Diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives have become commonplace within today’s organizations, and with good reason; there’s a business incentive to move the needle on inclusion. Research shows that limiting diverse views in the process of developing new products often hinders true innovation and routinely impacts a company’s bottom line. For example, looking at 100 groups of executives over 12 years, research conducted by Alison Reynolds (Ashridge Business School) and David Lewis (London Business School) found that teams with diverse perspectives and information processing styles lead to higher performance, demonstrating the importance of inclusivity in driving business performance.

Inclusivity means more than building a workforce that is representative of multiple backgrounds, ideas and cultures, though. It involves the extent to which employees feel valued, respected, encouraged to fully participate and able to be their authentic selves at work. To make the bold shift to become a truly inclusive organization, the mission to do so needs to come from the top. Companies cannot rely on human resources (HR)-led approach focused on meeting basic diversity metrics like hiring quotas. Rather, inclusion must be a business imperative that’s woven throughout everything that the organization does. Company leaders who focus on creating cultures of inclusion will have a tremendous competitive advantage in the years ahead, as the workplace continues to evolve.

In looking at the conditions required to foster a culture of inclusion at any organization, it helps to put these behaviors into three specific categories:

  • Awareness: Encouraging leaders to recognize their own established patterns and biases, as well as the bias that’s present within their own organizations.
  • Authenticity: Acting with intention and modeling a learning mindset in which differences between people are seen and celebrated as valued contributions.
  • Accountability: Setting the tone and modeling what inclusion looks like at an organization and actively using power, privilege and position to include everyone.

In embracing these behaviors, leaders are better positioned to create an environment where employees feel comfortable with failure and more easily adapt to change. This environment also fosters the rapid development of new, innovative ideas among team members.

It’s important to ensure that your organization teach its leaders to value differences. It is a critical capability, because valuing differences helps to improve decision-making and generates higher levels of creativity throughout an organization. Leaders also must be able to demonstrate personal adaptability, navigate complexity and foster innovation — all capabilities that rely on the awareness, authenticity and accountability that drive inclusive cultures.

Companies are now beginning to recognize the overlap between inclusivity and key leadership capabilities. For example, Kenneth C. Frazier, chairman and chief executive officer of Merck & Co., Inc., said recently, “Diversity at all levels helps drive business performance and fuel innovation … Merck’s mission of saving and improving lives around the world is best facilitated by welcoming the greatest range of talent available.”

The Coca-Cola Company has also made clear its mission to rapidly innovate and adapt to changing consumer demand by creating a culture that is inclusive, curious and empowered. The company is actively enacting programs to develop skills, capabilities, knowledge and mindset among its leaders so they can effectively weather an uncertain future.

Having inclusivity serve as a key leadership capability helps set up these companies to succeed in their industry moving forward. Inclusivity also helps organizations compete in today’s workforce, given the rise in workers’ desire to know an organization’s stance and commitment to diversity. In one recent study, 86% of Gen X and millennial job-seekers said that a company’s concrete commitment to workplace diversity affects their decision to work there. Additionally, teams with inclusive leaders are 20% more likely to say they make high-quality decisions and 29% more likely to report behaving collaboratively, leading to a more productive company overall. By following the strategies in this article, your leaders can be prepared to lead a diverse organization to an inclusive future.

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