follow-up they need to understand what is expected of them and why.
Empower leaders with the skills they need to support managers—Middle managers are pivotal in the success of DEI efforts. Leaders must be equipped with special skills and knowledge to support and engage managers throughout the DEI process. Leaders must ensure that managers get the training and support they need to uncover personal biases, adjust their own behavior and learn to intervene in micro-aggressions.
Create a system of accountability and reward— Accountability starts with leadership declaring DEI to be a priority that is tied to leader goals and assessments. Measuring progress can include employee feedback (prioritizing under-represented groups), surveys, focus groups with positive/negative correlations to leadership inclusivity, improved employee engagement, reduction in absenteeism by department and employee retention levels.
Create buy-in by treating DEI as a priority business objective—With so much research on how DEI makes organizations more competitive, like the studies outlined in an article from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), it’s not hard to build a case for making DEI a priority business objective. Top leadership must commit to making sure that everyone, including leaders, understands that DEI is not just a part of their job, it’s central to how they conduct themselves on a daily basis.
Engaging Leaders in Communication
Making leaders a central part of your DEI-related communication efforts is not only an excellent way to create leadership engagement, it is essential to creating better outcomes. Based in part on a template from the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), below is a communication model that provides guidance on how to engage leaders in a way that demonstrates their commitment to DEI and creates buy-in throughout the organization.
Cultivating inclusive leadership and building engagement around key DEI initiatives is one critical way to go from saying that you care about diversity, equity and inclusion to doing something about it. As you take on this work, you may find that inclusive leadership may come easily for some, but it may require more work for others. Yes, some of the behaviors may be innately part of an individual’s characteristics, but many of them can be learned through thoughtful education, training and practice by engaging in activities that support the leader’s growth and understanding.
The result will be well worth the effort. The power of inclusive leadership can reverberate throughout your entire organization, making it more collaborative, innovative and resilient for a future that’s sure to be full of many new challenges and opportunities.