Inclusive Leadership Explained: What It Is And Why You Need It

August 4, 2021

Inclusive leadership in the workplace - what does it really mean and is it necessary?

As more companies seek to embed D&I initiatives, it’s more important than ever that workplaces are prioritising inclusive leadership. A recent study from LinkedIn found that conversations around diversity and inclusion at work tripled in the last year, while there was a 58% increase in advertised D&I jobs between June 2019 and June 2020.

While it’s an exciting time to watch the future of work unfold, it's vital that businesses have the right foundations in place first. Ensuring that you have a senior team of inclusive leaders should be the first step you take; without them none of your D&I initiatives will work. 

We’ve covered everything you need to know about inclusive leadership in this blog - what it means, why it’s important and how you can become more inclusive for your workplace. 

What does inclusive leadership mean?

American activist Vernā Myers once said, ‘Diversity is being invited to the party, but inclusion is being invited to dance.’ Where diversity initiatives focus on representation, inclusion takes it further by focusing on connection and participation. An inclusive leader is someone who goes beyond hiring employees from diverse backgrounds. They actively create a workplace culture where employees have a sense of belonging and feel they’re able to bring their whole selves to work. Harvard Business Review has described inclusive leadership as critical for organisations that need to ‘adapt to diverse customers, markets, ideas and talent.’

Is inclusive leadership really important?

If you want your employees to live up to their full potential - yes. 

While businesses are paying more attention to diversity initiatives, the implementations won’t work without inclusive leadership. Think of it like this; you build a diverse team expecting the differences in thought and opinion to lead to increased creativity and better problem-solving. But you haven’t focused on the inclusivity of your workplace. As a result, the hires from under-represented backgrounds don’t feel comfortable being themselves and end up code-switching so that they fit in. What you now have isn’t a diverse team, but a workforce who have to think and act the same. You could hire workers from a wide range of backgrounds, but if they don’t feel comfortable being themselves, they’ll be less likely to engage and contribute their opinions. According to BetterUp, employees who don’t feel included are:

  • 25% less productive on future tasks
  • have a 50% greater risk of turnover
  • less willing to work hard for the team

On the other hand, companies with leaders who encourage inclusion of all employees have been proven to see better performance, higher-quality decision-making and an increase in work engagement and attendance. Better Up found that teams with inclusive leadership have:

  • 50% increase in team performance
  • 140% increase in team engagement
  • 54% lower turnover rate from direct reports 

Inclusion is key in engaging employees and allowing diverse teams to perform to their best ability - and it all begins with the leadership. It’s the management who set the tone for the rest of the team. Harvard Business Review found that a leader's behaviour can make up to a 70% difference in whether an individual feels included or not. 

How can I be an inclusive leader? 

The great news is that anyone can learn to be an inclusive leader. Dedication to learning and a little bit of empathy go a long way. Here’s the key skills to focus on if you want to be a truly inclusive leader:

Commitment to diversity 

An inclusive leader needs to make diversity and inclusion a personal priority by devoting time and energy to it. But equally importantly, they need to make this commitment visible through consistent action and verbal communication. Being open about your commitment could be as simple as encouraging conversations around differences, asking for feedback on your approach, challenging the status quo and actively listening to others. In doing so, you’ll create a culture where the whole team feels valued and aligned with the same purpose. 

Knowledge of bias

So you’re committed to ensuring that your team is diverse in terms of gender, class, ethnicity, age, etc - now you need to understand the systems that work against these groups. Being aware of personal and systemic biases means that you’re able to actively challenge them. A good example of this is the hiring process (which has been proven to be biased). Understanding how it’s unfair would mean that you’re able to ditch the traditional recruitment system and create a better solution. 

Cultural awareness

Exposing yourself to different cultures and being aware of cultural differences is vital for any inclusive leader. This includes being aware of cultural norms and stereotypes, but also developing self-awareness of how your own culture has shaped your worldview. Developing this knowledge helps with cross-cultural interactions and making sure you’re avoiding stereotypes and bias. But it also ensures that all of your employees are confident to share their full selves at work. For instance, developing an understanding of Muslim beliefs and practices could mean you acknowledge Eid, make sure that not all team outings revolve around drinking and are mindful about prayer times, so that your Muslim employees feel more seen and supported. 

Encourage collaboration

Collaboration is key for getting the best out of diverse teams, but employees must first feel confident enough to contribute. An inclusive leader empowers others to share their opinions and works on creating an environment where everyone feels comfortable to speak up. Team members need to feel as though they can share alternative points of view without being judged. Encouraging others to share their perspective will show that you value their opinion and give them confidence to contribute on their own. 

Practice empathy

Empathy is a crucial but underrated skill when it comes to inclusive leadership. Being aware of how an employee may be feeling is integral to building connections that are based on trust and understanding. For example, being empathetic towards an introverted employee doesn’t mean you feel bad for them (which would be sympathetic), but would mean you’re aware of how they may feel about leading a meeting and can find ways to support them. Feeling understood will help your team live up to their potential and feel at ease within the work environment. 

Active listening

How often are you truly listening to what someone else is saying? By that we mean being fully present and open to what’s being said (as opposed to mentally formulating your answer), and equally paying attention to what isn’t being said too. Active listening is a surprisingly rare skill to come by, but it’s a crucial ability for all leaders. It’s the key to empathy and gaining a complete understanding of others. By doing so, you’ll form much better relationships with your employees who will feel more valued knowing that they’re being heard and much more likely to open up and share feedback. 

How can I develop more inclusive leaders?

Want to arm your exec team with the tools to become inclusive leaders? You’re in luck. 

Our ‘Be A Leader, Build A Leader’ programme is designed to provide professionals with coaching skills. It shows them how to ask the right questions, listen actively (rather than just telling), lead with empathy and empower their team members - all the skills that are needed to be more inclusive. Our unique approach means that they’ll broaden their cultural understanding by working with diverse communities too. Professionals on our programme practice their new skills by coaching and being coached by underrepresented young adults. It’s a unique approach to leadership development that’s been used by the likes of Facebook, Google, Innocent, Uber and many more. Not only will it impact your team, but you get to impact the life of a young Future Leader too. 

Get in touch today to learn more about the programme and how it could work for your team.