“When everyone is included, everyone wins.”
“Inclusion is not a matter of political correctness. It’s the key to growth.”
Reverend Jesse Jackson, longtime American civil rights activist, is often quoted on the subject of inclusion, and these two particular axioms are becoming more relevant to business leaders every day.
In a world where diversity (across consumers, markets and workforce talent) is growing, the ability to create an inclusive workplace culture has become an increasingly essential skill for aspiring and established leaders alike. .
The word ‘inclusion’ is often conflated with ‘diversity’. For example, companies may have diversity and inclusion (D&I) training and policies, or D&I leaders on their teams. These terms represent two sides of the same coin. Diversity is about representation, about having people of different genders, races and backgrounds at all levels of an organization. “Diversity” is a state of being.
Inclusion, on the other hand, requires action and intention. It is the deliberate creation of a culture in which a broad mix of talent benefits everyone involved. This also requires a commitment to break down the barriers to achieving this culture.
Developing an inclusive culture is not only ethically the right thing to do, but also makes good business sense. Income levels are rising worldwide and the middle class is expanding in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Consumer demand and traditional product mindsets are changing accordingly. Meanwhile, consumers, especially those under 30, are showing their preference for socially responsible brands.
Progressive organizations recognize the need to innovate to meet the demands of an increasingly diverse and socially conscious consumer base. Building teams that leverage different perspectives and capabilities will give you a competitive advantage.
What does this advantage look like? Inclusion is associated with highly effective teams and a 17% to 29% increase in key metrics such as performance, decision-making and collaboration. Some studies have also linked it to higher overall income. Clearly, companies that embrace diversity and build an inclusive culture have much to gain and little to lose. And what leaders say and do on a daily basis influences the creation of these cultures.
Inclusive environments engage employees on a deeper level. Inspired by a shared mission, they strive to always apply their best. This contributes to a reverse domino effect that benefits their careers, colleagues and clients. As Rev. Jackson said, it’s a win for everyone.
If you want to hone your own inclusive leadership skills, the following steps can help.
1. Cultivate your humility
Humility promotes positive change in your team’s interpersonal relationships. Humble leaders are approachable and empathetic. They challenge their assumptions about others and put themselves in the shoes of their team members. They have faith in their team’s abilities and create a space for them to learn and grow. Humility is contagious and helps break down the artificial distance that often develops between leaders and their staff.
Leading with humility means being open to feedback about inclusive practices and being willing to initiate conversations with team members. Do they feel valued? Do they have the opportunity to live up to their potential? A humble leader will not shy away from these discussions.
2. Make a public commitment
Talk about your dedication to inclusive leadership. This sends an encouraging message to your team and your customers. Ask your team how you can be more inclusive and a better advocate. Your staff and collaborators will appreciate that you make the problem a real priority and not just an afterthought.
3. The root bias
Conquering our own prejudices is not a one-time activity: it is a habit that requires regular practice. Always remember that some factors are advantages for certain people and burdens for others. Both privilege and disadvantage can be fully earned. Question your own worldview and ask others for their perspectives. These are great ways to uncover your biases, and you can’t address them if you don’t expose them first.
4. Be curious and excited about other cultures
Inclusive leaders want to learn about different people and cultures. You need to be more than open-minded, you need to look for opportunities to work with and understand people who are different from you, be it in terms of gender, culture, race or perspective. Train yourself to focus on the connections between people rather than the divisions.
5. Be culturally savvy
Knowledge of other cultures is crucial to inclusive leadership. Be willing to educate yourself so you can more clearly understand your team members’ perspectives. Be open to differences in others’ backgrounds and adapt when you need to.
6. Encourage people to talk
Lip service is not enough. Telling people they are heard and valued is just the beginning. An inclusive leader listens to everyone’s concerns and creates a space where they feel comfortable speaking up when they feel something is wrong. Team members need to know that their concerns are valid, that they are not “being overly sensitive” and that they should not “move on”.
An inclusive work environment means being willing to endure uncomfortable moments. Sometimes it’s easier to let an uninformed or offensive comment slide instead of confronting it. Maybe it was a misunderstanding or it wasn’t meant to hurt. But leaders have a responsibility to address bias-motivated incidents and encourage others to do the same. Let your team members know that whenever they tactfully speak up about unacceptable behavior, they’re doing your organization a service.
7. Increase your self-awareness
Getting to know yourself is a lifelong endeavor. You should never stop trying. Be aware of your thought processes, your ideals and your beliefs. Work to discover and understand your own biases so you can work to correct them. As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “An individual has not begun to live until he can transcend the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”
Of course, to fully achieve this aspiration one would need to be a highly evolved human being, but the desire to persistently move towards this goal is what counts.
A helpful tool to begin your journey of self-examination is Harvard University’s Implicit Association Test. It can help you uncover unconscious biases that may be affecting the way you interact with your team and with others in your life and work.
Embark on your inclusive leadership journey
Whether you lead a team now or aspire to in the future, incorporating these positive steps into your work will serve your career well. Although an inclusive culture must be developed from the top down, it radiates from all levels of an organization.
Consciously nurturing these skills will increase your appeal to employers, as well as your ability to develop meaningful relationships. And that will make working with you a joy.
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All posts are the opinion of the author. Therefore, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the views expressed necessarily reflect the views of the CFA Institute or the author’s employer.
Image credit: Getty Images/©malerapaso
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