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What Makes an Inclusive Leader?

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Organizational leaders are increasingly leveraging inclusion to attract talent, retain employees, and motivate high creativity and excellence. Indeed, inclusive organizations are 73% more likely to reap 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 have above-average profitability.

Leaders play a particularly critical role: They account for a difference of up to 70 percentage points in employees’ experience of belongingness and psychological safety, and inclusive leaders see a 17% increase in team performance, a 20% increase in decision-making quality, and a 29% increase in team collaboration. Inclusive leaders also cut down employee attrition risk by 76%.

If inclusive leaders are so influential, then inclusive traits like humility, curiosity, and empathy should be treated as critical leadership capabilities rather than simply desirable. What concrete practices do leaders use to consistently foster belongingness and authenticity in their organizations — especially amid all their existing deadlines and demands?

We conducted hour-long structured interviews with 40 DEI award–winning or peer-nominated exemplary inclusive leaders from a wide variety of job functions, organizations, and industries. We identified five key behaviors that help leaders make their organizations more inclusive.

1. Inclusive leaders strive for authenticity rather than leadership presence.

The leaders prioritized authenticity and psychological safety, viewing the two as essential building blocks for creating an environment where people can express themselves freely and air dissenting opinions without fear of retribution. They did this by modeling curiosity, humility, and vulnerability.

For example, several interviewees criticized the idea of leadership presence, which conveys an infallible and superior image that a person has to project in order to be seen as a leader. Instead, they emphasized the importance of sharing their own vulnerabilities, citing it as a crucial ingredient for building trust and psychological safety among their team members. One leader humbly revealed his weaknesses to his staff, while another bravely shared the ups and downs of her career journey in public forums. Yet another leader took it upon herself to share her failures with her team members in an effort to normalize mistakes and foster a culture of learning and growth. Finally, a leader in a design team regularly disagreed with her boss in front of her team so that her team members knew it was OK to question authority.

2. Inclusive leaders redefine the rules rather than unquestioningly following them.

The exemplars of inclusive leadership were not afraid to challenge well-established practices that had outlived their relevance. They actively sought ways to detect practices that excluded certain groups of people and replaced them with new ones that gave more access to underrepresented groups.

For example, one leader in a safety-focused organization broadened the organization’s dress policies, including those pertaining to hair (to be more inclusive of women and African Americans) and tattoos (to be more inclusive of younger people), noting that previous practices were less related to safety and more based on stereotypes.

Another leader in a professional services firm advocated for removing a candidate’s full-time or part-time status from partner promotion criteria because it was irrelevant to a person’s value to the organization, and it tended to penalize working mothers. One HR leader challenged managers to articulate what “culture fit” means in their organization, and formally embedded clear definitions of it into the organization’s hiring guidelines. Several leaders created new team norms to make sure everyone was heard, such as rotating the order in which team members spoke during meetings or rotating the role of agenda-setter so that priorities in different areas would be voiced and addressed over time.

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.

3. Inclusive leaders embrace active learning and consistent implementation.

The interviewed leaders emphasized that the effort to be inclusive is actively learned, rather than passively acquired. They believed that our natural habits or inclinations usually contain biases and need to be constantly examined, challenged, and changed in a planned and consistent manner to pave the way for inclusion. As a leader in a financial services firm put it, we cannot just hope to recruit more women and underrepresented employees — we need to deploy intentional, systematic processes to recruit them.

These intentional efforts take many forms; however, the ones that are especially useful are those that embed DEI practices into the existing processes and systems to ensure consistency and accountability. Examples include mandating diverse candidate pools in recruitment, embedding inclusion efforts into performance metrics, coaching managers to facilitate feedback-giving among their direct reports, and holding managers accountable for their direct reports’ career development.

To ensure accountability, for example, an HR leader in a manufacturing firm trained all managers on how to have listening sessions with their team members, then had managers share ideas for how they could modify their practices based on the responses. Another company used a tracking system to monitor representation of different demographic groups in hiring, voluntary attrition, promotions, and internal mobility, as well as employee satisfaction across different business areas, and hosted quarterly conversations with business leaders about areas to reinforce and change.

Besides formal practices, there are also informal ways leaders can consistently cultivate inclusion. For example, at an insurance company, to commit to understanding different people’s experiences, the mostly white senior leadership team held regular meetings where they discussed books such as White Fragility and books about Black women’s experience in America. Other leaders shared their practices of putting all cultural holidays and celebrations on company calendars, regularly sending out messages to not only celebrate each holiday, but also to offer some meaningful takeaways that are relevant to everyone. By doing so, they ensured that inclusion is a top-of-mind consideration and inspired individuals to actively promote inclusion, irrespective of their own personal backgrounds.

By continuously pursuing and building new learning into established routines and policies that expand their default views and habits, leaders were better prepared to understand and meet the demands of a diverse workforce, creating a more vibrant workplace culture.

4. Inclusive leaders ensure equal opportunity and equitable outcomes.

The leaders we interviewed were highly committed to providing employees with equal opportunities to succeed. To do this, they acknowledged individuals’ particular needs, especially those of team members underrepresented backgrounds. They were also acutely attuned to the invisible obstacles faced by those team members and took proactive measures to support them.

For example, a law firm partner recognized the larger challenges that first-generation lawyers, who often come from underrepresented backgrounds, face compared with their non-first-generation peers. She made sure to provide additional support to these attorneys by sharing more examples of past practices, allocating more time for them to study cases, ensuring they had speaking roles in client meetings, and including more detail in their performance reviews. And a DEI officer at a global technology firm provided not only training for managers to have coaching conversations to support their team members, but also training for team members on how to ask for a raise, get a career-development plan, and obtain buy-in from their managers, as employees from marginalized groups had reported these as particularly challenging. One senior manager in a professional services firm saw herself as an amplifier for underrepresented individuals and regularly voiced their perspectives in front of senior leaders.

By providing support that considers people’s differing needs based on their backgrounds, leaders provided a more level playing field for all team members. When the majority members who perceived some practices as unfair pushed back, the leaders took the time to help them understand why there was a need for differentiated support, related their personal experience, generated empathy, and explained the benefits this support can engender for the whole team and organization.

5. They view inclusive leadership as everyone’s responsibility, not just HR’s.

The interviewees agreed that an organization cannot expect to nurture an inclusive environment by equipping a small cadre of leaders to take up inclusion work. In order to create an inclusive environment, everyone needs to be invested in it.

A common challenge many leaders encounter is the expectation that DEI initiatives are owned and driven primarily by HR. In reality, the most successful DEI initiatives are those that are integrated into organizational core values, because core values serve to rally people around the effort and act as a powerful force against pushback and skepticism. They also allow inclusive efforts in an organization to transcend individual leaders who may come and go, sustaining the commitment to inclusion by solidifying it into the organization’s DNA.

In some organizations, this holistic approach to inclusion is demonstrated in the embedding of DEI into all aspects of the employee life cycle: recruitment, selection, development, and retention. In others, it’s built into the way people carry out their everyday work responsibilities, rather than into specific DEI programs. Various practices bolster this whole-organization approach, such as building inclusion into organizational strategy; communicating to employees that inclusion is not an aspiration, but an expectation; building inclusion criteria into all hiring, compensation, training, promotion, and retention considerations; conveying messages of inclusion on a regular basis; having visible and consistent support for inclusion from top leaders; and developing inclusion ambassadors who represent all areas.

The power of inclusive leadership

All of these inclusive practices encourage all individuals in their organizations to thrive. While inclusion might be misperceived as “going easy on people” or as “just being nice to everyone,” the interviewed leaders spotlighted tangible benefits that inclusion can deliver to everyone.

For example, the leaders found that a diverse and inclusive workplace is a better workplace for all, because it challenges people to come up with new ways to work with those who are different from them; allows people to collaborate in creative ways to build better products and services; generates different methods of getting things done; makes unexpected breakthroughs; instills pride in people; and supports well-being. Further, these positive employee interactions not only benefit internal stakeholders, but also help engage a wider range of customers and strengthen an organization’s reputation, all of which help attract talent and increase the bottom line. To illustrate, a CEO of an engineering firm discussed a time when his company was competing head-to-head with a strong competitor in a contract bid. His company’s years of nurturing diversity and inclusion won him the big contract in the end. He commented that inclusion is “growing the pie.”

In sum, exemplary leaders of inclusion conscientiously leverage information, mindsets, daily practices, and organizational systems to foster inclusion. Leading inclusively calls for action, courage, and ingenuity. In our increasingly hybrid workplace, specific practices may flex to the context, but the principles we identify above remain. When practiced intentionally and adaptively, these efforts can elevate both employee well-being and measurable business outcomes.

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