Inclusive Leadership: Steps Your Organization Should Take to Get It Right

Engage in these 7 acts of inclusion to show more empathy, reinvent your relationships, and create a more inclusive organizational culture.

Inclusive Leadership: Steps Your Organization Should Take to Get it Right

What Does a Culture of Inclusive Leadership Look Like?

Across the globe, individuals aren’t the only voices demanding social and economic equality. Organizations, too, have taken a stand.

From corporations to small businesses to nonprofits, we’ve seen a range of responses aimed at denouncing racism and pledging commitments to greater equity, diversity, and inclusion.

As many senior leaders and HR executives reexamine their organizations’ diversity & inclusion initiatives, they are discovering that a reinvention may be in order. And that reinvention should start at the top, with leaders who embody an inclusive leadership approach.

But, what exactly is inclusive leadership?

Inclusive leaders are individuals who are aware of their own biases and actively seek out and consider different perspectives to inform their decision-making and collaborate more effectively with others.

Inclusive leadership also means that leaders commit to ensuring all team members:

  • Are treated equitably,
  • Feel a sense of belonging and value, and
  • Have the resources and support they need to achieve their full potential.

When Intentions & Impact Aren’t Aligned

Avoid These Unintended Consequences in Your D&I Initiatives

When it comes to organizational diversity & inclusion initiatives, many leaders have good intentions to build diverse teams and practice inclusive leadership. But there’s often a gap between intentions and outcomes.

When diversity initiatives and inclusive leadership efforts go awry, organizations experience unintended consequences, such as individuals who don’t reach their potential and strategies that fall flat. And as others in the organization observe these consequences, trust levels begin to erode, the organizational culture suffers, and psychological safety at work is diminished for everyone.

You’ll want to avoid the following 3 consequences which can occur when well-intentioned efforts at inclusion fall short.

Avoid Tokenism.

Tokenism happens when organizations intend to be inclusive, but recruit only a small number of people from underrepresented groups to be a part of a diverse team. For example, organizations may hire one black person, one woman, or one LGBTQ person on a team or department, as the minimum “requirement” of being inclusive.

Tokenism backfires because, in the absence of true representation, organizations don’t actually benefit from a diversity of perspectives, backgrounds, and collaboration. And individuals from the underrepresented groups may feel awkward or taken advantage of because they sense they’re only there to check a box.

Avoid Assimilation.

If minority employees feel their culture is not the dominant culture in the organization, they’re more likely to try to fit in and assimilate into the organization. In other words, they take on the characteristics and values of the larger organization so as not to stand out.

Yet by assimilating, employees risk dampening the diverse perspective they bring — a huge loss to the organization. Leaders must understand and consider people’s different lived experiences to engage in true collaboration and help their teams achieve their full potential. This starts with understanding how aspects of your social identity affect how you lead.

Avoid Dehumanization.

At times, individuals may be recruited or hired through organizational diversity initiatives, only to be treated once they get there as if they don’t have the same level of intelligence or capability as their colleagues. This common mistake is one of the most powerful and painful forms of collateral damage. Be sure your diversity & inclusion initiatives start with a focus on equity to avoid this common mistake.

Access Our Webinar!

Watch our webinar, Empathy & Inclusion in the Workplace: Imperatives for Your Diversity Initiatives, to understand the importance of inclusive leadership and how practicing acts of inclusion will allow you to unlock the power of a diverse workforce.

What Does Inclusive Leadership Look Like?

Inclusive Leadership Starts With Empathy

First and foremost, leaders need to be empathetic.

In the workplace (and beyond), empathy is the foundation of our ability to connect with each other on an emotional level and sets the stage for inclusion and collaboration. Rather than a private sentiment, empathy should be an act. The capacity to be empathetic should catapult you to something meaningful — whatever that is for you or for other people — and it should show.

Just as parents can teach their children to be empathetic, inclusive leaders can encourage their colleagues to be empathetic by practicing empathy and acts of inclusion.

In fact, emotional intelligence is connected to leadership effectiveness.

When organizations commit to merging empathy and inclusion — and use that power to transform their cultures for the better — individuals adopt these 7 acts of inclusive leadership. These acts lead the way to full, meaningful, and authentic participation of every individual in the organization. Each act has the ability to change lives, open doors, and build bridges. 

7 Acts of Inclusive Leadership

Whether you’re just starting out or the leader of an entire organization, engaging in these 7 intentional acts of inclusion and building the following leadership competencies will allow you to reinvent relationships and organization.

1. Deepen your self-awareness.

As your first empowering act of inclusion, build a solid foundation of personal understanding. Sometimes this may mean asking for feedback; admitting to your own mistakes and failures; reflecting on your own upbringing, background, and social identity; talking about your emotions and experiences; or advocating for your own needs. 

You need to have a high level of self-awareness; understand your own biases, strengths, and weaknesses; and be comfortable in your own skin in order to be able to engage in acts of inclusion or practice allyship. If you’re comfortable with yourself, that confidence will reverberate through all the other acts of inclusive leadership. Learn how to boost your self-awareness.

2. Foster social awareness.

From self-awareness comes social awareness, a part of emotional intelligence. Social awareness is the currency of dialogue and our relationships with other people.

When people lack social awareness, they have trouble communicating, or tend to say the wrong things at the wrong times.

As you pay attention to what’s going on around you, use the information you gather to build a culture of inclusion. For example, if a new person is hired, take some time to get to know them, show them around, and offer to help them get acclimated. Simple acts of inclusivity can help build a culture of respect at your organization.

3. Reveal blind spots.

The videos of police brutality against people of color in recent years have shocked many with a harsh reality. Before the days of cameras on our smartphones, few would have witnessed such incontrovertible proof. But now, virtually everyone who sees such clips reports that this new information pierces the curtain of their blind spots.

It’s no different in your work life. In your daily interactions with people, when you enable yourself to be exposed to new information within diverse teams, you open yourself up to reinvention.

As we note in our article, 5 Powerful Ways to Take REAL Action on DEI, senior leaders need to recognize that their organization isn’t a level playing field. Once you realize and take stock of your own individual weaknesses or knowledge gaps, as well as your organization’s, you’re better equipped to take meaningful, substantial actions that make opportunities accessible to all of your employees.

4. Listen to understand.

Listening is a powerful tool, and when used correctly, it can help the listener discover 3 things: facts, plus underlying feelings and values.

As a leader, you have an opportunity to practice effective listening skills in everyday conversations, whether your employees are sharing stories about family or are enlisting your help in working through a challenging assignment.

By listening to understand, you go beyond active listening to get a more accurate picture of the challenges your team is facing. You’re better equipped to resolve conflicts, and you increase efficiency as well as inclusiveness and communication competencies.

Increase efficiency, improve employee commitment, reduce misunderstandings, and waste less time by upskilling your team so they truly Listen to Understand one another.

5. Create connections.

What’s the purpose of creating connections? A connection is a link that’s formed between people with the intention to strengthen, encourage, and improve their bond. Those connections help give you a more diverse social network, too. If you can build social connections, you will more likely have what you need when you need it. On the other hand, when social connections are low, individuals run the risk of experiencing isolation, fear, mistrust, limited access to information, and negative effects on job performance. 

In an organization, diverse social networks and a network-wide perspective are important because they invite information from different sources and perspectives. Especially in a crisis, those perspectives expand your capacity to deal with differences. Just as you want your portfolio to be diversified, you also want your social networks to be diversified, because it makes you a more flexible, resilient, and agile leader.

6. Lead with courageous vulnerability.

Inclusive leaders lead with courageous vulnerability. In other words, they position themselves in the areas where they feel weak, and they do so courageously. They are also self-aware enough to be able to identify and share candidly about their own limitations. They seek input and ask questions, and they challenge others’ ways of thinking in a respectful manner.

A senior faculty member from our Equity, Diversity & Inclusion practice, Abigail Dunne-Moses, recounts an experience from early in her career: “I am a Black woman, and in my organization, we had a Latina who was extremely committed. Year in and year out, I saw her work tirelessly without getting promoted,” she says. “I felt for her, but for a long time I did nothing.”

As a fellow minority in the organization, Dunne-Moses felt vulnerable — and that she didn’t have a voice. “But the truth was that I did,” she says. “So I faced my vulnerability, I faced it courageously, and I spoke up on her behalf.”

Dunne-Moses had to express this courageous vulnerability 3 times, through continual conversations with management, but eventually, her vulnerability paid off and her colleague was promoted. As a result of her persistence, Dunne-Moses was able to strengthen her organization by helping it to retain and advance a highly committed and engaged employee whose contributions were being overlooked.

7. Invest resources in inclusion.

Forward-thinking organizations understand that building a culture of inclusive leadership and diverse teams who collaborate well together takes a thoughtful investment of resources, but will offer a valuable return in the way of employee satisfaction and engagement, innovation capabilities, and increased ability to respond to complex challenges.

But how you invest in inclusive leadership matters. A recent study found that nearly 75% of employees in underrepresented groups — women, racial and ethnic minorities, and LGBTQ employees — do not feel they’ve personally benefited from their companies’ diversity and inclusion programs.

At CCL, we help organizations take REAL, meaningful actions to close the gap between intentions and actions, identifying the specific steps they can take to drive toward diversity, equity, and inclusion, given their particular context and challenges. These steps may include strategic initiatives, recruitment and performance management practices, diversifying networks, and including others who may have specific needs to ensure belonging.

When individuals’ workplace experiences are driven by acts of inclusive leadership, the result is an organizational culture shift that reinforces true inclusion — a powerful transformation.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

We can partner with you to create custom leadership solutions to build a culture of inclusive leadership in your organization. We can help shift mindsets, behaviors, and practices toward more equitable, diverse, and inclusive teams. Learn more about our Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion practice, which can help you foster greater psychological safety, trust, and candor.

January 11, 2022
Leading Effectively Staff
About the Author(s)
Leading Effectively Staff
This article was written by our Leading Effectively staff, who analyze our decades of pioneering, expert research and experiences in the field to share content that will help leaders at every level. Subscribe to our emails to get the latest research-based leadership articles and insights sent straight to your inbox.

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