Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Wei Zheng, Jennifer Kim, Ronit Kark, and Lisa Mascolo describe five key behaviors that leaders can use to make their organizations more inclusive and "elevate both employee well-being and measurable business outcomes."
According to the authors, inclusion has become an increasingly important way for organizations to attract talent, retain their current workers, and encourage both creativity and excellence. Research has also supported the benefits of inclusive organizations.
Compared to other organizations, inclusive organizations are 73% more likely to gain innovation revenue and 70% more likely to gain new markets. They are also up to 50% more likely to make better decisions, and up to 36% more likely to have above-average profitability.
Inclusive leaders also play an important role in organizations. For example, inclusive leaders have a 17% higher team performance, 20% better decision-making quality, and a 29% increase in team collaboration. They also reduce the risk of employee attrition by 76%.
Inclusive organizations are also better for employees overall by challenging them to work with others, allowing them to collaborate more creatively, supporting their well-being, and more. "[I]nclusive traits like humility, curiosity, and empathy should be treated as critical leadership capabilities rather than simply desirable," the authors write.
The authors conducted hour-long structured interviews with 40 DEI award-winning or peer-nominated leaders from a wide range of job functions, organizations, and industries. From these interviews, they identified five behaviors that leaders can use to make their organizations more inclusive, including:
1. Focusing on authenticity instead of leadership presence
In the interviews, the leaders said that authenticity and psychological safety were essential to creating an environment where people can freely express themselves without fear of retribution.
Several leaders also criticized the concept of "leadership presence," which suggests that leaders have to be viewed as infallible and superior. Instead, these leaders emphasized the importance of being vulnerable, saying that it was a crucial part of building trust and psychological safety among team members.
2. Redefining rules as needed instead of sticking to the status quo
Inclusive leaders are not afraid to push back well-established practices, especially if they're no longer relevant. They also actively look for practices that exclude certain groups and replace new ones that are more accessible.
For example, a leader at a professional services firm pushed to remove full-time or part-time status from the criteria for partner promotion since it was irrelevant to a worker's value and tended to penalize working mothers.
"By constantly reexamining and revising entrenched practices, inclusive leaders are able to recruit and support a more diverse group of employees who contribute new ideas and add complementary value to their organizations," the authors write.
3. Embracing active learning and consistently cultivating inclusion
Being inclusive is a skill that is actively learned rather than passively acquired since many people's natural inclinations often contain biases. These biases need to be consistently examined and challenged to ensure organizations are inclusive to all workers.
Embedding DEI practices into existing processes and systems can help organizations be consistent with as well as accountable for their inclusion efforts. Some potential initiatives include mandatory diverse candidate pools for recruitment, adding inclusion efforts to performance metrics, and coaching managers on how they provide feedback to their direct reports.
More informal ways of promoting inclusion, such as putting all cultural holidays on company calendars, can also help make inclusion a top-of-mind consideration for all workers.
4. Ensuring that there are equal opportunities and equitable outcomes
In the authors' interviews, leaders said they were highly committed to ensuring that all employees had equal opportunities to succeed. They acknowledged individuals' specific needs, especially if they were from underrepresented backgrounds, and made sure to proactively support these team members.
"By providing support that considers people's differing needs based on their backgrounds, leaders provided a more level playing field for all team members," the authors write.
5. Viewing inclusive leadership as everyone's responsibility
Organizations will not be able to become inclusive through the work of a key leaders alone. Instead, everyone needs to work together to create an inclusive environment.
According to the authors, a common challenge for many leaders is the belief that DEI initiatives are primarily owned and driven by HR. In reality, the most successful DEI efforts are those that are embedded into an organization's core values, which can help rally people and help combat pushback and skepticism.
A whole-organization approach to DEI can include:
Overall, "[l]eading inclusively calls for action, courage, and ingenuity," the authors write. "…When practiced intentionally and adaptively, these efforts can elevate both employee well-being and measurable business outcomes." (Zheng et al., Harvard Business Review, 9/27)
Leaders play an outsized role in creating inclusive cultures for their organizations and teams. But what does it mean to lead inclusively? The foundations of inclusive leadership are foundations of good leadership more generally: purpose, self-awareness, humility, curiosity, and collaboration. These core leadership competencies foster an environment where team members feel seen, safe, respected, and, ultimately, a sense of belonging. These tools will help you navigate specific leadership challenges using inclusive leadership.
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