While workplace culture is largely a matter of many individual interactions across departments and levels of an organization, it’s hard to argue that there isn’t a top-down component to it. After all, it’s upper management that sets an organization’s goals, develops strategy, and defines its mission and values.
When one of your missions is inclusion, or fostering a collaborative, supportive, and respectful environment that increases the participation and contribution of every single employee, that goal has to start with building inclusive leaders.
Behaviors of inclusive leaders
How do you set a goal for building organization-wide inclusive leaders if you’re not sure which behaviors hit the mark? Bernadette Dillon and Juliet Bourke with Deloitte Australia conducted a research study of 1,000 global leaders and 1,500 employees to identify the traits of inclusive leaders that can help organizations improve their aim. They also developed some tips to help ensure these traits actually impact inclusion efforts.
Commitment: Sticking with a mission of inclusion can be difficult especially if it challenges personal, hardwired biases. But inclusive leaders are committed to changing, hold their teams accountable, and make diversity and inclusion policies a necessity for their organizations.
Courage: Inclusive leaders are willing to take personal risks to ensure their diversity and inclusion efforts take flight and are willing to talk about their own personal failures to do so. They recognize that it makes them stronger to share their weaknesses because they’re encouraging development in others.
Cognizance: Leaders who are inclusive are not only aware of their own biases and flaws in their current organization when it comes to inclusion, but they also take it one step further and educate others when they miss the mark.
Curiosity: These leaders know that a variety of ideas, life experiences, and backgrounds foster innovation and organizational growth, so, without judgment, they listen attentively and genuinely seek to understand new perspectives.
Cultural intelligence: Inclusive leaders recognize that not everyone sees things as they do, so they shift gears as required by others’ cultures and train others to do the same.
Collaboration: These leaders focus on fostering a psychologically safe environment, building cohesive teams, and empowering people throughout their organizations to do their best work.
Impact of inclusive leadership
Dillon and Bourke are very careful when they outline the traits of inclusive leaders to specify that those are just the tips of the iceberg. A leader can have those traits and still not be hitting the mark.
To truly be an inclusive leader, everyone in an organization should agree or strongly agree in an anonymous survey that the leaders treat them respectfully, value them, make them feel like they belong, and provide a psychologically safe environment. It’s not enough to be positively rated by most. Every interaction should make employees feel like they belong.
The researchers also explain that inclusivity should show up regularly in repeated, small-scale comments and actions. Inclusive leadership happens daily in interactions across the organization, not simply in grand, sweeping gestures once or twice a year.
Tools for building inclusive leaders
Most of us want to believe we are inclusive, but the reality is that consistently practicing inclusivity is not the same as simply avoiding exclusive behaviors. True inclusivity requires thoughtful, targeted actions and decisions. It’s important to educate leaders on that distinction and offer them opportunities for honest self-reflection and evaluation in a non-punitive way.
A good example is this Empathy Quiz by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. Empathy is a key element to being more inclusive with others around you and an important part of building psychologically safe teams. The quiz is simple to use and followed by suggestions on ways you can improve based on your results.
It’s also important to make continuous learning available to leaders to help them along the learning journey. Doing this not only helps deepen the learning but demonstrates unwavering C-suite support. Push dynamically updating content to your learning and communications channels such as your intranet, ERGs and Slack/Yammer channels. Regularly drip out bite-sized content to keep the conversation going in a way that fits into their busy schedules. (The six behaviors above would make a great weekly learning series!)
An inclusive leadership team isn’t built in a day, but the benefits of investing in this essential skill set will have far-reaching effects including positive bumps in innovative thinking, group morale, and feelings of belonging for all employees.