What makes an inclusive leader? These 6 behaviors are a good start

February 18, 2021 - 12 min read

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The changing expectations for leadership

How inclusion affects your teams

Six behaviors of inclusive leaders

How to develop more inclusive leaders

When Cynt Marshall became CEO of NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, she made a commitment to meet every member of the organization in the first 90 days.

The first question she asked: “Tell me your life story.” 

The message Marshall wanted to send was that the whole person matters. Bring your history, your values, and your personality into work with you. Don’t put on your corporate mask. Don’t pretend to be a superhero. The whole, real person makes the organization stronger. 

These interviews helped convey the message that everyone matters, everyone belongs, and everyone has unique contributions to make to the team. But they had another effect, too. 

“I just fell in love with the people,” she reports. And for her, that is the most important duty of a leader. “There are only a few things that I need to do as a leader. I need to listen to the people… I need to learn from them because they are the experts. They're in touch with what's happening out there.” 


The changing expectations for leadership

The world is changing. And in turn, what organizations need from leaders is changing.

We all feel it. Predictability has given way to agility. Executing to plan isn’t enough. No single person has all the knowledge, skills, and insight to know exactly where to go and what to do next. To succeed amid change and complexity companies need the full contribution of their people.

We know that when we surround ourselves with others with diverse experiences and capabilities, we get new ideas coming together in different ways to meet the next challenge. Diverse teams can make us aware of blindspots and craft novel, innovative solutions. 

But these benefits don’t just happen. They appear when managers and leaders draw out the unique perspectives and contributions on their teams and build on differences effectively. 

How then can we become better leaders who tap into the potential of all of our people? 

The key – inclusion. Inclusive leadership.

How inclusion affects your teams

Only 31% of employees believe their leaders are inclusive. That is, less than a third of employees believe their leaders see, value, and respect them as a whole person.

Most leaders and managers don’t set out intending to exclude others. Yet, in the course of pursuing a goal and relying on sometimes outmoded beliefs about leadership, they fail to get the best out of their teams. Worse, they might not even realize it. 

Unwanted attrition, especially among employees from underrepresented groups, is an ongoing problem. Those valuable employees leave, and with them, their potential, as well as the insight about the ways the environment, culture, and leadership aren’t working. 

Research from BetterUp shows that 1 in 4 employees don’t feel like they belong. That’s across companies, industries, and demographics. Imagine what it is for underrepresented employees.

When people don’t feel included, the cost is deeply personal. It also hurts the team. They don’t show themselves. They might hold back opposing or counterintuitive ideas and not participate in working sessions for fear of falling further out of the group. They don’t feel comfortable that their ideas and comments will be taken with the same openness and seriousness as anyone else's. They don’t bring their unique personality, background, and interests into conversation.

They don’t take big risks or achieve big results. They don't get noticed. They censor themselves. The cost to the team? Employees who feel excluded are 25% less productive on future tasks, have a 50% greater risk of turnover, and are less willing to work hard for the team. 

The feeling of being included comes from all of a person’s interactions, not from policy. Our data shows that the direct manager has the biggest impact. They need to be more deliberate, especially for people who feel demographically dissimilar from others in the organization and experience 27% less psychological safety as a result. 

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 — in short, where they feel they belong and are included. 

Six behaviors of inclusive leaders

Fortunately, leaders can develop more inclusive behaviors. When leaders practice these behaviors, they change their interactions with direct reports. That begins to change the work environment and creates a more inclusive experience for everyone.

In the remainder of this article, we will look at six types of behaviors inclusive leaders use with their teams: 

  • Relationship building
  • Recognition
  • Empathy
  • Social connection
  • Encouraging participation
  • Alignment

Relationship Building

Inclusive leadership cannot be transactional. Inclusive leaders invest time in building real relationships with their team members, peers, and other employees, getting to know what matters to them and what they need to be successful. They know that each employee is a whole person who has more to offer than just the task or output they are delivering today. 

Building relationships goes beyond tolerance or accommodation. Inclusive leaders know the importance of not just being seen, but being understood and appreciated, for their whole self. 

How relationship building contributes to inclusion: Building these genuine relationships helps people feel respected, valued, and appreciated. In an environment of respect and appreciation, everyone can be more comfortable extending themselves, taking risks, giving honest feedback, and bringing their diverse experiences and perspectives to the work. These quality relationship networks promote open communication and support an environment of inclusivity.


Inclusion is proactive. Inclusive leaders make an effort to recognize people for their work and support their efforts and growth. That means recognizing specifically and personally the unique contributions of others in ways that are motivating and elevate their sense of personal accomplishment.

How recognition contributes to inclusion: Individualized recognition and support let employees know that the skills and experiences they’ve contributed and the risks they’ve taken are seen and valued. Positively reinforcing what someone brings to their work and the team, in a way that’s meaningful to them, can profoundly impact an employee's sense of belonging and commitment. Publicly giving specific recognition helps others to understand the range and value of people’s contributions. So whether it’s verbal praise, a letter of thanks, or a small “‘thank you”’ gift, recognizing good work in a way that matters to your employees can make a world of difference. 


Creating an inclusive space requires having an appreciation for where others are coming from and what they might be experiencing. Inclusive leaders are warm and encouraging in their interactions, embracing compassion in order to foster deeper connections with others. They make an effort to stay connected to the daily pulse of what is going on for employees and whether they are feeling seen, valued, and respected. 

How empathy contributes to inclusion: When a leader prioritizes empathy and models nonjudgmental behavior, it helps everyone feel more able to share their experiences and state of mind. It can alleviate stress, reduce tensions, and help people build stronger relationships with each other and feel more connected to the organization. 

 Social connection

Interactions with other people drive our sense of being included. Inclusive leaders encourage people to recognize each other as humans, not just co-workers or adjoining parts of a process. They create opportunities for people to engage with each other — both in and out of work — to deepen their connections and model the importance of maintaining close personal relationships with supportive people in our lives.

How social connection contributes to inclusion: Stronger social connections help us maintain more positive mindsets and motivation and enhance our well-being. These foundational relationships help us feel more comfortable with others and ourselves so that we better communicate and collaborate with empathy and openness.

Encouraging participation

Inclusion is an invitation, extended day after day. Inclusive leaders use a variety of approaches to seek input and feedback directly from people who might not speak up. and check- in on what people need to be successful. They also stay attuned to obstacles that might get in the way of participation — not just in meetings but in the way work gets done — and look for ways to minimize these obstacles.  

How encouraging participation contributes to inclusion: Openly asking people for their input and personalizing how you communicate and engage with different people shows that everyone’s perspective is consequential. Providing different avenues to participate makes it easier for employees to engage and feel more confident in being able to speak up. This helps promote greater knowledge-sharing behaviors, which enhances inclusivity and drives creative problem-solving and innovation. 


Inclusion means being able to do your best work. Inclusive leaders provide shared vision and clarity to guide others. They set their people up for success and create avenues for contributing to the larger outcome. Inclusive leaders also make space for people to find their own meaning and purpose. 

How alignment contributes to inclusion: When employees know what the organization and team are driving toward and what matters most to the organization’s success, they can better determine how best to contribute. When they feel their personal values can align with company values, they feel more motivated and empowered to think outside the box in creating innovative solutions.

How to develop more inclusive leaders

Inclusive leadership is most urgent for improving the day-to-day experience for underrepresented employees. Luckily, with support, any leader or manager can improve their inclusive behaviors. The people they depend on need it, deserve it and may demand it if they are to effectively keep contributing to the goals and objectives of the organization. 

Our research shows that 1:1 coaching tailored to the unique needs of the organization and team can effectively drive sustained change in inclusive leadership behaviors. 

On average, with 1:1 coaching, leaders experienced:

  • 50% increase in relationship building
  • 76% increase in recognition
  • 39% increase in empathy
  • 41% increase in encouraging participation
  • 71% increase in alignment
  • 87% increase in social connection

The ripple effect

The teams of these leaders benefited. When leaders’ behaviors improved, team members reported more belonging, greater team innovation, lower turnover intention, and higher net promoter scores for their managers. Team members also showed improvement in their own inclusive behaviors — 45% growth in Relationship Building and Encouraging Participation. 

There is also a real need for personalized support. In our research, coached members in a diversity and inclusion program were 41% percent more likely than average to report having a life-changing experience through the 1:1 coaching process. 

Improved behaviors by leaders, improved interactions among teams and peers, and a sense of a more inclusive environment — all lead to better, more productive, and rewarding experiences for people across the organization.


Published February 18, 2021

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