Inclusive leadership is an art and a science. It’s an always-on commitment versus something that’s dialed up or down based on the day and time. Leaders hold the keys to activating and empowering diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) among their teams and broader organizations.
However, leading with a mindset of inclusion is rarely something that comes naturally — it’s a skill that many need to learn and build a capacity for, cultivate and continuously evolve.
The reality is that a considerable number of leaders (40%) fail within the first 18 months on the job. The two top reasons: a failure to establish a cultural fit and building teamwork with staff and peers. While the initial reaction is to think that they may simply not have been the right person for the role, if you dig deeper, you’ll often realize that they weren’t set up for success. This could be due to not having access to the required training to lead effectively — or inclusively — or more likely, they didn’t have the confidence to apply that acquired knowledge in a real, day-to-day job.
In a time when building inclusive cultures is critical for both employee retention and achieving business goals — research has found that teams with inclusive leaders are 17% more likely to report they are high performing, 20% more likely to say they make high-quality decisions and 29% more likely to report behaving collaboratively.
Here are five relevant skills that every inclusive leader should master:
To create an environment of trust, leaders must be transparent about themselves, their decision-making processes, what they expect of their team and how their thinking may evolve over time. Often in the workplace and our everyday lives, there is immense pressure for leaders to appear as if they have all the answers and be devoid of showing any weakness. But this only creates barriers. Inclusive leaders foster environments in which all individuals — including themselves — are empowered to express thoughts and feelings openly. Set a tone of authenticity from the top and create a sense of “one team.”
2. Emotional Resilience
This is a must-have skill for leaders who seek to be inclusive. We live in a time when social and political discourses arise nearly every day — from #MeToo and the Black Lives Matter movements to the current, ongoing European tensions. Many leaders are reluctant to go near these topics for fear of employee backlash or alienation. However, not addressing them altogether is far more damaging to team morale and cohesion. One of the most difficult things in DEI is adapting to unfamiliar territories. But by staying emotionally resilient, composed and calm, and self-aware in challenging situations, all sides will come out stronger.
An inquisitive demeanor is something that opens doors when it comes to DEI. The only way to foster diversity and inclusion is to ask questions, explore concepts and seek to get a better understanding of why something is so important. Stay curious through an openness to others’ differences, what makes them tick, who they are, what motivates or de-motivates them and more. Don’t make assumptions and challenge yourself to ask “why,” even when it’s difficult. At the end of the day, “why” is ultimately what connects with both employees’ hearts and heads and breaks down walls.
4. Recognition of Bias
To be part of a complex, diverse team, you must take steps to overcome implicit and explicit biases and reject social stereotypes. This starts with understanding that everyone has biases, whether conscious or unconscious. Micro-behaviors (i.e., microagressions) can quickly turn into macro problems, and these subtle forms of biases — however unintended — often leave people feeling frustrated and ostracized. Understanding the positive things that can happen when leaders take an anti-based approach to people and situations in the workplace is key.
Organizations are made up of diverse sets of individuals, each of whom have their own situational variables, emotions, motivations, worldviews and more. Inclusive leaders understand that there is no one “right” answer or set of practices that will achieve their goal of DEI. Leading with a mindset of flexibility and having a tolerance for ambiguity is critical, because nobody knows what the future holds. Mastering the art of adaptability and embracing differing voices that challenge the status quo is essential.
Ultimately, the most crucial investment any organization can make is in their leaders. Managers and supervisors have significant influence on employee retention and are best positioned to build a foundation of inclusivity across their organization. If they don’t have access to the resources that they need to build their leadership skillset, the entire organization will suffer.
Creating a digital learning strategy that helps leaders identify blind spots and provides opportunities to practice and hone skills in real-world situations will lead to immense organizational and cultural value. It all comes down to reinforcing learning so that genuine, behavioral change can take place.