The need for leaders to learn what it takes to execute on inclusion is no longer a niche training requirement. A COVID-19 pandemic-ridden, increasingly diverse and short-staffed business landscape has turned inclusive leadership synonymous with effective leadership.

Today, teams expect their leaders to raise diversity and inclusion awareness, interrupt biases, provide psychological safety and lead with inclusivity, empathy and accountability.

The more people feel uncertain and vulnerable at work, the more they need their leaders to come through. Also, far fewer people want to compromise and push on or stay resigned to work cultures that diminish and devalue them. Instead, a growing majority want to belong at their workplaces, feel psychologically safe and stay aligned to their true selves at work.

This is more noticeable as the spotlight shines brightly on how employees perceive leadership and its impact on their workplace experience. Leaders can help — or hinder — people from feeling valued, belonged, visible and included at work. Which in turn has significant consequences for employee mental health, engagement and retention.

Organizations are also being watched keenly by external stakeholders, including customers. They want to know how a business treats their people, if they make genuine efforts to be an equitable workplace, and if businesses are advancing diversity and inclusion.

The growing relevance and urgency of inclusive leadership can be attributed to six business and people drivers. These imperatives are redefining what a leader needs to learn and why. When training and development professionals keep this backdrop in mind, there is greater chance that inclusive leadership training will transcend the (virtual or in person) classroom to real world impact.

Diversity of talent: Despite not having reached the level of workforce diversity we may desire, our workplaces are certainly more diverse than even a decade ago. It’s in fact, a part of business expectations now to see less homogeneity and more diversity at the workplace. Conversely, the absence of diversity is no longer easy to normalize or brush aside at work.

Wider scope of diversity: Traditionally speaking, diversity mostly included gender, race, sexual orientation, disability, and such. Diversity is now a more wide ranging term that considers the myriad unseen ways that make humanity vastly diverse. This includes life circumstances, parental status, political and social leanings, flexibility needs and more.

Spotlight on work culture: Once the domain of human resources (HR), work culture is now a mainstream term. Employees are alive and alert to what their culture feels and looks like. Which decides if they truly want to invest their time in that workplace. As people become more discerning and less forgiving of cultural gaps, businesses are feeling the strain of retention and hiring.

Churning talent markets: The Great Resignation, continuing to unfold across talent markets, has dealt a decisive blow to hiring. Not as much an employer’s market, potential and current employees are clear on what they want. This massive movement of talent, driven by a surging social reckoning and the pandemic, has wiped the shine off traditional incentives.

Resurgence of work-life balance: While the need for balance is not new, there has never been such demand for it. The upheaval of the last few years has enormously tested people and their life circumstances. More people seem clear on what they want from work and life, where they want to work from (and how much) and the impact of work on their life goals.

Involved customers: From protecting human rights, to climate change and racial inclusion, customers have moved out of the shadows and taken a front seat. No longer the people who only buy from us, customers have turned part-time advocates, activists and catalysts. They are speaking through their wallets as they publicly compel businesses to do better.

While this context can seem rife with possibilities for leadership failures, the skill set of inclusive leadership holds much of the key to success. This includes leaders learning to practice skills of courage, curiosity, respect, empathy, psychological safety, humility and accountability. All of which are integral to delivering on the promise of inclusion.

A key consideration for training professionals to keep in mind, is that promoting any diversity related training, is unlike that of other areas of learning. At a deeper level, we are asking participating leaders to willingly make themselves uncomfortable and vulnerable, risk emotional exposure, challenge biases and beliefs and critique current leadership practices.

Without this bit of hard work, inclusion, equity and diversity can continue to fall by the wayside. Therefore, this needs a thoughtful approach or such training efforts will likely be met with disinterest, pushbacks, denials, defensiveness and even frustration and anger from some.

With understanding the complexity of this business context, it becomes easier to engage with, mobilize and respond to questions and objections from leaders. The next steps from here involve planning and designing training that works.

When developing and delivering inclusive leadership training, here are six actions that can help engage business leaders and make this training relevant for them.

  1. Consultations: While referring to external research can help craft better content, broad references can also miss the mark. An additional step is to consult with a sample of business leaders. This can throw light on the people challenges they face and their understanding of the need for inclusion. This adds to content and also helps raise commitment to training.
  2. Assessments: Leaders who resist non-measurable judgements of their leadership turn more realistic and amenable when provided an objective proof of it. Consider inventories and assessments available to measure inclusivity and inclusive leadership skills. These are important tools to inform leaders where they stand now and what needs to improve.
  1. Positioning: How training efforts are framed affects both their perception and actual success. When training comes across as coercive, blame ridden or meant to assuage external and internal critics, it hurts everyone. Instead, inclusive leadership can gain traction at work when meant to uphold company values and propel ambitious future goals.
  2. Business benefits: It’s also important to incorporate business benefits in the content. For example, an inclusive work culture is two times as likely to meet or exceed financial targets and eight times more likely to achieve better business outcomes. Also, included teams show measurably high performance and are observed to take better quality decisions.
  3. Human benefits: The crucial people benefits are even more important to highlight during training. For example, included teams report 70 percentage points worth greater experiences of fairness, respect, value and belonging, psychological safety and inspiration. Inclusion also helps teams experience significantly more collaboration.
  4. Scenario-based learning: Lastly, drawing a clear picture is better than speaking about it. Designing business-relevant and relatable leadership scenarios are key to making inclusive leadership training come to life. These make it easier for leaders to see themselves in situations where they will likely struggle to lead unless they learned how.

Without this due diligence, inclusive leadership training can prove a waste of time and resources, but more tragically, leave teams feeling disillusioned, excluded and short-changed. Making a success of inclusive leadership training depends on how the audience relates with the need and methods of training. Especially, if they are likely to feel the weight of the changes they must make to raise their leadership for a more complex workplace.