A guide to inclusive leadership: what it is and how to provide it

Inclusive leadership conference delegates

Rachael Wilson, Managing Director of EW Group, investigates inclusive leadership and how to build it in your workplace.

Inclusive leadership, at its heart, is about supporting every employee with awareness and empathy.

It’s small, everyday actions that contribute to larger change and support for populations that have been historically discriminated against — including Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic, LGBT or disabled people, those suffering from mental illness, women, and any other persons protected under the Equality Act 2010.

I’m sure you’ve heard a statement like the one above before — in the last decade it’s become a common fixture on job advertisements, in schools, in and around services provided by the government, and even the little print at the bottom of website pages.

It’s also our strength — we help numerous businesses integrate inclusivity leadership into their business to help it succeed. We can help your business too.

But what does inclusive and diverse leadership mean exactly? How can your workplace benefit from the results?

What is inclusive leadership?

Inclusive leaders are in a sense utilising two skills by taking a quantitative and qualitative approach toward diversity. Or, borrowing from a recent article by famed inclusivity and diversity expert Aika Bethea, a ‘transactional’ and ‘transformative’ approach.

A transactional approach to inclusive leadership focuses on the numbers — it relies on data about the workplace to suggest conclusions about the place of work, and what needs to improve. This side of inclusive leadership is more business-minded, it’s an assessed part of performance, and becomes a part of daily operations. It is compliance-driven, a box that employers can check to tangibly see how progress is being made.

The second part is a transformative approach. This inclusive leadership approach encourages business leaders to speak openly to their employees about why inclusivity is important to them, and to listen to the stories they receive in return. Integrating this experience with personal narratives is essential – studies show that understanding individual stories and motivations build connections that foster change more effectively than a business-minded focus.

A transactional approach is important — it’s essential to have numbers behind you — but it cannot be the only approach utilised for an inclusive workplace. Inclusion attempts that focus on the transactional aspect are often well-intentioned but can lead to resentment and put pressure on people that they don’t fully appreciate, resulting in nothing of numeric value.

After all, the transactional side is just numbers, and your employees are holistic individuals. Exploring a transformative and transactional approach requires creating a connection with your employees and fosters an environment that asks people what they can create together.

You need both to create an inclusive workplace. So how do you make both of these approaches part of your work environment? And how do you know when you’re getting the balance right?

Why inclusive leadership is so important?

There are numerous government statistics showing that an inclusive and diverse workplace performs better and contributes to diverse thinking and skillsets.  A 2012 report from the Centre for Talent Innovation, for example, showed that culturally adaptable leaders are 3.5 times more likely to get the full potential out of their staff. This equates to a number of tangible benefits right throughout the talent pipeline: from boosting engagement in existing staff groups to appealing to a wider range of candidates during recruitment.

Inclusive leaders can also bring about reduced instances of bullying, harassment, grievance, and long-term sickness among their staff. And by successfully managing the impact of unconscious bias – in themselves and others – they are able to retain and unlock the best diverse talent and use it as a base to build high-performing teams. To give one example, in 2014 the Financial Times reported that organisations could be 10-30% more productive if all their LGBT employees felt comfortable being out at work. (See how you build LGBT inclusion by celebrating Pride at work.)

Other benefits of inclusive leadership in the workplace include:

  • Increased staff engagement
  • Higher rates of diversity data disclosure among staff
  • Improved staff retention and sense of belonging
  • A leading-edge position in your industry
  • Better decision-making
  • A culture that allows for innovation
  • A workplace where staff are confident in reporting when standards are not being met, thereby precluding unwanted behaviours.

How do I build inclusive leadership into my place of work?

The best companies are spearheaded by people who can adapt their leadership style according to what is needed. This means they can weather the change and uncertainty caused by political, social, and economic factors.

Be intentional

Make sure your employees clearly understand what’s important to your organisation, and how your business understands the terms ‘inclusive’ and ‘diverse’. Let people know how your philosophies are in alignment, and it’s clear how you’re making inclusivity a priority in the workplace. By stating what’s important to you, you let your employees know how engaged you are around conversations about diversity. Creating cultures of belonging, through appealing to individual values and ensuring everyone has a voice and is included, is also a key characteristic of inclusive leaders.

Be accountable

Understand how to have effective workplace conversations that include questions like, ‘what did you mean by that?’. Allowing people to challenge others’ ideas, and have their own perceptions challenged, invites people on board and gives them an opportunity in which to understand the process.

Steer diversity and inclusion from the very top

Inclusive leaders are inspirational figureheads. They are experts at adapting their leadership style to different groups and live situations. This allows them to communicate effectively across cultures, and to visibly champion difference and diversity as a powerful, inadmissible benefit. By successfully managing unconscious bias – in themselves and others – they can unlock the best talent and build inclusive, high-performing teams and drive real, measurable culture change.

Find out more about our inclusive leadership training

Inclusive Leadership