The 6 Traits of Inclusive Leadership – Melissa Dawn

Let me ask you… what does it really mean to be an inclusive leader?

Too often, we see organizations claiming to promote diversity, only to learn that it’s far from the truth. It usually takes very little digging to find an all-too-common glass ceiling, problematic workplace cultures, microaggressions, unfair hiring and promotion practices, and so on.

Oftentimes, the organization’s leadership is either unaware of these circumstances, or unaware of just how deep and impactful they truly are. What all organizations need – from small businesses, to Fortune 500s – is a commitment to conscious inclusive leadership.

Inclusive leadership is an approach that actively works toward inclusivity through raw awareness, commitment to truth, and a dedication to doing what’s right. Two key understandings of inclusive leadership are that:

  1. A sense of belonging is critical to individual and organizational success, and that;
  2. Traditional ways of doing things are inherently divisive and exclusionary.

As inclusive leaders we must be committed to building our awareness and going against the grain of traditional leadership.

In this article, we’ll explore:

What Being Inclusive Means in Leadership

Inclusivity is more than diversity. Diversity is about the demographics of the people in your organization; inclusivity is about the culture of your organization. 

Do people regularly and proactively speak their truth? Who shows up to informal get togethers? Are there ‘cliques’ and what is their impact? Who’s getting promoted? Whose voices are heard most? How are opportunities distributed? What’s the atmosphere like at break times or as people are organizing themselves before meetings? Who’s taking advantage of internal development programs? Who isn’t and why might that be?

How do you measure inclusive leadership? You have to look at questions like these – questions that dive into engagement, growth, happiness, and so on – and really dig into the “whos” and “whys” in order to get a measure of how inclusive your leadership and culture currently are. When it comes to true inclusivity, it’s always more than just numbers. It’s the humans those numbers represent.

In leadership, being inclusive is all about that raw awareness mentioned above. Truth can be hard to face, but it empowers you to get clarity on where you need to go next.

As a leader, what can you do differently to cultivate inclusivity? How can you increase your influence in a positive direction? Like so many things, it starts with taking 100%, unconditional responsibility for your part and the traits you bring to your leadership role.

What are the 6 Traits of Inclusive Leadership?

In all things, lead yourself first. I haven’t included that as one of the six traits because I could probably include it as a step, tip or trait for just about everything. Always strive to lead yourself first. Everything else will grow from that.

  • Self-awareness
    In terms of inclusive leadership, you must be aware of your own bias and potential for bias, the strengths that will serve you, and the things you may struggle with.
    Yup. More of that raw awareness. This time, it’s all about looking within in order to be more intentional in your external influence.
    When it comes to bias, you may feel that you’re a fair person and would never discriminate. However, bias is not always easy to spot, even in ourselves.
    Consider the people you interact with most in professional circles. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to spend time with people you relate to more easily. However, as a leader, your role is to help others grow and develop their careers. So much of that happens as a byproduct of informal interactions. Getting to know someone over coffee. Making casual introductions. Asking for input. Listening to ideas and experiences. Sharing an interest. Chatting during lunch. It’s during these kinds of interactions that we develop a more well-rounded picture of someone’s strengths and struggles, and get clarity into the ways we can best serve them.
    If the majority of your informal interactions are with only a few people, only those people are fully benefiting from your leadership. This is one of the ways that unconscious exclusivity happens in the workplace. Commit to broadening your self-awareness, and taking responsibility for your relationships with others.
  • Co-creative mindset
    How do inclusive leaders behave and approach every situation? They adopt a mindset of co-creation; a commitment to seeking out opportunities to create together.
    Creating – designing solutions, developing ideas, uncovering possibilities, etc. – alongside our leaders is a powerful way to learn and grow in experience. When you have a co-creative mindset as a leader, you proactively strive to bring people into those opportunities as much as possible, and especially to bring in people who are likely to think differently from you.
    At its heart, inclusivity is about honouring and welcoming the uniqueness in others. True creativity also demands uniqueness. Thus, a co-creative mindset actively seeks out diversity in order to bring richness to the creative process.
    A co-creative approach is so beneficial for everyone involved. Just by nature of the approach – by striving to create from everything and with anyone – a sense of belonging, mutual respect and a culture of trust begin to grow.
  • Unconditional responsibility
    Each of us must accept unconditional responsibility for our intentions, our choices, and our responses.
    You are not responsible for how other people in your team or organization behave, but you are 100% responsible for how you lead. Whatever is happening within your team, ask yourself how your leadership may be contributing to it, or allowing it to continue.
    Ask yourself who you consider to be the “star players” on your team, then look at everyone else. What barriers might be keeping them from succeeding? What implicit biases might you have that impact how you see them? How are they treated by others on the team and how have you contributed to that? What steps can you take, right now, to shift your mindset and approach?
    In terms of negative or problematic behaviours from others, how have you responded (or not responded) to that in the past? What do you need to take responsibility for and start doing differently?
  • Commitment to integrity
    Integrity is when the way you live aligns with what you say. If you say you want to promote inclusivity, then it’s on you to develop your awareness, educate yourself, be intentional about the daily steps you take, and to take responsibility for when you slip up.
    Most importantly, it’s on you to believe people’s experience. Saying you support your people is one thing. Believing people and stepping up as a leader when they tell you something is wrong is when you put integrity into practice.
    I’m sometimes asked, “What are inclusive leadership competencies?” People want a list of learnable skills that can be put into action and measured. I understand that desire AND I often tell people that it’s less about competencies and skills, and far more about our way of being as leaders.
    Integrity goes to the core of who you are. It’s about owning your humanity. Demand that of yourself, and then demand it of the people you lead. Expect people to speak truthfully, and respect their truth. Do your part to create a culture of integrity that makes it safe and welcoming for people to bring their full selves to work.
  • Openness to learning
    Always assume you have more to learn. Listen more than you speak. Stay open to all possibilities, including your own blindspots.
    Inclusive leaders practice an aversion to assumptions. When they catch themselves assuming that they know what someone else is feeling, thinking or experiencing, they say to themselves, “I’m making an assumption and that is not a co-creative approach. What can I learn here instead?” They get curious about their own mental models, what drives those models, and what needs to shift to open themselves up. Beyond openness, be proactive and take full responsibility for educating yourself. It isn’t the responsibility of your employees or colleagues to educate you about different cultural experiences, navigating the world with a disability, building a career as a woman, and so on. It’s on you as a leader to learn. Read about it. Talk to people in your social circles (if they’re open to talking). Join public online groups, especially awareness groups or ones where people share their experiences. Listen to understand, not to share your two cents.
  • Commitment to equity
    An inclusive leader understands that while everyone may work hard, not everyone is working with the same materials, or starting from the same place. This is where equity comes in. It’s an approach that assumes everyone has the same potential to succeed, and that it’s the role of leadership to provide whatever resources necessary for that potential to be realized.
    Equity takes the previous 5 traits and puts them into action. Look at the people you lead and assume that every single one of them has the same potential to succeed. Get curious about what they may need to make that happen and be open to co-creating solutions. Believe what they tell you and embrace your responsibility for cultivating an environment where success is not just possible, but realistically accessible.

What is Inclusive Leadership Culture?

Inclusive leadership culture sees inclusivity as integral to the organization’s big picture. It’s not a line item; it’s a commitment to fostering an environment where everyone is included exactly as they are.

When diversity melds with inclusivity, corporate cultures become inherently dynamic. Newness is continuously brought in, embraced, and integrated, which empowers greater flexibility, creativity, adaptability, and engagement for everyone. It becomes the norm for difference to be met with curiosity, and for ideas to be discussed openly.

What is an example of inclusive leadership in practice? It’s really about the everyday practices. It’s our daily awareness, choices, and ways of being that create cultures of inclusivity. An example of this would be always noticing and responding to interruptions. When a person from the more widely represented and/or empowered group repeatedly interrupts a person (or people) from marginalized groups, that is a form of discrimination that feeds the experience of not belonging. Sometimes it’s an intentional act, other times it’s an unintentional microaggression. However, even when it’s unintentional, it points to a deeper problem of implicit bias that needs to be addressed. 

Another example might be to stop rewarding people for simply being in the office. Traditional, outdated approaches have rewarded the “first to arrive, last to leave” employees, and those who are willing (and able) to put in extra hours. This has historically disadvantaged huge segments of the working population. Focus instead on what people contribute and actively encourage (and model) a healthy, flexible schedule that allows people to prioritize their lives outside of work.

In an inclusive leadership culture, leaders accept and embrace their role in changing “the way things are”. They understand that a huge part of human behaviour is unconscious, and that it’s a leader’s role to shine a light on what needs to change, and actively lead that change. They also recognize that “the way things are” was designed by humans (and can, therefore, be changed by humans), and was created by groups and systems that were inherently discriminatory. 

When people are included exactly as they are – i.e. not expected to fit themselves into an existing, static culture – not only does that create a wider sense of belonging, it also makes it safe for anyone to explore different perspectives and bring their unique strengths and ideas forward. In this way, organizations can become more innovative, productive, creative and adaptable.

How Do You Promote Inclusive Leadership?

Just one person commiting to inclusive leadership can start a shift. However, getting your full leadership team on board can have a far greater impact.

So, once you’re committed, how do you get others on board? Here are a few steps you can take as a leader:

  • Use your privilege.
    If you’re in a leadership role, you are in a position of privilege within your organization. People likely listen to you and assume you know what you’re talking about. Use that.
    Speak with other leaders in your organization. Talk to HR. Talk to leaders above you. Offer to spearhead a company-wide movement. Seek out workshops, training and coaching opportunities and push to get them brought in.
    Most importantly, speak out. When you see behaviour that isn’t right, recognize that you are in a far safer position to vocalize it, and do so. When you see an opportunity to create more inclusivity, vocalize that. Refuse to be silent on the issue. Use. Your. Privilege.
  • Practice mentorship.
    As an inclusive leader, mentoring is a powerful way to actively lift up others. So many diversity initiatives focus on hiring and fail at facilitating career development. Remember your commitment to equity and look for the people who could benefit most from a mentorship relationship with a truly inclusive leader; a leader who is open to learning and co-creation.
    When you actively work to bring others up within the organization, it starts to change the face of leadership, which has a domino effect.
  • Cultivate inclusive teams.
    In your role, you likely have a say over who is in your team, who is assigned certain projects, who works together, and so on. This is a huge opportunity to promote inclusive leadership and an overall culture of inclusivity.
    Of course avoid micromanaging the actual work, but do take an active role in bringing people together. When working across teams or departments, be intentional about who you assign as your team or department’s point of contact. If there are people on your team who rarely speak up, seek to create opportunities for them to share their ideas or what they’re working on.
    As you do this, stay aware of problematic behaviours like microaggressions. Ask yourself why some people may not speak up. Are some people interrupted more than others? Who’s doing the interrupting? Are some people consistently left out of meetings they should be at?
    A great way to start building an inclusive team is to begin with how meetings are conducted. There are some great tips here for leading inclusive meetings.

What Are the Benefits of Being Inclusive?

Beyond simply being the right thing to do – which should be reason enough – inclusivity benefits organizations in numerous ways.

Here are just a few examples of the benefits:

  • Deloitte Australia found an 80% uplift in business performance when employees felt included and believed their organization was committed to diversity.
  • Gartner reported that:
    • In 2022, it’s projected that 75% of organizations with decision-making teams “reflecting a diverse and inclusive culture will exceed their financial targets.”
    • “Gender-diverse and inclusive teams outperformed gender-homogeneous, less inclusive teams by 50%, on average.”
  • Glassdoor reported that 76% of job-seekers say diversity is an important factor for them in evaluating organizations and job offers.
  • Forbes reported that during the “Great Recession” of 2009, while so many companies suffered significant losses, those “that remained highly diverse and inclusive” experienced stock performance gains of over 14%.
  • McKinsey reported that companies in the top quarter for racial and ethinic diversity were 35% more likely to have higher financial returns than other companies.

Further, if you don’t believe that inclusivity is an issue for your organization, it’s worth noting that Deloitte University found that approximately 75% of all employees engage in “covering” at work, meaning they actively and intentionally strive to cover or hide aspects of themselves that may be seen as different and a barrier to fitting into the existing corporate culture.

When people feel the need to cover up a part of who they are, they don’t feel included, they don’t feel psychologically safe, they hesitate to bring forward anything that might set them apart, and they certainly cannot bring their full energy and brilliance to the work that they do. 

I generally encourage people to avoid assumptions. But, if we’re to make any assumptions at all, assume that this is already impacting your team and organization, and assume that you can take an active role in shifting that.

If you would like guidance in developing inclusive leadership within yourself, your team or organization, I invite you to connect with me.

Key Takeaways:

  • Raw and honest self-awareness, paired with unconditional responsibility, is foundational to inclusive leadership.
  • The systems and “ways of being/doing” in place today are rooted in discrimination and exclusivity. Assume they are problematic, assume they can be changed, and assume that you can play a role in that change as a leader.
  • Curiosity, paired with integrity (a commitment to ‘walking your talk’), is a powerful agent of change. Lean into it.

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