Characteristics of an inclusive leader

Inclusive leadership now goes way beyond workplace policy; for many successful organisations it’s embedded in their culture. And it’s no secret that culture comes from leadership.

However, while most organisations have placed Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) firmly in their mantra, often it’s only represented by words. The reality is, if you want your organisation to truly embrace DEI it must be lived. And lived by everyone within the organisation.

In this article, we look at what makes an inclusive leader and what it takes to embody inclusion throughout workplace culture.

Why DEI has moved to the top of the agenda

As explained in the OECD Recommendation on Public Service Leadership and Capability (PDF), when people feel truly accepted for who they are and know that their opinions count they are loyal and more productive. Teams are respectful and work collaboratively, and incidents of burnout, mental illness and absenteeism are dramatically reduced.

On the flipside true inclusiveness is also attractive to customers.

While the world has always been diverse, customers are now demanding a deeper understanding from organisations. Migration, digital and social media, changing cultural attitudes; they’ve all diverged to give individuals a voice. And a loud one at that.

Many leading organisations have realised that they can either listen to those voices and tap into their needs, or risk losing them. Their answer? Enlist the skills of varied individuals throughout their own workforce, at every level. Because only then can they obtain unique perspectives, improve problem solving, and be truly authentic with all customers.

DEI in the DNA

So what is diversity? It’s much deeper than some may think. A truly diverse workforce ranges from individuals with physical differences through to their upbringing and how they think. Unique insights can come from anyone with differences in:

  • Nationality
  • Gender
  • Cultural background
  • Indigenous background
  • Religious background
  • Disability
  • Mental health
  • Sexuality
  • Age
  • Demographics
  • Educational background
  • Personality – such as extroverts and introverts
  • Personal presentation
  • Political ideals
  • Life experiences
  • Attractiveness

As touched on earlier, inclusiveness isn’t just meeting a target with a few ‘different sorts of people’ occupying seats. It’s an acceptance and willingness of leaders to give equal, non-judgmental opportunities to every member of the team – based on meritocracy and as part of the workplace process.

This is easier said than done. Because as we know, personal bias can be a difficult thing to recognise.

Recognising bias

Workplace bias begins from the moment of recruitment. The way the job ad was written, or the recruitment agency was briefed (along with the attitudes of some recruiters) can all affect the diversity of applicants.

This flows into the interview process – with little appreciation that the applicant’s life experiences may influence how they present themselves. The process then becomes less about ability or aptitude and more about personality and whether they reflect the disposition of the interviewer – which is a completely natural human trait, as we all gravitate to people who are like minded.

In an insightful Deloitte article, Six Signature Traits of An Inclusive Leader (PDF), the authors state that ‘inclusive leaders are highly sensitised to two fundamental phenomena: personal bias – such as homophily, and process bias – such as confirmation bias and group think.’

They continue in the article to explain that time pressures and fatigue can also make leaders more vulnerable to bias. This is why it’s so important for leaders to be introspective and recognise their own personal leanings, be self-regulatory and develop collective strategies. Without these interventions they often sway towards self-cloning and self-interest. This may not be in the best interest of the organisation.

Some examples of subtle bias covered in the article include:

  • When people judge others according to unconscious stereotypes
  • The tendency to connect with others who look and act like us
  • A tendency to favour members of popular groups and neglect members of less popular groups
  • When the wrong reason is used to explain someone’s behaviour. (Which can be amplified one way or the other – depending on how popular they are.)
  • Seeking or interpreting information that confirms one’s existing beliefs
  • Group think: When the desire for group harmony overrides rational decision making.

The article’s authors also look at what constitutes an environment of fair play. They refer to these as ‘three factors of fairness’:

  1. Outcome: Are pay, performance ratings, development and promotional opportunities allocated on the basis of capability and effort? 
  2. Process: In deciding the above outcomes, are the processes:
    1. transparent
    2. applied consistently
    3. based on accurate information
    4. free from bias
    5. inclusive of the views of individuals affected by the decisions?
  3. Communication: Are the reasons for decisions and processes fully explained to those affected? Is everyone treated respectfully?
    1. inclusive of the views of individuals affected by the decisions?

‘It needs to be part of the business plan, management conversations, and targets, and you need to have an objective way of assessing whether you are achieving what you want to achieve.’

Mike Henry,
President of Operations
Minerals for Australia, BHP Billiton

On an individual level, however, it’s not just about setting objectives. Inclusive leaders know that they always need to walk the talk and lead by example.

Having courage

Inclusive leaders display integrity with their agenda; consistency in their communications; and authenticity in their actions. They also show a deep curiosity of everyone around them (to gain new perspectives) and are willing to share their own vulnerabilities – which can take a lot of personal courage. However, most would agree that displaying humility is a strength in itself.

It also takes courage to speak out against systemic bias – especially in the case of whistle -blowing. And on a micro level, it’s essential to speak up and challenge stakeholders about their behaviours which may impact others.

Understanding others

Inclusive leaders don’t just have an open mindset and curiosity of others, they have an ability to suspend their personal beliefs to understand and truly connect with individuals who are different to them.

This enables leaders to get a wider perspective of their team’s talents, weaknesses, potential opportunities, and potential issues. It also contributes to nuanced decision making and opens the doors for team members to offer honest opinions and contribute to problem solving without fear of judgment.

Embracing cultural diversity

Having an appreciation for different cultures is essential in today’s workplace – but often neglected. Inclusive leaders ask themselves (and team members) a lot of questions.

For instance, how is the culture they’re dealing with different from their own? Are there similarities they can connect with? Do they understand how some upbringings may impact an individual’s worldview? Are they aware of what verbal and non-verbal interactions are appropriate to use? Is cultural stereotyping happening within the team?

As with understanding individuals, understanding specific cultures will provide a deeper appreciation of an employee or a specific group’s response to situations. It can also uncover unique passions and motivations that can deliver a diversity of ideas.

Open communication and collaboration

Regardless team member orientation, transparency with communication and open collaboration will always garner trust. This is a key trait of inclusive leaders, and it helps them to leverage ideas from every person in the group. It also sets an example for the wider team – encouraging them to accept different perspectives and explore divergent thinking.

For those of you who have studied Edward De Bono, you would already value the randomness of lateral thinking and appreciate that there is no right or wrong answers. Team diversity provides a similar approach – as long as all players are open and fearless with their collaborations.

While there is still scope for process bias to creep into idea generation and problem solving, inclusive leaders will have the foresight to mitigate it within the team.

As discussed in Six Signature Traits of An Inclusive Leader (PDF), inclusive leaders are ‘attuned to the propensity of fault lines to fracture the team into subgroups – which can weaken relationships and create conflict. They proactively employ strategies that foster a sense of ‘one team’, creating a superordinate group identity and shared goals. And they work to ensure people understand and value the bank of knowledge and capabilities across the group’.

Essentially, truly inclusive leaders appreciate that every individual has something to offer. Unearthing that special something is up to them.

In our next article, I’ll be discussing how to implement DEI strategies – particularly from that essential recruitment stage. Until then, I wish you a truly diverse and inclusive September.

We understand that no two organisations are the same, and we pride ourselves in our ability to obtain a thorough understanding of your business. Most importantly, we listen, this allows us to develop a recruitment solution that is completely tailored to your needs. We aim to build strong relationships and forge long term recruitment partnerships with all our clients.

We have a wide network of executive talent looking for new opportunities and can source senior professionals across a variety of industries. Feel free to contact me for a non-obligation chat.

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