Inclusive Leadership: Seven Keys to a 21st-Century Skill
“When everyone is included, everyone wins.”
“Inclusion is not a matter of political correctness. It is the key to growth.”
The long-time US civil rights activist the Reverend Jesse Jackson is often quoted on the subject of inclusion and these two particular axioms of his are becoming more relevant to business leaders with every passing day.
In a world where diversity — among consumers, markets, and workforce talent — is growing, the ability to create an inclusive work culture has become an increasingly essential skill for both aspiring and established leaders.
The word “inclusion” is often paired with “diversity.” For example, companies may have diversity and inclusion (D&I) training and policies or D&I leaders on their teams. These terms represent two sides of the same coin. Diversity is about representation, about having people from different genders, races, and backgrounds at all levels of an organization. “Diversity” is a state of being.
Inclusion, on the other hand, requires action and intent. It is the purposeful creation of a culture in which a broad mix of talent benefits everyone involved. That also requires a commitment to breaking down the barriers to achieving such a culture.
Not only is developing an inclusive culture the right thing to do ethically, but it also makes good business sense. Income levels are on the rise across the globe and the middle class is expanding in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Consumer demand and traditional product mindsets are shifting accordingly. Meanwhile, consumers, especially those below the age of 30, are demonstrating their preference for socially responsible brands.
Progressive organizations recognize the need to innovate to meet the demands of an ever more diverse and socially conscious consumer base. Building teams that leverage different perspectives and capabilities will yield a competitive advantage.
What does that advantage look like? Inclusiveness is associated with highly effective teams and 17% to 29% increases in such key metrics as performance, decision making, and collaboration. Some studies have linked it to higher overall revenue as well. Clearly, companies that leverage diversity and build an inclusive culture have much to gain and little to lose. And what leaders say and do on a daily basis influences the creation of such cultures.
Inclusive environments engage employees at a deeper level. Inspired by a shared mission, they strive to always apply their best selves. This contributes to a reverse domino effect that benefits their careers, peers, and customers. As Rev. Jackson said, it’s a win for everyone.
If you want to hone your own inclusive leadership skills, the following steps can help.
1. Cultivate Your Humility
Humility fosters positive change in your team’s interpersonal relationships. Humble leaders are approachable and empathetic. They challenge their assumptions about others and put themselves in their team members’ shoes. They have faith in their team’s capabilities and create space for them to learn and grow. Humility is infectious and helps dismantle the artificial distance that often develops between leaders and their staff.
Leading with humility means being open to feedback about inclusive practices and willing to start conversations with team members. Do they feel valued? Do they have the opportunity to live up to their potential? A humble leader won’t shy away from such discussions.
2. Commit Publicly
Be vocal about your dedication to inclusive leadership. This conveys an encouraging message to your team and your customers. Ask your team how you can be more inclusive and a better advocate. Your staff and associates will appreciate that you make the issue a real priority and not just an afterthought.
3. Root Out Bias
Conquering our own biases isn’t a one-off activity: It’s a habit that requires regular practice. Always remind yourself that some factors constitute advantages to certain people and burdens to others. Both privilege and disadvantage can be totally unearned. Question your own world view and ask others for their perspectives. These are great ways to uncover your biases, and you can’t address them if you don’t first bring them out into the open.
4. Be Curious and Excited about Other Cultures
Inclusive leaders want to learn about different people and cultures. You need to have more than an open mind, you need to seek out opportunities to work with and understand people who are different from you, whether in terms of gender, culture, race, or perspective. Train yourself to focus on the connections among people rather than divisions.
5. Be Culturally Intelligent
Knowledge of other cultures is crucial to inclusive leadership. Be willing to educate yourself so you can more clearly understand your team members’ perspectives. Be open to the differences in others’ backgrounds and adaptable when you need to be.
6. Encourage People to Speak Up
Lip service is not enough. Telling people that they are heard and valued is just the start. An inclusive leader listens to everyone’s concerns and creates a space where they are comfortable speaking up when they feel something is wrong. Team members need to know that their concerns are valid, that they are not “being too sensitive” and that they should not just “move on.”
An inclusive work environment means being willing to endure uncomfortable moments. Sometimes it’s easier to let an uninformed or offensive comment slide rather than confront it. Maybe it was a misunderstanding or wasn’t meant to be hurtful. But leaders have a responsibility to address bias-driven incidents and to encourage others to do the same. Let your team members know that whenever they tactfully speak up about unacceptable behavior, they are doing your organization a service.
7. Increase Your Self-Awareness
Getting to know yourself is a lifetime endeavor. You should never stop trying. Be conscious of your thought processes, your ideals, and your beliefs. Work to uncover and understand your own biases so you can work to correct them. As Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”
Granted, to fully achieve this aspiration you would need to be a very evolved human being, but the desire to persistently move toward this goal is what counts.
A useful tool to start on your journey of self-examination is Harvard University’s Implicit Association Test. It can help you uncover unconscious biases that might be affecting the way you interact with your team and others in your life and work.
Embark on Your Inclusive Leadership Journey
Whether you lead a team now or aspire to in the future, incorporating these positive steps into your work will serve your career well. Although an inclusive culture must be developed from the top down, it radiates out from all levels of an organization.
Consciously curating these skills will increase your appeal to employers as well as your ability to develop meaningful relationships. And that will help make working with you a joy.
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All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.
Image credit: Getty Images/©malerapaso
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