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

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

In recent months across the globe, individual protesters haven’t been the only voices demanding social and economic equality. Organizations, too, have taken a stand.

From corporations to small businesses to nonprofits, responses have ranged from statements denouncing racism to commitments for equitable representation of products from minority-owned businesses.

As many senior leaders and HR executives reexamined their organizations’ diversity and inclusion initiatives, they discovered a reinvention was in order.

“That reinvention starts at the top, with leaders who embody an inclusive leadership approach,” says Dr. Abigail Dunne-Moses, senior faculty for our Equity, Diversity & Inclusion practice.

Inclusive leadership 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.

Avoid These Unintended Consequences From Your Diversity & Inclusion Efforts

When it comes to equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives, many leaders and organizations have good intentions. But there’s often a gap between intentions and outcomes.

When empathy and inclusion go awry, organizations experience unintended consequences, such as individuals who don’t reach their potential and strategies that fall flat. And as other people in the organization observe these consequences, the organizational climate suffers.

The following 3 unintended consequences occur when inclusiveness efforts fall short:

  1. Tokenism. Tokenism happens when organizations intend to be inclusive but recruit only a small number of people from underrepresented groups. “Organizations may hire one black person or one woman or one LGBTQ person, as if that is the minimum requirement of being inclusive,” says Dunne-Moses. Tokenism backfires because, in the absence of true representation, organizations don’t actually benefit from a diversity of perspectives and backgrounds. And individuals from the underrepresented groups may feel awkward or taken advantage of because they sense they’re only there to check a box.
  1. Assimilation. If minority employees feel their culture is not the dominant culture in the organization, they’re more likely to assimilate into the organization. In other words, they take on the characteristics and values of the 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 help their teams achieve their full potential. This starts with understanding social identity.
  1. Dehumanization. At times, individuals are hired through diversity initiatives, only to be treated as if they don’t have the same level of intelligence as their colleagues. “This is the most powerful and painful form of collateral damage,” Dunne-Moses says. Be sure your diversity & inclusion initiatives have a focus on equity and avoid common mistakes organizations make in their diversity & inclusion efforts.

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.

Inclusive Leadership Starts With Empathy

Empathy is the foundation of our ability to connect with each other on an emotional level and sets the stage for inclusion. 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,” Dunne-Moses says.

Just as parents can teach their children to be empathetic, inclusive leaders can teach their colleagues to be empathetic by practicing empathy.

7 Acts of Inclusive Leadership

When organizations commit to merging empathy and inclusion — and use that power to transform their organizations for the better — individuals adopt these 7 acts of inclusive leadership. “Think of them as superpowers,” Dunne-Moses says.

“Each has the ability to change lives, open doors, and build bridges.”

Whether you’re an individual or an organization, engaging in the following 7 acts of inclusion will allow you to reinvent your relationships and organization, even in times of crisis.

Infographic: 7 Acts of Inclusive Leadership

1. Deepen your self-awareness.

As your first empowering act of inclusion, build a solid personal foundation.

“You have to have a high level of self-awareness and be comfortable in your own skin in order to be able to engage in acts of inclusion. If you are comfortable with yourself, that confidence will reverberate down on all the other acts,” says Dunne-Moses.

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,” Dunne-Moses says.

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 inclusion can change the culture of your organization.

Learn more about how leaders can use self-awareness and social awareness and how emotional intelligence is connected to leadership effectiveness.

3. Reveal blind spots.

The videos of police brutality against people of color 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,” says Dunne-Moses.

It’s no different in your work life. In your daily interactions with people, when you enable yourself to be exposed to new information, 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 action that makes 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.

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? Those connections give you a diverse social network, explains Dunne-Moses. “I call it social capital, and if you can build social capital, you will more likely have what you need when you need it.”

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 capital to be diversified, because it makes you more intelligent, flexible, resilient, and agile.

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.

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.”

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 an engaged and committed employee.

7. Invest resources.

Forward-thinking organizations understand that building inclusive leadership 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 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.

When individuals’ workplace experiences are driven by inclusive leadership, the result is a culture shift that reinforces diversity and inclusion — a powerful transformation.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

We can partner with you to create custom leadership solutions to build a more inclusive leadership culture 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 create a culture of psychological safety, inclusion, and candor.


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August 11, 2020
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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