Inclusive Leadership at Work

Written by vChief

December 30, 2020

While terms like “diversity, equity and inclusion” and “inclusive leadership” are nothing new, this past year has been a testament to why we need to place a greater emphasis on defining and refining these aspects of our business. And though inclusivity should have been a consideration for a long time now, the work is vast and we’re all learning and re-learning, so getting your workplace and your leadership up to par may take time.

We’re also continually in learning mode here at vChief when it comes to inclusive leadership, so we’re sharing some insights from local experts in DEI. Deborah Biddle, founder of The People Company, and Heidi Duss, founder of Culturescape, have spent years shaping and forming workplaces to fit a broad range of employees. Their influence is deep within this article as well, even when they’re not officially quoted. Ready to get started?

Defining inclusive leadership

The term speaks for itself, but it also encompasses so much more. At its base level, being an inclusive leader means you include everyone on your team in decision-making, accountability, and success.You are open and welcoming to all ideas and opinions. You adapt your leadership style to accommodate a wide range of personalities and work styles.

But inclusive leadership also starts at the ground level, in being very conscious and proactive in your hiring process. You cast your net wider when looking for potential candidates, and you do what you can so that candidates from all different backgrounds and experiences can find you. Building an organization filled with people that look like you, sound like you and think like you makes for a very boring and stunted workplace. Inclusive leadership starts with the development of your people and flows through every aspect of your organization from there.

It’s important to note that inclusive leadership cannot just be lip service, either. In the past year, we have seen more and more companies coming out with a variety of non-discrimination statements supporting equity and inclusion. But these are just words until leadership puts them into action. “The statements are meant to inspire and be walked out in our workplaces,” says Biddle. “Leaders must be at the forefront of driving inclusion.”

Inclusive leadership in action

As the leader, you’ve likely shaped your DEI statements for your organization around your own core values, so you may think it will be second nature to lead in this way. However, being an inclusive leader is going to take a lot more conscious effort than you may have initially expected and you may need to reframe how you are turning your values into actions.

While you may have the best intentions of how to set yourself apart as an inclusive leader, you don’t have all the answers within you. None of us do, because most of this work is very new and rooted in undoing years of unconscious bias that have been inherent in our society for centuries. There are listicles of podcasts and books available to help guide you in this work and become more aware as a leader.

Keys to being an inclusive leader:

  • Conscious hiring practices
  • Focus on growth
  • Educate yourself
  • Challenge the status quo
  • Stay awkward, brave, and kind (a la Brené Brown)
  • Be curious
  • Recognize mistakes as opportunities
  • Empower your team
  • Recognize and respect differences of all types (ideas, ideologies, race, etc)
Once you begin to educate yourself, you’ll gain a clearer picture of how to respond as an inclusive leader, working towards a common goal that interlaces everyone’s unique perspective. You’ll also have the knowledge and credibility to be bold and share what might be, at times, uncomfortable perspectives and opinions.

“Somebody has to take a stand, speak up, and challenge the status quo. If you’re in leadership, that somebody is you,” says Biddle. “Do it with sincerity and humility about your own strengths, weaknesses, and struggles in this area, knowing that others are struggling, too.”

The key is to continue to grow and develop in your knowledge of inclusivity and in your style as a leader to a diverse group of folks. “If you are not uncomfortable, you are not growing,” says Duss. “DEI can be messy, uncomfortable, and no one is ever going to have all the answers.”

It’s also important in your role as a leader to be curious. Beyond utilizing resources available to you like books, articles, podcasts and training, utilize the experiences of your own employees to help gain an understanding of what it’s like to be in their shoes, working at your company. Be respectfully inquisitive about their culture and personal insights. And be thoughtfully observant about how they react to different situations in the workplace.

Of course, mistakes will be made, but you can view them as opportunities to inspire trust. Holding yourself and your employees accountable will be key. Let your employees know that you are there for them and you respect their opinions, as long as they respect the opinions of others. Be humble about what you do not know and the fact that you are still learning. Model an open, welcoming workplace with zero tolerance for shaming or bullying behavior.

“Leaders need to be accountable for the delivery, actions and empowering their people to know and do better,” says Duss. “It is about building trust and lasting relationships at all levels of the organization. Without support and empowerment, DEI can only go so far.”

Biddle poses a list of questions to help leaders become self-aware and grow: “As an inclusive leader, what are you doing to ensure everyone is heard? How are you making sure everyone in your organization has the opportunity to succeed? What are you working on in yourself to facilitate greater patience and empathy toward those who are different from you? How are you getting the work done while honoring the distinctions and particularities of the people who work with you?”

Leaders also need to remember that being inclusive means being called to recognize diversity in all its forms. While race and ethnicity may be top of mind, age, gender, sexuality, disability status, and political association are all elements that will be affected by your leadership style. Recognize and value your team for their differences, because they make your organization unique, setting you apart from other organizations doing similar work. Own these differences proudly because they may just be one of your greatest selling points.

Working towards becoming a more inclusive leader may seem overwhelming, but it’s work that needs to be done. Yes, it will take time and require change. And it will involve a very conscious effort on your part to remain true to your values and goals around DEI. But it will help you develop as an even better leader to your employees, who will feel valued and do their part to contribute to the success of your organization.

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