How to be an Inclusive Leader

“Inclusion is a choice to learn about people that have different lived experiences than you, to let what you learn change the way that you lead, and to commit to learning something new about people who perhaps don’t walk through the world the way that you do.”

Pamay M. Bassey, Chief Learning & Diversity Officer at Kraft Heinz

Here at AceUp, once our coaches have developed a rapport with someone, they often get the vulnerable and valid question: what does inclusive leadership mean?

The dictionary defines inclusivity as “the practice or policy of providing equal access to opportunities and resources for people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized, such as those having physical or mental disabilities or belonging to other minority groups.” So in a nutshell, inclusive leadership just means a style of leadership where all are equally welcome.

Inclusive leaders can create a workplace environment that not only values diversity but also leverages it for greater success and growth. Inclusivity is not just a practice, but a mindset, to be encouraged and offered to others. It’s an actionable characteristic that people look for in all areas of life, including in their workplace and, thus, in their leaders.

And not only is inclusive leadership the right thing to do. According to Harvard Business Review, organizations with inclusive leaders are 73% more likely to generate innovation revenue, 70% more likely to capture new markets, up to 50% more likely to make better decisions, and up to 36% more likely to achieve above-average profitability.

Concrete Tips for Manifesting Inclusive Leadership

Leadership and Mentor Coach Deborah Huisken, PCC, makes these suggestions on how to be an inclusive leader:

  • Reach lower in the organization than you are used to reaching (particularly if it’s a large organization), and/or more broadly around you, and make connections with people you would not normally speak/socialize with.  
  • Get to know those people further, ideally through some sort of shared work or activity that you can do together, as peers, without hierarchy, to build trust and respect between you.
  • Continue to develop the relationship to deeper levels, listening to what they tell you about who they are and how they look at the world.

Becoming an Inclusive LeaderInclusive leadership does not only mean getting to know people who look different than you, it means opening yourself up to learn about different cultures, backgrounds and experiences, and more. Having empathy is a key ingredient to becoming a better, more inclusive leader. And it isn’t a trait that should only be felt privately by you as a leader; empathy should be actively shown to those you are leading.

According to an article by Juliet Bourke and Andrea Titus in Harvard Business Review, “research found that inclusive leaders share a cluster of six signature traits:

  1. Visible commitment: They articulate authentic commitment to diversity, challenge the status quo, hold others accountable, and make diversity and inclusion a personal priority.
  2. Humility: They are modest about capabilities, admit mistakes, and create the space for others to contribute.
  3. Awareness of bias: They show awareness of personal blind spots, as well as flaws in the system, and work hard to ensure a meritocracy.
  4. Curiosity about others: They demonstrate an open mindset and deep curiosity about others, listen without judgment, and seek with empathy to understand those around them.
  5. Cultural intelligence: They are attentive to others’ cultures and adapt as required.
  6. Effective collaboration: They empower others, pay attention to diversity of thinking and psychological safety, and focus on team cohesion.”

While inclusivity should always begin at the top, this isn’t always the case. Therefore, all levels of leadership should actively practice it and, in doing so, invite the honest feedback and input of all employees to be sure it continues and is encouraged.

The Value of Inclusive Leadership

Becoming an Inclusive Leader

Being an inclusive leader opens the doors to the diversity of thought, and offers teams the opportunity to bring the best ideas to the surface. The sharing of different ideas, and hearing from different voices, are part of what makes up a successful team and, thus, a successful company. The idea of potential employees being hired to “fit in” to a specific work culture is over. Diversity is key, and all differences of opinion, ideas, and backgrounds need to be not only accepted but welcomed at the table.

As per research by Deloitte, inclusive leaders are crucial in shaping employees’ sense of belonging and psychological safety, with their influence accounting for up to a 70-percentage-point difference in these experiences.

Inclusive leaders see a 17% boost in team performance, a 20% improvement in decision-making quality, and a 29% increase in team collaboration. Additionally, inclusive leadership significantly reduces employee attrition risk by 76% according to the Boston Consulting Group.

“If you see people come into your world who do not look (or act) like you do, go over to them, welcome them, speak with them, get to know them,” Huisken reiterated.  “You are very likely to be surprised and delighted with what you experience and learn.”

Inclusivity in the workplace also involves a high degree of psychological safety. A psychologically safe workplace is one that encourages all employees to feel comfortable speaking up about their own concerns, opinions, and ideas. 

Psychological safety captures people’s beliefs about inclusion and diversity, whether people believe their team to be inclusive of others and diverse views, whether they see their team members as willing to help, whether they have a sense that risks and failures are okay around here, and open conversation is possible.

Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, explains that psychological safety “captures people’s beliefs about inclusion and diversity, whether people believe their team to be inclusive of others and diverse views, whether they see their team members as willing to help, whether they have a sense that risks and failures are okay around here, and open conversation is possible.”

Becoming an inclusive leader means you genuinely care about changing a company’s culture to one that is open and welcoming to all and recognizing that the differences we have are what make us each unique. Those differences are what will make an organization better, overall.

How Inclusive Leaders Should Promote Coaching and Mentoring

Due to unconscious biases or organizational power structures, employees who differ from their manager or the dominant leader type often lack equitable access to leaders who can guide them through challenges and toward valuable experiences. As a result, their career progression can be hindered.

Inclusive leaders can address this subtle bias by fostering a coaching culture, enhancing employees’ coaching skills, and building a network of champions to support the growth, contributions, and development of all employees:

  • Managers can ensure all their direct reports are heard, provided with feedback, given support, and offered opportunities.
  • Mentors can offer guidance, feedback, and support for both specific needs and ongoing development.
  • Sponsors, typically senior leaders, can advocate for their “sponsorees” and actively work to advance their careers.
  • Talent Management & HR can communicate these expectations and provide DEI training, resources, and tools to help managers, mentors, and sponsors understand their essential role in making organizational DEI initiatives successful.

At AceUp, we are dedicated to nurturing an inclusive coaching culture and Human-Centered Leadership® that promotes organizational success and individual growth. By incorporating systemic coaching and ensuring that all employees have access to supportive mentors and sponsors, we help create environments where everyone can thrive.

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