Open, unique, valued, team-oriented, transparent, everyone, inviting and belonging. These are the words people use when asked to express their understanding of inclusive leadership. They also portray how employees feel in an environment where diversity isn’t just invited, but is ignited, to realize better results.
What distinguishes inclusive leaders from others is that they take deliberate, explicit action to leverage the abilities, perspectives, styles and ideas of each individual for the success of the organization and its people.
Inclusive leaders routinely and purposefully tap into the hidden potential within their organization and, as a result, are more likely to retain it. Being on the receiving end of inclusion offers greater opportunities to feel wanted, heard, and engaged across an array of naturally occurring and even unexpected forums.
Beyond the personal implications, the business case and associated urgency around driving inclusion is powerful. Studies have shown that the single most pressing priority for today’s CEOs revolves around drawing and retaining top talent, and driving innovation is the second most-frequently cited enabler/threat to long-term viability. These are not independent issues—organizational cultures that promote inclusion create an advantage in both areas. Employees are eager to join and reluctant to leave an evolving organization where they feel personal belonging and a sense of meaning.
Many leaders conceptually understand the importance of inclusion, so why is it so hard to accomplish? What are the common challenges to inclusive leadership?
One of the biggest is leaders’ ingrained tendency to default to a familiar group of proven players to solve their greatest challenges. We’ve identified this as one of the biggest barriers to truly unleashing hidden potential within a team, as well as within an organization. The reality is that today’s leaders continually face pressures around focus, alignment around common priorities, speed to productivity, and effective deployment of resources. They also face legitimate risks and fear of failure, so much so that confidence in like-minded thought partners can replace their proclaimed openness to diversity and new ideas.
We’ve seen senior executives unapologetically adopt this position. For example, “I know John and Maria can do this, as they’ve done it before, and we have to move quickly. Everyone should not have to be involved in every decision”. One can certainly buy this explanation, yet there are many times when leaders can and should pause to gather diverse insights and viewpoints. There are more opportunities than they acknowledge to offer a relatively unknown associate a chance to address a business-critical issue. An example would be asking a first-time leader to help define her organization’s public-facing social responsibility approach.
These missed opportunities are missed investments, as employees grow the most and feel the most engaged when involved in solving “real business challenges”. The tendency to go to the same group of people goes hand in hand with a risk-averse culture. Inclusion fades when leaders and associates are afraid of making a mistake, so they hunker down into sameness.
Inclusive leaders proactively identify and inspire individuals who may be disregarded or not heard due to role, style, history, or experience (or perceived lack of). They make it clear their input is appreciated and offer platforms to encourage team members to speak up and share their viewpoints.
How do you start to model, market, and live your inclusive leader brand? A recent Harvard Business Review article recommends: “Articulate authentic commitment, challenge the status quo, and make inclusion a personal priority.” Take stock of your superpowers that increase inclusion and know any dysfunctional behaviors to avoid. Associates can be accepting of a truthful statement of intent: “We have a long way to go to achieve an inclusive culture in which everyone without exception is valued. I intend to work on it and will make mistakes”. Then, be willing to hear the feedback.
Inclusive leaders tap into the power of diversity within their companies by proactively recognizing and retaining individuals who may have been excluded and welcome them to the table. They make it clear that their views are respected and offer platforms to encourage team members to speak up and share their perspectives.
We all know a leader who always seeks to distinguish towering strengths in each team member and highlights those strengths in meetings. One very quiet direct report could have strong digital technology skills. The leader often engages this team member by asking her input around technology issues. That inclusion and respect was noticed by others, which created a sense of shared accountability to bring out the best in each team member. The associate with digital expertise began to offer support to others who struggled with technology which greatly encouraged collaboration, efficiency, and teamwork.
Finally, advocating for associates whose participation may remain underrecognized or underappreciated is crucial for inclusivity. Nothing accelerates a career like offering strong development opportunities. Inclusive leaders find those spotlights for team members and expand their value. Inclusive leaders unleash the confidence for all to feel heard, visible, and, in turn, show up as our best selves, each and every day. This is the core of the human experience: In the end, it’s the people that drive competitive advantage and commercial and social sustainability for their organization.