Being an inclusive leader isn't simply a matter of hiring people from diverse ethnic backgrounds and a range of genders. It's more about mindset: being someone who genuinely cares about inclusion – someone who recognizes that disconnection hurts your people and your company.
Research shows that manager-led inclusion matters. A Deloitte Insights study indicates that groups led by inclusive managers are 17% more likely to perceive themselves as high-performing, 29% more willing to believe they collaborate, and 20% more likely to feel strongly about their collective decision-making. However, managers need to truly commit to inclusivity – not merely claim to think nice thoughts about diversity.
So what does it mean to become an inclusive leader? It means going beyond hiring across the gender spectrum or recruiting candidates from underrepresented areas, ethnicities and experiences. It's taking the practice of inclusion down from the company or group level to the individual level. Comprehensive inclusion reaches past visible signs of inclusiveness to consider hidden ones such as sexual orientation, ability, socioeconomic background and even extroversion versus introversion. It's only when leaders authentically connect with each individual employee that they can honor those "invisible" traits. In this way, an authentic connection "solves" inclusion by putting the focus on a leader's relationship with the people around her.
Leaders, then, should put their efforts toward making authentic connections and fostering holistic inclusivity. That means accepting everyone's voice – especially when the voice comes from an unexpected place.
Inclusion goes beyond skin deep. Leaders are currently training to make space for visible differences, which they absolutely should learn to do. But often, the aspects of a person's life or personality that aren't visible have the biggest impact on who they are and how they want to be treated in a business environment.
Employees will feel safe to speak up if they feel respected and included. And that's what you want: a team that is empowered to share their authentic thoughts, feelings and ideas. Diversity of thinking is the ultimate outcome of an inclusive workplace; it enhances creativity and innovation, reduces risk and facilitates decision implementation. Leveraging that diversity of thought requires encouraging participation from everyone, while also keeping in mind that multiple factors affect how employees work on a team.
Leaders spend a lot of time thinking through the differences between men and women in the workplace, but the gender similarities theory holds that the psychological distinctions between genders are small. Men and women are actually significantly more similar than they are different. Visible categories like gender don't inform "hidden" categories like shyness, so it's unfair to assume that a woman will be more soft-spoken just by virtue of her gender. If leaders know this, they can focus on differences that really do need attention in the workplace rather than make gender-based assumptions. Again, this requires looking beyond visible features and gaining an understanding of each individual's unique traits and talents.
Culture and upbringing, for example, can affect how gregarious or soft-spoken, assertive or retiring an employee may act. Mental health can affect how an employee relates to the workplace. And personality has perhaps the biggest effect on how employees act, want to be treated, prefer to be managed and interact in meetings.
In reality, leaders can only see "hidden categories" that affect an employee's freedom to share – like shyness or extroversion – when they build those authentic connections with their employees. If they don't work to include employees with all personality types and perspectives, they don’t gain employees' trust, don't hear some of their best ideas and may ultimately lose them.
Taking the time to make individual, authentic connections – rather than attempting to create inclusivity at the group level – is difficult. But leaders who do so can learn their employees' needs, help make them feel included in whatever way works for them and promote an atmosphere where everyone's unique contributions matter.
If the notion of leading a team from a place of inclusivity excites you, take these steps to enhance and inspire your evolving leadership style.
1. Practice self-awareness.
Building self-awareness takes time and thought, but it helps you learn to share more about yourself. Knowing yourself helps you understand and empathize with others around you, too. If you don't know where to start, share with your team members about times you've felt excluded, overwhelmed or unhappy, even if those instances occurred outside of work.
When you share, you create a baseline for vulnerability in the community, and other people feel empowered to share as a result. By modeling honest self-reflection, you give others permission to also authentically share what they feel comfortable with. In my experience, this type of practice can help employees feel psychologically safe at work.
2. Acknowledge employees' feelings and needs.
Have you heard rumors about rising levels of stress or frustration in your company? Don't ignore them. Rather, introduce the topic at an all-hands meeting or invite people to a roundtable to discuss frustrations openly. While you should be mindful of which feelings to discuss at which meetings, dedicating open, respectful space to talk about what's happening is the best way to make sure no one feels excluded or alienated.
Start by listening to the issues employees indicate need the most attention. After hearing employees' concerns, evaluate their perceptions against objective data points. You may uncover challenges you wouldn't have otherwise known about, which will give you the chance to correct what's going wrong. You'll also help them feel trusted and respected by hearing them out. Thoughtfully making space for authentic emotion is one of the biggest steps you can take toward fostering an inclusive culture at your company, small or large.
3. Engage willingly to form connections.
Give your employees some one-on-one time with you so they feel included and involved. Ask them questions – about their passions, their rhythms, their tendencies, their preferences, their personality quirks – to learn what makes them feel connected as individuals.
These touchpoints will also help you learn about employees’ personalities and how to understand their behavior. In meetings and brainstorming sessions, for example, you'll remember that although the extrovert thinks aloud, the introvert may be silently coming to conclusions. Consequently, you can give the introverted employees time to process their solutions, rather than supporting extroverts' concepts without hearing from everyone in the room. By adjusting for those personality differences, you ensure that each voice is included.
4. Avoid assumptions based on cultural affiliations.
Before making assumptions about someone based on their visible diversity (race, religion, gender, sexuality, ability, age), get to know each person as an individual and learn what really cranks his or her inclusion engine.
It's about learning what they need to do their best work according to who they are, not in which demographic they fit. For example, do they feel like they have to hide their culture or preferred lifestyle? Are they engaging in uncomfortable code-switching – changing their language to better fit in – throughout the day? Once you've pinpointed these difficulties, you can work with the individual and your team to fight them, but you often can't find them unless you know your employees on a personal level.
5. Foster an open, vulnerable culture.
You never want your employees to feel like they have to lead separate work and personal lives because of who they are. Whether it’s socioeconomic status, race, sexual orientation, or something else, create a space for emotional connection. Foster an open culture that welcomes people regardless of their identity and invites employees to share their feelings. This gives employees permission to be vulnerable even as professionals, and it creates a wider space for everyone to learn and grow. If you allow your employees to share how they're feeling, you're creating space for connection that they might never have had elsewhere and making sure they're included emotionally.
A positive effect of including all employees through these practices is the high degree of trust that it creates among employees. By treating everyone fairly at our company, we allow individuals to bring their ideas and energy to the table without fear of repercussions and create trust that boosts morale and enables change. One study of workplace performance concluded that workers who felt trusted by management performed better than those who lacked employee-employer loyalty bonds.
Finally, our employees exhibit a deeper connection with our goals and objectives because we've built real relationships with them. That connection means that when hard times come, they rally instead of leaving. Creating real inclusion from the top keeps talented employees engaged and employed longer-term.
It's time for business leaders to stop thinking of inclusion in terms of recruiting and hiring a team that appears diverse and making employees just comfortable enough that they're willing to stick around. Instead, leaders should start modeling authentic leadership and inclusivity on the individual level. By staying attuned to each employee's individuality, leaders can view all employees from a place of reverence and acceptance and can create real inclusion.