What is Inclusive Leadership?

So you want to be more inclusive at work; but like most leaders, you do not know where to start.  As more discussions about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in the workplace are visibly happening every day, some questions many leaders ask themselves are: What exactly is inclusive leadership and what actions are involved? What aspects of my leadership style do I have to change, or develop, and will I be a better leader because of it? 

In “How to Be an Inclusive Leader”, Jennifer Brown describes an inclusive leader as someone who shifts their thinking, feelings, and actions to be more deliberate about creating cultures of belonging in the workplace. She notes that inclusive leaders start by building self-awareness of their conscious and unconscious biases, privileges, cultural beliefs, and attitudes about people who are different than them.

Leaders who are intentional about inclusion don’t stop at self-awareness. They move towards active behavior changes to improve the experiences of underrepresented groups at work. These leaders amplify the voices and promote the visibility of those who are otherwise silenced or overlooked. Through the actions of the inclusive leader, employees who don’t feel supported, heard, or visible gain real support.

Once leaders are confident in their abilities to recognize their own biases and privilege, can spot situations of bias and discrimination occurring in real-time, and have the courage to say something and do something about it, they are more prepared to be an advocate at work.

Why Inclusion Matters?

Industry research shows that diverse organizations are stronger, creative, and more successful. However, a more diverse workforce is not enough. Employees need to experience a sense of belonging at work for organizations to truly reap the rewards of their DEI efforts. A research study, Improving Workplace Culture through Evidence-Based Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Practices by the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, explored the relationships between DEI practices and the workplace experiences of working adults across different industries in the U.S. Outcomes from this study revealed three overarching factors that help employees feel a sense of belonging—Managerial Involvement, Workplace Polices and Mentoring and Sponsorship. Ultimately, when employees feel included at work they perform better, stay longer, and promote the team’s mission. Leaders can do their part by creating environments where all employees feel they can contribute and support the mission.  

Six Steps to Inclusive Leadership, Now!

Anyone can practice inclusive leadership. If you’re not quite sure where to start these 6 steps are clear, simple, and can make positive long-term effects on workplace culture:

  1. Increase self-awareness through books, surveys and self-assessments like the Harvard Implicit Association Test(IAT).
  2. Develop the six competencies of inclusive leadership—Commitment, Courage, Curiosity, Cognizance of Bias, Cultural Intelligence and Collaboration.
  3. Highlight the accomplishments of all team members.
  4. Become familiar with workplace programs that benefit employees such as flexible work and leave arrangements, or celebrating cultural holidays.
  5. Create buddy systems to encourage peer mentoring, comradery, and relationship building.
  6. Make training resources on topics such as inclusive language and unconscious bias trainings available to all employees.

Develop an Action Plan to Be More Inclusive

Being more inclusive in your leadership practices, takes intentionality, boldness, and consistency. To develop an action plan to be more inclusive:

  • Start by creating a goal.
  • Then write down 3 inclusive leadership competencies you want to grow and develop;
  • Next, identify specific tasks or action steps you want to practice each day.
  • List resources you will need to accomplish your goal.
  • Lastly, create a timeline for when you will start, end, and reevaluate your progress.

Remember this process takes time and won’t happen overnight, but with the right attitude, tools, and resources anyone can do it!