The needs of humanity and the needs of business have finally, truly collided. A pervasive experience of pandemic-driven anxiety and isolation combined with the devastation triggered by racial injustice and protests have unleashed a need for purpose, connection, and a defined path forward.

With no playbook or precedent from which to pull, wise organizations will leverage Inclusion as their method of defining. They will look to and harness a collective of voices from within and across their teams.

Inclusion is more than the word following the ampersand following Diversity. It is the leadership capability most essential to success in the present.

Diversity demands strategic commitment, now more than ever. It is the path to representation. It matters deeply.

Diversity is who gets a seat at the table.

Inclusion is who gets a voice.

They are not synonyms.

Inclusion describes the state in which everyone in an organization can show up, belong, and contribute without hesitation. They ask, challenge, participate and muse.

Meaningful contribution leads to a sense of having “skin in the game” which produces a virtuous cycle. People contribute, in turn feel ownership, and in turn contribute further, and so on.

Inclusion is not defined by a scorecard but by experience. It is not a strategy to be laminated. It’s a capability to be built.

When present, Inclusion powers innovation, enhancements to service and process, risk mitigation, and the insightful questions that trigger progress.

Because the “best” – smartest, most creative – ideas don’t just come from the top. Nor do they emerge from people who all look the same, who’ve had shared experiences. The greatest ideas come from an amalgam of people who mirror the shape of your customer base.

According to Sara Bandurian, Operations Coordinator at the D.C. social media agency, Online Optimism “A great leader effectively guides their followers down a path toward success. No matter how strong the leader may be, a team can only get so far without practicing inclusion. By accepting inclusion within a group, all members are given an equal opportunity to grow, learn, and succeed. As the saying goes, “The chain is only as strong as its weakest link.” Without inclusion, those who need the most attention or support are left behind, stagnant and silenced, thereby slowing down the team’s growth and success as a whole.”

Action Plan for Unlocking Inclusion

So what steps can you take – from any altitude of an organization – toward building that Inclusion capability?

  1. Begin with honest commitment

Inclusion can’t be a thing one does. It must be something in which one believes in order to bring it to life.

Commitment is your individual buy-in based on your own lived experience. It begins with personal reflection. Ask yourself some questions:

  • Did I ever not ask a question for fear of sounding dumb?
  • Did I ever not speak of an idea because it sounded too small?
  • Did I ever not flag a risk because I didn’t feel safe pointing it out?
  • Did I ever not suggest a fix to a problem because we’ve always done it this way?
  • Did I ever not participate because no one looked, sounded or thought like me?

What did this experience leave you feeling? What opportunity was missed? What problem is unsolved? What inefficiency persisted because you didn’t speak it? How could a sense of Inclusion have changed that outcome for you and your company? 

Craft an inspired vision for what Inclusion could look and feel like. This is your commitment.

  1. Let dialog fuel insights

Here commitment meets dialog. You’ve crafted a powerful and personal story. Now’s share it with your team – and invite them to shape your vision. 

Turning your vision into reality will require their insights around what it will take to make it happen. Because chances are, there are obstacles standing in the way. You can’t always see the obstacles – and in some cases you may inadvertently be the obstacle.

Bring everyone together, articulate your commitment, and then ask some open-ended questions like: 

  • What, if anything holds you back from speaking and contributing? Some examples might be… 
  • No one’s ever asked
  • I’m afraid of sounding dumb
  • I want to be seen as a team player
  • I raise ideas and they seem to go into a black hole
  • People don’t want to change
  • I don’t have enough information to contribute
  • I don’t know where to bring ideas 
  • How can we work together to make changes?
  • What can you do? 
  • What can I do? 
  • What is within our locus of control? 
  1. Define actions and behaviors

What fresh insights did your team offer? Where do they feel held back and how can you support a change? Continue to have that conversation with them until something substantive emerges. Every organization, every team has opportunity. 

Now’s your turn to step up and decide – define your behaviors based on what your team shared and what you hope to achieve. Focus not on grand ideas, but on specific, observable changes you can implement. 

Here’s a list of some potential behaviors to get you started, but feel free to add your own. 

  • Ask open-ended questions
  • Let others respond before you speak 
  • Role model speaking up
  • Reward and recognize speaking up 
  • Invite constructive ideas only when seeking feedback 
  • Commit to following up on ideas shared
  • Schedule and facilitate true dialog with your team 
  • Invite respectful debate
  • Probe for clarity versus just moving on from a “bad” idea 

Where will you begin to change your behavior? Do you need anything (permission, support, air cover) to make this happen? What signals will you look for to indicate what’s working well? 

According to Kevin Miller, Founder and CEO of The Word Counter “Inclusive leadership helps treat people equal and fair in terms of opportunity and according to their ability. We can only do this if we know our people.”

  1. Drive accountability

You’re busy. You have a day job. It’s normal to feel inspired by Inclusion…but also to see your energy and commitment wane. You’re not bad – you’re human. 

Establishing accountability will help you find victories to celebrate, and maintain momentum, get continuous feedback, and course-correct as you go. 

You get to choose how you’ll stay accountable. But here are some thought starters for you: 

  • Ask your boss or peers to check in with you regularly on progress 
  • Send weekly emails to your team asking for feedback or success stories 
  • Schedule standing “open dialog” sessions with your team to stay connected
  • Send brief “pulse” surveys to your team monthly to see how they’re experiencing you 
  • Once you’ve “conquered” an action (it’s become habit), cross it off the list and add a new one 
  • When you have a “slip up” reflect on why. What triggered it? And how can you change course next time? 

Celebrating 10 small wins will always beat holding your breath for the big shiny success. Act and celebrate often.

Inclusion is a journey. It takes time and practice. You’ll get things right. You’ll fall down. You’ll get up again. Stick with it. And let the principles below offer you support along the way.