Andrew is a manager. He just realized that he scheduled an important meeting on a cultural holiday. He rescheduled the meeting, but he isn’t sure if it’s better or worse to explain why he rescheduled. Should he apologize or not? Meanwhile, Emilia is a new VP. To get to know her direct reports better and promote a collegial attitude, she invites everyone to a dinner party and emphasizes, “Bring your husband or wife!” Later, she finds out that one employee is recently divorced and the other’s partner is nonbinary. Now, she’s unsure if she offended either of them or not. Should she say anything?
Good leaders understand the importance of a diverse team. Diverse teams outperform teams that lack diversity. They brainstorm better, understand potential customers better, and recruit new talent better. But even the most diverse team can’t excel if each member of the team doesn’t feel like they can be themselves at work. In other words, inclusion is what operationalizes diversity.
So why do some leaders struggle to support diverse teams?
Fostering effective leadership amidst fear
Consider Andrew and Emilia. They’re well-intentioned, but they’re uncomfortable having conversations involving sensitive subjects like religion, marital status, gender, and more. The main source of their discomfort is fear: fear of saying the wrong thing and causing offense, fear of creating an uncomfortable workplace situation by talking about the wrong topic.
Fear of failure is a challenge that most leaders deal with. Combine that with issues like diversity and inclusion, which many leaders support in theory but struggle to implement in practice, and it’s no wonder that so many organizations can’t take their diversity initiatives to the next level. When a leader fears saying the wrong thing, they often just say nothing. But silence can be the most hurtful action.
When we say nothing about things that matter to others, we invite our peers and colleagues to imagine the worst of us. They may start to believe we just don’t care. They’ll be less likely to raise issues in the future, particularly if those issues touch on the personal.
Being vulnerable on the other hand, can lead to greater trust. Vulnerability takes a great deal of bravery. Acknowledging differences, errors, missteps, and mistakes while striving to do better is what it takes to build an inclusive team. When we’re vulnerable, we correct our missteps and demonstrate to others that they can trust us with their serious concerns.
Conquering fear in pursuit of inclusion
If a leader is unfamiliar with inclusion—i.e. how a leader can facilitate inclusion, what true inclusion looks like, and how it helps employees be their best selves—then of course the leader will fear situations where inclusion is an issue. How can leaders gain greater familiarity with diversity and inclusion issues and overcome their fear of doing or saying the wrong thing? Consider these steps, courtesy of Harvard Business Review:
- Do your research. Your team is not there to educate you about what it’s like to be a different religion, a different gender, or a person with a disability. While there are no “rules” to follow when navigating these issues, there are many resources out there. Utilize them before you start addressing your team’s inclusion challenges.
- State your intentions. Acknowledging your goal—making sure everyone on the team feels like they can be their full selves at work—will go a long way toward making your team feel comfortable as you get into tough conversations.
- Ask better questions. While the burden of teaching you about diversity issues is not on your colleagues, don’t shy away from asking respectful questions to gauge how your organization is doing. “Who is missing in this discussion?” “Do you feel safe taking chances at work or disagreeing with your peers?” “What are the biggest barriers to your advancement and how can I help address them?”
- Don’t let your emotions override your priorities. Conversations about things like race, gender, and sexuality can feel uncomfortable. Remember that your goal is to create a warmer and more welcoming environment and that momentary discomfort should not deter you.
Having an inclusive work environment is not something that comes naturally. It will require work, but it will be worth it. Demonstrate your commitment to diversity by ensuring that all team members feel included and valued. Remember, people from different backgrounds face different hurdles in achieving professional success. If you’re a leader and have already achieved that success, it’s important to mentor others and help them do the same.
Inclusion means all team members feel comfortable being themselves, speaking their minds, and being valued for who they are. That means your teams need to get good at having difficult conversations—and as their leader, you need to model that behavior for them.
So how do you get started? Organizational psychologist and author Adam Grant shares some ideas:
- Imagine living in another person’s life. We all bring our past experiences and present attributes with us to work, whether we talk about them or not. When you’re trying to get to know someone, it can be helpful to try seeing the world from their perspective.
- Ask how people’s views have evolved—and share your evolutions. Everyone changes their opinions when they’re confronted with new information. Consider thoughtfully sharing how your views have changed over time. Perhaps you’re a Gen X manager who’s realized the unique skill sets offered by Gen Z colleagues, even though you initially wrote them off as “too young.”
- Share your vulnerability. Remember, vulnerability builds trust. If there was a time when you didn’t feel like you fit in at work, whether it was because you were the only woman on the team or the only person who didn’t have an Ivy League degree, share that story and what you learned from it.
Remember to seek out what you’re missing. Embrace the fact that we can never fully comprehend what we don't know, and be open to inviting insightful conversations by asking others to share their perspectives. Fostering inclusion extends beyond leaders ensuring the comfort of diverse individual contributors; it's about creating an environment where everyone, from executives to frontline employees, feels seen, safe, and valued.