Inclusive Leadership in the Workplace

CoachHub · 1 June 2022 · 8 min read

The missing piece – Inclusion

Diversity, equity & inclusion in the workplace initiatives have received much attention in the last years, especially in the context of globalization and demographic change. Companies are facing multiple challenges in the pursuit to improve their diversity management practices and implementing diversity throughout the whole organization. And still many of them find themselves asking the question:

Now, once we succeed in fulfilling the different diversity criterias, how do we start benefiting from Diversity?

What is the missing element that will unite all the puzzle pieces of diversity together, and make sure that they complement each other while creating one complete and colorful picture?

The right answer here is – Inclusive Leadership.

What is inclusion in the workplace and how does it differ from diversity? What is inclusive leadership and what strategies and typical behaviors define an inclusive leader? How can digital coaching support the development of inclusive leadership and foster an inclusive culture?

Diversity is not inclusion in the workplace

“Diversity does not mean inclusion. Sometimes, we have diversity around the table but not inclusion. Diversity means we have everyone around the table. Inclusion means that everyone feels safe to speak”  CoachHub coach Kaveh Mir

Diversity is known for many benefits it provides the organizations with, among others better decision-making, creativity and innovation, as well as improvement of financial performance (McKinsey, 2020?). However, focusing on diversity – efforts to recruit, develop, and promote individuals from underrepresented groupsdoesn’t guarantee that their individual potential is fully realized, their voices are heard and  incorporated in organizational decisions (Randel et al. 2018). Here are some numbers published by McKinsey (2020) that illustrate some challenges around inclusion:

61 % of employees feel negative about the inclusivity of their organizational cultures (McKinsey, 2020). Without inclusion many employees don’t feel comfortable to speak up and find themselves under pressure to set aside some aspects of themselves in order to fit in.

In a survey of employees, 84 % of respondents have experienced workplace microaggressions (McKinsey, 2020). When employees are considered as “quotas” that merely represent a particular social group and not a rightful member of the team, they might fall under stereotyping or even exclusion from the working collective.

The experiences of disrespect, discrimination or exclusion at work can result in employees experience high stress levels or burnout. How many of them feel disengaged from work, decide to  take a sick leave or quit their job?

Thus diversity without inclusion won’t work and many of the potential benefits of diversity get lost due to the perceived lack of inclusion.

So how do we create an inclusive culture where people dare to speak up and feel safe to challenge ideas? Where employees feel accepted and respected at work and can realize their full potential?

Diversity and Inclusion in Business

Inclusive Leadership and inclusion in the workplace

Inclusive leadership may be the answer to this. The idea that lays at the heart of inclusive leadership is:

We all want to belong and we want to be special. Whether our working environment allows us to fulfill these two basic needs defines how inclusive and accordingly how attractive we perceive our membership in the team.

Inclusive leadership is a set of positive behaviors performed by leaders that takes these basic needs into consideration and makes it easier for team members to feel that they really belong to the team. At the same time, the leader enables employees to maintain their uniqueness within the team while contributing to team processes and outcomes. (Randel et al. 2018)

In this way, inclusive leadership is about acknowledging that we are different, come from various backgrounds, had unequal advantages and opportunities, but we are much more than just the combination of social categories we belong to.  It’s about embracing our uniqueness, celebrating the diversity within and between us, and feeling that we belong and our contributions are valued. And finally, it’s about recognising how our differences and individual characteristics can become our advantages in the working context.

Benefits of Inclusive Leadership

No wonder, this affects the way we relate to our colleagues and feel about ourselves and our work. In fact, a number of positive emotional and psychological outcomes that are associated with perceived inclusion have been reported by scientists and practitioners:

  • A sense of psychological safety
  • Psychological empowerment of employees
  • High-quality relations with group members
  • Perceived organizational support
  • A rise in organizational commitment
  • Increased job satisfaction
  • A boost in well being

( Qi et al., 2019; Randel et al., 2018; Shore et al., 2011) 

At the same time,teams with inclusive leaders demonstrate positive hard outcomes that go beyond individual wellbeing and are beneficial to the goals of the whole organization. According to Deloitte (2021), teams with inclusive leadership

  • are 17% more likely to report that they are high performing
  • are 20% more likely to say they make high-quality decisions
  • and 29% more likely to report behaving collaboratively

These positive outcomes of inclusion in the workplace are indeed attractive. However it poses a great challenge for leaders who need to support diverse workforces to function well together and create the atmosphere of psychological safety that fosters creativity and good team performance.

So how can a leader implement inclusive practices to ensure a more welcoming and inclusive environment that facilitates the experience of being an insider for all members of the work group?

Behaviors of Inclusive Leaders

What do we know about inclusive leaders: what are the qualities and behaviors they demonstrate?

Randel et al. (2018) believe characteristics of inclusive leaders to be: pro-diversity beliefs, humility, and cognitive complexity.  On the one hand, inclusive leadership is about open communication, support and empathy. It involves showing interest and attending to follower needs and expectations. On the other hand, it is about empowering employees with information and resources to help them make their own important work decisions and take up challenges (Sabharwal,2014; Choi et al., 2015). At the same time, Gallegos (2013) emphasizes that it goes beyond showing compassion and working on the soft skills – it also means having courage and making tough decisions. It’s about building deeper relations, true acceptance and empowerment, that model courage and guide through challenges.

How can a leader support their team in bringing their authentic self to work and living up to their best potential?

There are five categories of inclusive leadership behaviors which facilitate the perception of inclusion and should be considered by leaders:

Facilitates belonging

  1. Supports individuals as group members, ensures effective collaboration and fosters team cohesion
  2. Ensures justice and equity through visible commitment and actions to D&I
  3. Gives space for other opinions & shares  decision-making

Values uniqueness

  1. Encourages diverse contributions by demonstrating an open mindset, curiosity about others & empathy
  2. Helps group members fully contribute by embracing authenticity, promoting self-esteem and making sure every voice is heard

(adapted from Randel et al. 2018 & Bourke & Titus, 2020)

Exercises

The good news is – inclusive leaders are not born this way, and all of us can work on learning the skills and applying the right behaviors to increase inclusivity at our workplace.

I invite you to think of 2-3 things you can start doing already today to foster inclusion at your workplace. Try to be as specific as possible.

For example:

  • How can you moderate a discussion to make sure everyone is involved: will you address people personally/ will you speak to the whole team? How much shall you speak and how much space shall you leave to the contributions of others?
  • What exactly can you say or do to encourage all team members to contribute their perspectives or involve them in the decision-making process?
    • When will you do it: at the beginning of a team meeting/ after a project presentation?
    • What communication channels will you use for that: communicate it personally/ send an email/ set a reminder?
  • How will you react to perspectives that might differ from your own?
    • And again, what exactly can you say or do in response to demonstrate empathy and indicate a psychologically safe space?

Take some time to think about it, try out different scenarios. And remember, however ambitious the final destination may sound, the road to big goals begins with small steps!

Digital Coaching & Inclusive Leadership

As we have seen, the task of an inclusive leader is not easy. It requires deep self-awareness, good interpersonal skills and an open mindset. Digital coaching can support leaders in becoming more self-reflective and aware of unconscious biases, develop empathy and improve relational skills. It offers a space to explore and understand the impact of one’s own behaviors, reflect on relationships within the team and how inclusive one is as a leader. Through working on recognizing one’s own values and embracing one’s own authenticity, one learns to recognize and appreciate the uniqueness in others. Improved individual wellbeing, perception of meaning increase the quality and satisfaction with social connections and lead to a sense of belonging. Besides, digital coaching presents an individualized approach that allows leaders to develop their own solutions that are tailored to their respective context and take into account the existing organizational culture around DE&I.

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Digital Coaching & Inclusion in the Workplace

Inclusive leadership is a group effort.

A lot in the perception of inclusiveness depends on what exactly the leader says and does (up to 70%! According to Bourke & Titus), but ultimately, it comes to the whole team and involvement of different stakeholders to implement an inclusive culture throughout the whole organization. Digital coaching can support leaders in becoming role models who mentor others in ways that facilitate inclusion experiences among organizational members. It can be used to improve skill and competencies in inclusion across all leadership levels, who then can directly reinforce behaviors that support inclusion experiences and contribute to a climate of inclusion.

Coaching can become the safe space to engage in meaningful conversations related to our identities, power, and  privilege. Where one can develop individual strategies to challenge biases and stereotypes that exist in the organization, and learn how to promote a more inclusive culture.

Conclusion

It is clear that for those who believe that people and values matter, focus on Diversity, Equity & Inclusion becomes an essential part of their identity. Inclusive Leadership can offer them the missing element that, by creating a space that feels safe and is challenging at the same time, by fostering good quality relationships and helping us to be at our best, unites the single puzzle pieces together. Puzzle pieces  – that are all unique and yet can be united with each other to form a complete and beautiful picture.

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