The Characteristics of Inclusive Leaders

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.

The challenges of inclusive leadership

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.

Leadership superpowers that nourish inclusion

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.

  1. Emotional Intelligence – A leader must be self-aware enough to realize both his/her impact on others, as well as the triggers and vulnerabilities for those whose contributions may be underleveraged. While many of us purport a lack of overt bias, inclusive leaders are keenly aware of and attuned to potential areas of unconscious bias that can affect their teams.
  2. Humility – Humble leaders recognize the more they know, the more they don’t know. Conversely, arrogant leaders overestimate the value of their own contributions and ideas. Top executives often look to those who joined their organization from segments outside the industry they’re in to challenge legacy assumptions around what will work. This leads to fresh new ideas.
  3. Curiosity – Leaders who actively seek input and listen to understand will be exposed to possibilities not even on their radar. For example, they may gain new insights into customer empathy—important fuel for innovation.

Dysfunctional behaviors that feed exclusion

  1. Perceived favoritism. Increasing emphasis on workplace fairness underlines dysfunctional leadership behaviors that support exclusion, like perceived favoritism for select team members. While inclusion does not mean inviting everyone into everything, perceived preferential treatment or attention can undermine confidence for those who do not feel part of the ingroup. A painful, and not-so-subtle example of favoritism at work is the leader who kicks off conference calls with a lukewarm greeting to several team members while warmly and enthusiastically greeting others.
  2. Impulsivity and rush to judgment. Two additional derailing leader behaviors that obliterate inclusion are impulsive judgment and perfectionism. Employees are not going to be willing to share their thoughts out loud if they know the reaction from their leader will come in the form of discouragement or a quick thumbs down.
  3. Perfectionism. People won’t be inclined to share early concepts if the perfect solution is all that’s acceptable. What’s worse is perfectionism often leads to anxiety, procrastination, and, eventually, stagnation. Ideas won’t be shared and work won’t be done if the only acceptable outcome is perfection.

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.

Bring in the Outliers: Identify, Engage, and Advocate for Diverse Voices

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.

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