When people feel included at work, they are more likely to ‘go the extra mile’, and feel committed to the organisation. Their performance is therefore likely to be better—and they will contribute more to the organisation’s own performance. Research shows that the single most important factor in whether people feel included is what their leaders do and say, and the way that they behave towards and around others.
Organisations are therefore increasingly looking to develop and nurture inclusive leadership. However, this leads to some big questions, including the key characteristics of inclusive leaders, and how leaders can embrace a more inclusive approach. This page explores these issues.
Defining Inclusive Leadership
There is broad agreement about the definition of inclusive leadership (see box), although some variation on the detail.
Definitions of inclusive leadership
“Inclusive leaders are 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.”
Center for Creative Leadership (executive education provider)
“The capacity to manage and lead a heterogeneous group of people efficiently, while respecting their uniqueness in an empathetic, bias-free way.”
Workable.com (recruitment software company)
“A style of leadership where leaders seek collaboration and communication with colleagues to carry out effective decision-making and problem-solving in the workplace.”
Indeed.com (recruitment company)
All these definitions recognise that inclusive leadership is more effective. They also recognise that it is essential in diverse workplaces and as workforces become more diverse.
Finally, they also agree that it is about involving others and collaborating as a way to improve decision-making—and this is perhaps the most important aspect.
Inclusive leadership makes for better decisions, and therefore improved organisational performance. It is a way to harness the diversity of the organisation and its stakeholders to obtain more insights into customers and markets, and develop better and more innovative ideas.
The History of Inclusive Leadership
The concept of inclusive leadership has been around for a while.
Researchers at Deloitte started to develop an interest in the idea in about 2011. Juliet Bourke, formerly human capital partner at Deloitte, and now a professor in the School of Management and Governance at the University of New South Wales, Australia, published an article in 2016 that discussed the need for a new type of leader. These leaders would not just accept and embrace differences between individuals, but actually use them to give the organisation a clear competitive advantage.
This is necessary because the world itself is becoming more diverse. Businesses are increasingly trying to break into new markets, and their customers are changing and becoming more diverse. They also face growing diversity of ideas, with disruptive innovation becoming more common (and you can find out more about this in our page on Innovation Skills).
Fortunately, employee pools are also becoming far more diverse, giving organisations the opportunity to tap into greater diversity of thinking—provided their leaders are able to facilitate that.
Six Characteristics of Inclusive Leaders
Deloitte’s research suggests that there are six important characteristics shared by inclusive leaders.
Visible commitment. Inclusive leaders are fully and visibly committed to diversity. They are prepared to challenge the status quo, hold others accountable for their actions, and otherwise show that they have made diversity and inclusion a personal priority.
Humility. Inclusive leaders are modest about their abilities and skills. They are prepared to admit mistakes, and recognise that they do not know everything or have all the answers. This therefore enables others to contribute effectively.
Awareness of bias. Inclusive leaders are acutely aware that they will have unconscious biases, but work to expose, understand and reduce them. They also understand that systems as well as people may be biased, and that others may need help to overcome systemic flaws.
Curiosity. Inclusive leaders are open-minded and interested in others. They show curiosity about others’ experiences and views, ask questions, and listen without making judgement. Perhaps most importantly, they show good empathy, and aim to understand others by ‘walking in their shoes’.
Cultural intelligence. Cultural intelligence is the ability to adapt and respond to other cultures. People with high cultural intelligence tend to interpret gestures and signals from someone from another culture in the same way as that person’s compatriots would do. Inclusive leaders notice and adapt to other cultures quickly and easily.
Effective collaboration. Inclusive leaders work well with others, and get the best out of teams and groups. They are able to empower others effectively, and build strong teams that work together well. They also make space for diversity of thinking and ideas, and provide a place of psychological safety for all those involved.
The Most Important Characteristic of Inclusive Leaders
It turns out that these characteristics are not all equally important.
For leaders themselves, the most important of these characteristics is commitment. Without that, they will not bother to develop the other characteristics.
For followers, the most important characteristic of an inclusive leader is awareness of bias. However, to be effective, this must be coupled with two other traits:
- Humility, to give them a willingness to change to first understand and then address their biases, rather than simply accept them; and
- Empathy, to understand and ‘hear’ others fully, and ensure that they understand their perspectives.
Taken together, these two additional traits encourage others to provide feedback to their leaders, because they know that it will be accepted and considered. This is an essential part of becoming more inclusive.
Developing Inclusive Leadership
What can leaders do to develop their ability to lead inclusively?
The first and most important aspect is to become more aware of their own biases (and there is more about this in our page on Understanding and Addressing Unconscious Bias). A good start is to seek feedback from those around you—including those you manage, your managers, and your peers. Looking beyond the ‘traditional’ can also be helpful: feedback from customers, suppliers and those you work with in other organisations can also identify some useful perspectives.
Juliet Bourke’s research suggests that leaders may want to establish what she calls a ‘personal advisory board’ of peers who can be trusted to provide honest feedback and information. This might be formal or informal, but should include people who can observe the leader’s behaviour under ‘normal’ circumstances, not just ‘special occasions’.
Leaders can also show their willingness to learn by discussing what they have learned in team meetings or other sessions. This can also help them to test their insights in a wider forum. Another tactic is to spend time in different parts of the workplace each week. For example, the chief executive of a hospital might spend time on wards, in the pathology labs, in outpatient clinics or services and so on. This would expose them to different perspectives, and also make them more visible and available for conversations.
A Virtuous Circle
Leaders who want to be more inclusive will genuinely be open to learning more about themselves and others. They will be clear that they do not have all the answers, and will ask for feedback and information to inform themselves more fully. This will provide more insights into their own and others’ situations. This will, in turn, show them how much more they need to learn, and create the conditions for both learning and involving others in their development.
In other words, done right, developing more inclusive leadership is actually a virtuous circle that creates both learning and inclusion.
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