Inclusive leadership: a strategic competitive advantage

April 20, 2021 - 12 min read

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Why now is the time to lean into inclusive leadership

Best practices of inclusive leadership

“When we set upon the search for truth, we should not assume that we already know for certain what truth is.” — Mary McLeod Bethume.

Over the last few years, we have seen the trends impacting our changing world of work amplify and intensify. 

We have noticed ever greater demands being placed on team members to draw connections and tap into new ideas. We have also witnessed industries and companies rise and fall overnight, working hard to redefine their value proposition and explore ways to stay relevant and thrive. 

Now, more than ever, there is value in leveraging teams of diverse backgrounds, ages, experiences, genders, and viewpoints. 

As the world continues to grapple with rapid change, there is an acknowledgment that, for many complex problems, what used to work is not likely to work in the future. There has never been a more opportune time to tap into the best practices of inclusive leadership. 

A number of years ago, I took an in-depth look at a number of key trends impacting how teams work together to deliver on value and look ahead. 

One of my key findings focused on the fact that today’s creative economy is driven by innovation and competition. Organizations need structures that support innovation around increasing scale (Hughes, 2013). This is relevant today as organizations across the board are having to find new ways to deliver value amid market, environmental, and social shifts

Another key finding from my research Clough (2009) highlights the fact that “organizations with a diverse group of people from different age groups offering a range of views, opinions, and perspectives are almost always going to be more effective, more likely to produce creative and innovative approaches, and have a greater long-term advantage over their competitors.” 

For some organizations, inclusive leadership represents a tick–the–box exercise. However, considering the type of novel and complex problems we are likely to face moving forward, can leaders afford not to lean into the principles of inclusive leadership? 

Hudson Jordan defines inclusive leadership as…” creating an environment of involvement, respect, and connection — where the richness of ideas, backgrounds, and perspectives are harnessed to create business value.”

Engaging people from diverse backgrounds and perspectives through participatory decision-making and engaging in the act of diverging and then converging can markedly enhance an organization’s ability to achieve better business results. 

Inclusion is the skill that makes diversity work, and diversity is proven to make companies more successful. So, therefore, embracing inclusivity is the smart thing to do as a leader.

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Why now is the time to lean into inclusive leadership

Leveraging workforce diversity

Our global economy is powered by distributed global teams and talent. This creates opportunities for the sharing of ideas across borders. 

Advances in video conference technologies have lowered the accessibility barriers and made it possible to bring together teams from the four corners of the planet.

Tapping into generational diversity

Advances in medicine and technology are helping people live longer, more active, and productive lives. We have seen people enjoying longer, engaging careers as a result. Longer career spans will expand the number of generations in the workforce from five to six, seven, or eight.

Amplifying innovations

85% of enterprises point to the fact that diversity results in the most innovative ideas. 

Non-diverse teams are likely to approach a problem from a similar vantage point, narrowing the possible solutions. Conversely, a diverse team is better equipped to approach a problem from various angles. 

This allows the team to tap into lateral and disparate areas of new knowledge, so they can reimagine different ways of doing things. 

Rise above the competition

Companies with inclusive practices in hiring, promotion, development, leadership, and team management generate up to 30% more revenue per employee and greater profitability than their competitors. 

In other words, diverse teams led by an inclusive leader are statistically proven to outperform. Yet our own BetterUp data suggests most teams don’t have an inclusive leader -- only 31% of employees surveyed believed their leaders were inclusive.

BetterUp data shows that teams led by highly inclusive leaders see significant business results.

inclusive leader chart

Success factors of inclusive leadership in action 

Apply interventions consistently throughout the system to create more sustainable changes. 

Approach the best practices with the lens of experimentation and a willingness to go back to refine and iterate. 

Approaching these best practices with a holistic lens will lead to them being baked into an organization’s DNA. 

This can also help you secure the support and ongoing commitment of senior leadership.

Best practices of inclusive leadership

BetterUp research has identified six behaviors of inclusive leaders. The first, best, practice for organizations is to provide support, through coaching and peer support, to leaders and managers at all levels in developing those inclusive behaviors.

inclusive leadership venn diagram

Individual leaders and managers can adopt these practices in their day-to-day work. When it comes to inclusion — every interaction matters, and consistency matters, for an employee to experience feeling included.

Develop basic skills that will position diversity as a competitive advantage

Coach and create strong synergy out of diverse, and even opposite individual elements. 

The challenge is less about attracting diverse talent than it is about ensuring they are treated fairly and respected. 

Ideally, differences are not just tolerated but celebrated. This may not happen if the focus is on hiring for a “culture fit,” unless that culture values uniqueness. 

Focus on the hiring process

Make sure that you can select leaders who embody the right values and have a track record of leading diverse teams.

Have a plan 

Work from a well-documented plan of action, complete with goals and objectives. However, don’t get carried away with plans and metrics — inclusion is about people and what they experience every day.

Inclusive practices must be integrated into product development, communications, training, professional development, recruitment, retention, and overall leadership, not to mention management practices.

Create opportunities for diverse work teams and interactions

Invest in team-building and leadership skills, as they can truly benefit from diversity and inclusion. 

Reward and promote the kind of collaboration and results you would like to see. 

Mind the middle

While some organizations show slow progress on the diversity journey, due to the lack of support from senior leadership, many organizations find that it’s middle management derailing progress. Often middle managers have little preparation or guidance beyond a few canned trainings. Hold them accountable for the degree to which people on their teams feel included, but, also provide significant support to help managers get there.

Recognize your unconscious bias

Work to understand your own unconscious bias regarding what you assume about others. 

Having assumptions isn’t wrong or bad: it’s part of how all people fast track understanding. Problems arise when you’re not even aware that you’re making assumptions. 

One way to stop making unconscious assumptions is to learn more about different types of people and expose yourself to more diverse cultures and experiences. The goal isn’t to learn any one thing but to gain greater awareness and appreciation for the vast variety of human experiences.

Don’t overlook the “small” stuff

When you witness someone being rude or dismissive to someone else, call it out. 

Don’t focus on finding fault, but state what you notice and suggest alternatives that include everyone. 

Believe that all people have potential, not that they are the same

Inclusive leaders are able to notice and talk about differences without making anyone feel objectified or singled-out. 

To boot, managers are more successful when they see the unique qualities of each individual on the team.

Wrapping up

Follow these helpful hints and tips and you can bring some much needed inclusive leadership into your workplace, improving your productivity and skyrocketing your organization to the next level.belonging-conversations-cta

Published April 20, 2021

Hala Beisha

BetterUp Fellow Coach, MBA, MDes, PCC

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