There are plenty of checkbox diversity and inclusion initiatives. But inclusion isn’t simply about hiring the right number of people from the right categories. Inclusivity is the creation of a culture where diverse people feel welcome. To have a really diverse workplace requires inclusive leadership. 

When people feel included, they show up wholeheartedly. They exceed performance expectations to become contributing members of the organization. Beyond being one of the buzziest of buzzwords, inclusivity is more crucial than ever. Companies that embrace diversity are those that thrive in global markets, overcome intense competition and disrupt entire industries. 

But how do companies create an inclusive culture and what makes leadership inclusive? In this article, we’ll explore these issues and more.

What Is Inclusive Leadership?

Before we discuss inclusive leadership, it is important to understand the meaning of inclusion. Beyond diversity, inclusion is the acceptance and accommodation of all people who have been historically excluded or marginalized because of their race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, age, cultural heritage or abilities. 

There are many definitions of inclusive leadership. However, combining the most frequently mentioned traits, a standard definition looks something like this:

Inclusive leadership is the ability to manage a diverse group of people with respect for the unique characteristics of all. An inclusive leader is aware of their own biases and can overcome them by proactively seeking out different viewpoints that inform better decisions.

That’s a nice aspiration. But, in reality, everyone has biases. Some of our biases are so deeply rooted in our subconscious minds that we aren’t aware they exist. They do have consequences though, influencing the way we make decisions and treat one another. These hidden attitudes, known as implicit bias, are the foundation for discriminatory actions. Many of the consequences are unintended. Biases, even when we are aware of them, are difficult to overcome. 

Eliminating bias is a two-step process. First, you must identify the problems that bias creates. These problems could appear in your marketing, recruiting, hiring, promotion and professional development systems. Then, you need to develop predetermined and objective criteria that are rigorously applied in the decision-making processes. For that, you need inclusive leadership.

Why Is Inclusive Leadership Popular Now?

Inclusion is important to leaders because it’s important to the world we live in. The ongoing conflict in the current social environment has brought to light inequities that continue to plague our society. However, it’s not just individuals who must pay attention. When company leaders fail to adjust to a changing environment, they get left behind. The ability to thrive in the new economy will have much to do with recognizing the need for change and acquiring the tools required to operate competitively. 

A recent McKinsey study, Diversity Wins, shows that diversity on executive teams is an important factor in outperforming the competition. But progress toward inclusivity is admittedly slow. Moreover, even diverse companies can be more inclusive. 

What Impact Do Inclusive Leaders Have?

Harvard researchers found that teams with inclusive leaders are 20% more likely to report that they make high-quality decisions, with 29% reporting that they act collaboratively. Just a 10% increase in the perception of inclusion correlates to reducing absenteeism by nearly one day a year. Each absentee day means lost productivity and money. 

Inclusive leaders create a great place to work where employees feel engaged and valued. These environments are reportedly six times more likely to be innovative. In addition, when employees are encouraged and applauded for contributing to the company’s overall success, they are 42% less likely to leave. Even better, they are twice as likely to meet or exceed their financial goals. These are the types of business results every company wants.

Key Characteristics of an Inclusive Leader

Some characteristics are common to many of today’s most popular leadership styles. Collaborative. Team-building. Emotionally intelligent. Analytical. And, yes, inclusive leaders need all of these characteristics. But there are seven categories of behavioral traits that underscore inclusive leadership and differentiate them from all the rest. The traits are:

  1. Visible Commitment

In order to build an inclusive workplace, leaders must make an authentic commitment to diversity and prioritize it. This authenticity comes from deeply held beliefs about equity and equality. The best leaders understand that to be truly effective, they must demonstrate inclusion in their words, energy and action so that it becomes an authentic part of who they are. 

  1. Humility

Inclusive leaders are the first to admit that they don’t have all the answers. But they are willing to challenge the status quo and uproot the ideas and practices that support business as usual. Inclusive leaders understand their own limitations. They give others the space to contribute and help them to become even more inclusive.

  1. Understanding Bias

Inclusive leaders understand that simply becoming aware of biases does not mean they disappear. They try hard to address their own biases and at the same time work to mitigate systemic issues. They do this by infusing robust and objective processes and policies that provide the objectivity required to build and support an inclusive workplace.   

  1. Social Curiosity

Inclusive leaders are deeply curious about others and relish exposure to people that differ from themselves and ideas that differ from their own. They recognize that there is value in looking at a given situation from all angles, acknowledging that they, like everyone else, have blind spots. Further, they understand that diverse opinions yield better decisions. 

  1. Cultural Sensitivity

Inclusive leaders seek insight into other cultures, realizing that there is much to learn about people who are different from them. They ask respectful questions and do the research to understand more thoroughly the issues that confound them. Inclusive leaders understand privilege and they seek to neutralize its effects, recognizing that lack of privilege can stem from more than gender or race, for example, soft-spoken team members, introverts or those who utilize different decision-making processes. 

  1. Trust Builder

Beyond bringing teams together, inclusive leaders understand that they must create a trusting environment. In an inclusive workplace, employees know that the leader will act with integrity in every situation. Inclusive leaders promote trust by keeping their commitment, challenging inequity and communicating how they factor inclusivity into all of their decisions. 

  1. Courage

Inclusive leaders must have the courage to challenge deeply entrenched attitudes and promote ideas that may not be popular. When they hear something that is offensive and noninclusive, they address the issue even when it is outside of their comfort zone. They can address problems of inequity and facilitate honest discussions about diversity and inclusion.

Hiring an Inclusive Leader

It’s never easy to take the road less traveled. But companies that do will find that the benefits are immeasurable. Inclusive leaders can help create an environment that drives motivation and engagement. The bottom line will take care of itself.  

Token diversity hiring is not enough to create the type of inclusive workplace that companies want and need. Real inclusion requires leaders who are willing to do the work. If you need help building your executive team for diversity and inclusion, contact Y Scouts