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Go beyond diversity: Inclusive leadership is vital for DEIB success

July 1, 2021 - 13 min read

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There’s a saying that company culture “is like the wind — while invisible, its effect can be both seen and felt.” With 1 in 4 employees saying they don’t feel a sense of belonging at work, how can organizations take their DEIB initiatives beyond diversity to promote a healthy workplace culture that values the contributions of all employees? It starts with inclusive leadership.

The events of the last year and a half have ignited a call for profound change. From the murder of George Floyd to the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic, these critical events served as turning points for us to collectively look inward and commit to finding ways to create a more just and equitable society. When it comes to implementing the real cultural changes needed within the workplace, HR leaders have focused narrowly on deepening their commitments to expanding diversity among their employees. But is that enough?

While representation is exceedingly important in today’s workplace, whether or not employees experience inclusion is a greater predictor of whether DEIB investments will drive lasting change for employees and result in business outcomes for an organization. Studies routinely demonstrate that working with people who are different from us makes us more creative, innovative, and even more analytical. But when employees also have inclusive leaders, they are more productive, have higher engagement, are more likely to share information and decision-making, and have lower turnover.

Despite organizations' commitment to expanding DEIB, 1 in 4 employees say they don’t feel a sense of belonging at their organization, and only 31% say their leaders are inclusive. At the leadership level, just 2% of HR managers think that they are achieving their D&I goals.

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Why traditional DEIB investments are falling short

A recent analysis by Josh Bersin uncovered that many D&I initiatives lack the follow-through, accountability, and results to drive real cultural change. “Fewer than 12% of companies recognize senior leaders for inclusion or diversity goals. Less than a third of companies require any form of DEI training for workers, and 34% offer managers such training. DEI is treated as more of a compliance issue as 75% of companies surveyed do not include DEI in leadership development or overall learning and development, and roughly 80% of companies are just going through the motions and not holding themselves accountable."

It’s increasingly clear that many traditional approaches to DEIB aren’t driving the lasting change or impact organizations and employees are hoping for — why is that?

  • Not thinking beyond “diversity” - We know that inclusion and belonging have a significant impact on employee performance, retention, and job satisfaction. Training around inclusive leadership should be a core focus, not an afterthought.
  • Placing the burden of change on URMs - Traditional approaches to DEIB place the burden of carrying out and promoting change on underrepresented groups instead of addressing the potential biases in their underlying systems and processes.
  • Not including everyone in inclusion efforts - Participation in training and development and modeling inclusive behavior should involve all employees — especially those who can drive more significant change and influence broader company culture as a whole.
  • One-off training doesn't drive long-term behavior change - Science tells us repeated and ongoing training is key to lasting change because people forget 75% of what they learn in traditional training sessions, sometimes in as little as one hour.
  • There’s been no way to measure impact - Investments in DEIB often fail to provide leaders with the real-time data and insights they need to stay accountable, track program effectiveness, and understand employee trends.
  • Initiatives relegated to HR teams - With more employees than ever before saying DEIB is important to them, DEIB needs to be a part of the overall business strategy not a stand alone item for HR or diversity teams.

Managers are the “secret sauce” of inclusive workplaces

To promote a workplace culture where everyone feels welcome and that their ideas matter, inclusive leadership must come from across an entire organization. While everyone needs to play a role in promoting DEIB efforts, perhaps no group can drive a more sustained and immediate impact for your employees than frontline managers.

Managers have influence, authority, and a great capacity to impact change — they help deliver employee experiences and have the most significant impact on whether any individual employee feels included. An inclusive leader sets the tone and models the behaviors for their team to create an environment where each person feels seen, valued, respected, and able to contribute.

Excluded employees are 25% less productive on future tasks and are consistently less willing to work hard for a team that excludes them. However, our member data show that those who feel a strong sense of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging from their leaders thrive:

high inclusive leadership

BetterUp member data show the impact inclusive leaders have on their direct reports

The profile of an inclusive leader

When employees feel like they don’t belong, they won’t bring their full selves to work. Their interactions can become sparse and they feel less comfortable sharing ideas or giving feedback as others on the team do. As a result, they hide their unique personality from co-workers and don’t take risks, which means they don’t achieve big results.

Luckily, managers can develop key behaviors they need to change the interactions between their direct reports and promote a more inclusive workplace.

profile of an inclusive leader includes relationship building, recognition, empathy, social connection, encouraging participation, alignment

Relationship building

For managers to promote more inclusive workplaces, they must invest time in building authentic relationships with their team members, peers, and other employees by getting to know what matters to them and what support they need to be successful.


Inclusive leaders make an effort to recognize people for their work and support their efforts and growth. Recognition lets employees know that the skills and diverse experiences they’ve contributed are valued.


Inclusive leaders make an effort to stay connected to the daily rhythms of their team and model non-judgmental behavior that makes every employee feel seen, heard, and respected.

Social connection

When leaders deepen social connections among their team, they help build positive mindsets and motivations that contribute to overall employee well-being.

Encouraging participation

Inclusive leaders seek feedback and input from those who may not always speak up. Doing so makes it easier for employees to engage and feel more confident to share moving forward.


Inclusivity wouldn't work without shared vision or goals, which managers play a critical role in facilitating. When employees know what the organization and team are working toward and what matters most for success, they can better determine how best to contribute.

How BetterUp helps you build a culture of inclusive leaders

BetterUp’s approach is ongoing and more impactful than other traditional DEIB investments. We integrate evidence-based methods with scalable coaching strategies and robust analytics to transform your culture by learning, doing, and being. By meeting people where they’re at and helping them understand their strengths and areas of development, we deliver holistic, personalized experiences that create meaningful change and support internal, personal growth.

There are three core components of how BetterUp empowers your managers to drive lasting change, helps your broader workforce to experience more inclusion, and enables your leadership team to track the impact of your investment.

  1. A global network of Coaches and experiences

Unlike “one-and-done” training, coaching is an ongoing developmental opportunity to grow and learn with real-life experiences, which research shows helps individuals develop an inclusive identity. With the help of an expert Coach, your people can gain more self-awareness around their unconscious biases and take a proactive approach to mitigating them in a judgement-free environment.

1:1 coaching

Change can't happen alone, and we often need a safe space with a trusted partner to process and learn, and Coaches are there to support it. In addition to a dedicated 1:1 coach, employees can receive additional, specialized support for sleep, nutrition, communication, and more.

On average, through 1:1 coaching, members who start low in each experienced:

  • 27% increase in inclusive leadership behaviors
  • 54% increase in relationship building
  • 74% increase in recognition
  • 41% increase in empathy
  • 90% increase in social connection
  • 48% increase in encouraging participation
  • 73% increase in alignment

Coaching Circles™
Coaching Circles™ are small, cross-company group coaching experiences led by a BetterUp Coach. During these six-week group learning sessions, employees gain valuable exposure to diverse opinions and learn from peers facing similar challenges. Circles offer the social connection and peer learning that are imperative to inclusive leadership and lasting behavior change, and topics are fresh and designed for the modern workforce.

A diverse network of Coaches
With BetterUp, your people will have access to 2,000+ dedicated and on-demand Coaches in over 60 countries that help provide diverse points of view and real-world experience needed to provide meaningful insights to your people. Within our coaching network, 75% self-identify as women, and 25% self-identify as an underrepresented group.

In addition, we have a dedicated team of experienced DEIB specialist coaches who have training, certification, or past professional experience in Diversity and Inclusion roles.

  1. Personalized learning proven to drive long-lasting change

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Traditional training fails to deliver lasting behavior change because of what is known as the transfer training problem. Instead, BetterUp’s platform builds focus and accountability through personal goal tracking, handpicked resources mapped with those goals, and nudges to keep users on track and notify them of other learning opportunities. Our curated content, micro-learnings, and resources deliver science-backed insights that fit into the flow of daily life — which is proven to be more effective for retaining knowledge than traditional approaches.

Periodic assessments occur every four months to help track goal progress over time, and 360° feedback allows managers to collect necessary input from colleagues and direct reports on key leadership behaviors that help further inform the coaching process.

  1. Impact and ROI you can measure

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People analytics can be one area where tracking meaningful metrics has been a historical challenge within most organizations. BetterUp helps solve this by including a real-time analytics dashboard aligned to your DEIB strategy, helping you visualize data-backed progress within your organization. Understand your peoples' strengths and developmental needs, areas to further invest in, and plan learning initiatives for the future.

Benchmarking and impact
Betterup’s Belonging Index reflects the degree to which employees feel valued, heard, and connected in their team and organization. This index is a proprietary metric developed by BetterUp’s team of behavioral scientists that extends beyond our foundational Whole Person Model.

Employee pulse and behavior tracking
Monitor key topics being discussed in your organization and understand the shifts in behaviors and mindsets over time to get insight into what employees are working on. Track progress against both key inclusive leadership behaviors and broader team behaviors that help create a culture of inclusion and belonging.

Data-driven programs
Leverage these insights to create data-driven employee development programs, and be more proactive in addressing emerging macro trends among your employee population.

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Published July 1, 2021

Adam Wood

Sr. Content Marketing Manager

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