When it comes to creating inclusive organisations, leadership really matters. According to 2020 research published in the Harvard Business Review, what leaders say and do makes up to a 70% difference as to whether someone reports feeling included at work. And individuals that feel included are more engaged, motivated and productive – enabling people to be their authentic selves at work is linked to higher levels of wellbeing and performance.
What we need then is more ‘inclusive leadership’, a core capability for future leaders. The Center for Creative Leadership describes inclusive leaders as “individuals who are aware of their own biases and actively seek out and consider different perspectives to inform their decision-making and collaborate more effectively with others”. Research from the CIPD has found that: “Organisations whose employees perceive high levels of [inclusive leadership] are more likely to regard their leaders as having a positive influence on their productivity, satisfaction and engagement.”
Inclusive leadership is miles apart from traditional models of ‘command and control’. In fact, the stereotype of the ‘heroic’ leader issuing orders from on-high and making every decision is increasingly understood as no longer relevant or useful when it comes to building empowered, resilient and purpose-driven organisations. Instead, we need leaders who are deeply human, empathetic and collaborative, comfortable with ambiguity and with their own vulnerability. These leaders accept that in a complex and fast-changing world it is impossible for one person to have all the answers, and see asking for help and input from a diverse range of voices as a strength rather than a weakness.
Research from Australia’s UNSW Business School and Deloitte Australia has identified six key traits shared by inclusive leaders. These are:
- A visible commitment to diversity, including challenging and holding others to account where necessary
- Humility: being comfortable in what they don’t know, creating space for others and admitting mistakes
- Awareness of bias, both personal and within the system, and working to change it
- Curiosity about others: a genuine desire to listen and learn about and from others, delivered with empathy
- Cultural intelligence, acting with sensitivity and adapting as required
- Effective collaboration: a focus on psychological safety and team cohesion
Developing these inclusive leaders, or becoming a more inclusive leader yourself, means having a clear focus on both ‘self-awareness’ and the less-understood ‘other awareness’. Self-awareness is core to emotional intelligence: the more we are aware of and understand ourselves, the better we can manage ourselves and our relationships with others. It also helps us to understand others.
We can develop stronger self-awareness by using various psychometric tools, but also by sharing our experiences and thoughts openly with others – taking time to reflect on our experiences and our reactions to them. As well as being aware of our strengths, we must also seek to understand our biases and any barriers we might subconsciously encounter in our quest to become more inclusive leaders.
Other awareness takes that concept and extends it into truly understanding others around us, enabling more positive and inclusive interactions. It means being curious about others, without passing judgement, and being genuinely open to hearing, actively listening to, and seeking to understand others’ thoughts, opinions and experiences. Leaders with a strong sense of other awareness will naturally be more inclusive as they are committed to creating safe spaces for others to share their authentic selves and to enabling diverse voices to be heard, deliberately seeking out views from a range of places.
Inclusive leaders will work hard on creating cultures of respect within their organisations. An inclusive culture is one where everyone is treated with respect and there is a direct link between inclusion and respect. Research from Gallup has found that 90% of people who say they are not treated with respect also experienced discrimination or harassment at work. Building cultures of respect requires a focus on human and social connection, everyone taking the time to understand each other, creating a strong sense of inclusion and belonging. Leaders must create space for open dialogue around the unique strengths and qualities of others, as well as prioritise time for human connection at work.
As the world of work continues to change, so must our leaders. A thriving and sustainable organisation is an inclusive one. Leaders must place inclusion at the heart of their practice, embodying empathetic and human leadership every day to create organisations where everyone is empowered to be themselves.