The DNA of Inclusive Leadership

by Audrey Smith, Ph.D. and Debra Walker, DDI

Open, unique, valued, team-oriented, transparent, everyone, inviting, and belonging. These are words people use when asked to describe their understanding of inclusive leadership. They also portray how employees feel in an environment where diversity isn’t just invited, but is ignited, to realize better outcomes.

What differentiates inclusive leaders from others is that they take purposeful, explicit actionto leverage the abilities, perspectives, styles and ideas of each individual for the success of the organization and its people.

Inclusive leaders routinely and purposefully tap into the hidden potential within their organization and, as a result, are more likely to retain it. Being on the receiving end of inclusion offers greater opportunities to feel wanted, heard, and engaged across an array of naturally occurring and even unexpected forums.

Beyond the personal implications, the business case and associated urgency around driving inclusion is strong. The Conference Board’s 2019 C Suite Challenges reveal that the single most pressing priority for today’s CEOs revolve around attracting and retaining top talent, and driving innovation is the second most-frequently cited enabler/threat to long-term viability. These are not independent issues—organizational cultures that promote inclusion create advantage in both realms. Employees are eager to join and reluctant to leave an evolving organization where they feel personal belonging and a sense of purpose.

And, as Daniel Pink points out, breakthrough insights that drive innovation are rarely produced on demand. New, provocative insights more frequently come from associates who feel secure in a “speak up” culture. These high-value perspectives can provide unique discoveries about the customer, processes, policies, and the market. A Harvard Business Review article, High Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety, indicates that the culture must allow “for moderate risk-taking, speaking your mind, creativity, and sticking your neck out without fear of having it cut off.” Psychological safety is a key component of inclusion.

The challenges of inclusive leadership

Many leaders conceptually understand the importance of inclusion, so why is it so hard to achieve? What are the common challenges to inclusive leadership?

One of the biggest is leaders’ ingrained tendency to default to a familiar group of proven players to solve their greatest challenges. We’ve identified this as one of the biggest obstacles to truly unleashing hidden potential within a team, as well as within an organization. The reality is that today’s leaders constantly face pressures around focus, alignment around common priorities, speed to productivity, and efficient deployment of resources. They also face legitimate risks and fear of failure, so much so that confidence in like-minded thought partners can supersede their proclaimed openness to differences and new ideas.

We’ve seen senior executives unapologetically adopt this stance. For example, “I know John and Maria can do this, as they’ve done it before, and we have to move quickly. Everyone should not have to be involved in every decision”. One can certainly buy this rationale, yet there are many times when leaders can and should pause to gather diverse insights and perspectives. There are more opportunities than they acknowledge to offer a relatively unknown associate a chance to address a business-critical issue. An example would be inviting a first-time leader to help define her organization’s public facing social responsibility strategy.

These missed opportunities are missed investments, as employees grow the most and feel the most engaged when involved in solving “real business challenges”. The tendency to go to the same group of people goes hand in hand with a risk adverse culture. Inclusion evaporates when leaders and associates are terrified of making a mistake, so they hunker down into sameness.

Leadership superpowers that nourish inclusion

Inclusive leaders proactively recognize and encourage individuals who may be overlooked or not heard due to role, style, history, or experience (or perceived lack of). They make it clear their input is respected and offer platforms to encourage team members to speak up and share their perspectives.

  1. Emotional Intelligence. A leader must be self-aware enough to understand both her impact on others, as well as the triggers and vulnerabilities for those whose contributions may be underleveraged. While many of us purport a lack of overt bias, inclusive leaders are acutely aware of and attuned to potential areas of unconscious bias that can affect their teams.
  2. Curiosity. Leaders who actively seek input and listen to understand, will be exposed to possibilities not even on their radar. For example, they may gain new insights into customer empathy—important fuel for innovation.
  3. Humility. Humble leaders recognize the more they know, the more they don’t know. Conversely, arrogant leaders overestimate the value of their own ideas and contributions. A top sales executive we know often looks to those who joined his organization from segments outside his industry to challenge legacy assumptions around what will work. This has led to fresh new ideas.
  4. Fair play and devotion to inclusion. A new Deloitte study, The Six Significant Traits of Inclusive Leadership highlights the bottom-line recognition leaders need both a strong sense of fair play and a true appreciation of the business case for inclusion to effectively foster a thriving culture. As a result, numerous successful organizations have added “workforce fairness” to their diversity and inclusion vision statements. The perception that leaders are fair, and policies and practices are also fair, is foundational for an inclusive environment.

Dysfunctional behaviors that feed exclusion

  1. Perceived favoritism. Increasing emphasis on workplace fairness underscores dysfunctional leadership behaviors that feed exclusion, such as perceived favoritism for select team members. While inclusion does not mean inviting everyone into everything, perceived preferential treatment or attention can undermine confidence for those who do not feel part of the ingroup. A painful, and not-so-subtle example of favoritism at work is the leader who kicks off conference calls with a lukewarm greeting to several team members while warmly and enthusiastically greeting others.
  2. Impulsivity and rush to judgment. Two other derailing leader behaviors that annihilate inclusion are impulsive judgment and perfectionism. Employees are not going to be willing to think out loud if they know the reaction from their leader may be discouragement, or a quick thumbs down.
  3. Perfectionism. People won’t share early concepts if the perfect solution is all that’s acceptable. What’s worse is perfectionism often leads to anxiety, procrastination, and, eventually, stagnation. Ideas won’t be shared and work won’t be done if the only acceptable outcome is perfection.
  4. Arrogance. Finally, for decades we have coached leaders about managing their “telling versus seeking” ratio. Common sense dictates that inclusion demands more seeking and listening and much less telling. Ultimately this conveys real curiosity and respect.

How do you begin to model, market, and live your inclusive leader brand? Another recent Harvard Business Review article recommends: “Articulate authentic commitment, challenge the status quo, and make inclusion a personal priority.” Take stock of your superpowers that amplify inclusion and identify any dysfunctional behaviors to avoid. Associates can be accepting of a truthful statement of intent: “We have a long way to go to achieve an inclusive culture in which everyone without exception is valued. I intend to work on it and will make mistakes”. Then, be willing to hear the feedback.

Bring in the Outliers: Identify, Engage, and Advocate for Diverse Voices

Inclusive leaders purposefully tap into the power of diversity within their organizations by proactively identifying and engaging individuals who may have been excluded and invite them to the table. They make it clear that their input is respected and offer platforms to encourage team members to speak up and share their perspectives.

We know a leader who always seeks to identify towering strengths in each team member and highlights those strengths in meetings. One very quiet direct report has strong digital technology skills. The leader routinely engages this team member by asking his input around technology issues. That respect and inclusion was noticed by others, which created a sense of shared accountability to bring out the best in each other. The associate with digital expertise began to offer support to others who struggled with technology which greatly fostered collaboration, teamwork, and efficiency.

Finally, advocating for associates whose contributions may remain underrecognized or appreciated is crucial for inclusivity. Nothing accelerates a career like offering bold development opportunities. An example at DDI is that of a new junior associate who was given an important market research assignment. She wowed the senior leadership team as she led the presentation around results and team observations. Inclusive leaders find those spotlights for team members and amplify their value.

Inclusion is a catalyst for deriving personal purpose and meaning. This is captured in an old African tradition that parallels today’s dialogue about purposeful, inclusive behaviors. When one encounters another person emerging into their presence, they say, “I see you,” and which is met with, “I am here.” This is meant to mutually validate the presence, value and humanity of one another.

Similarly, inclusive leaders unleash the confidence for all to feel visible, heard, and, in turn, show up as our best selves, every day. This is the essence of the human experience: In the end, it’s the people that drive competitive superiority and commercial and social sustainability for their organization.