The diversity part seems straightforward enough. But what’s meant by inclusion?
As a social work scholar, I study how leaders create socially just, equitable and inclusive workplaces, particularly when they have a diverse workforce. A recent study I conducted with social policy scholar Lawrence Palinkas examined how employees perceive leaders who are inclusive—and those who aren’t.
The value of inclusion
Companies have long focused on trying to make their workforces more diverse. But research shows that simply enhancing the representation of employees from diverse backgrounds is not enough. To fully tap into the positive outcomes of diversity, organizations need to focus on inclusion.
What does this mean?
For a start, it means ensuring all employees regardless of background feel that they are important and valued members of the team. This improves employee job satisfaction, trust, engagement, creativity, commitment, and performance.
Inclusion also enhances employee well-being and can lead workers to perceive fairness in decision-making, such as when colleagues are promoted.
The U.S. Census estimates that within a couple of decades over half of all Americans will be members of a racial or ethnic minority group, which means creating more inclusive workplaces will be vital to keeping their future workforces happy, engaged, and productive.
So we know inclusion is good for employees and workplaces, but what is less well understood is what leaders can do to exhibit inclusiveness—the goal of our study.
Over a period of two years, we surveyed employees in a department of a large nonprofit hospital located in a diverse urban city in California. We sent them three online surveys at six-month intervals, conducted six in-person organizational observations, and confidentially interviewed 20 employees from a variety of different job positions, genders, and racial and ethnic backgrounds to ensure we captured a wide variety of employee perspectives.
In the one-on-one interviews, we asked employees what they believed inclusive leadership was and to provide examples of what leaders do—or do not do—to help employees feel included. Because people tend to remember negative experiences more than positive ones, we asked them to start by describing leaders who did not help them feel valued.
What a less inclusive leader looks like
Less inclusive leaders were described as having talent blindness, meaning they were unable to recognize employees’ unique strengths. They treated all employees the same regardless of how hard they worked or whether they needed additional training and did not seem to value employees for their contributions.
These leaders discouraged others from sharing their ideas or excluded employees from important meetings if they did not agree with the manager’s views. Participants also described less inclusive leaders as having a tendency to blame others when things went wrong and to create divides among employees by using “us versus them” language.
Employees described less inclusive leaders as being dishonest and unclear in their communication. One said that less inclusive leaders often talk about their values and beliefs but behaved in very different ways.
For example, employees described one less inclusive leader as always telling everyone that they are honest and transparent. However, in day-to-day interactions, they were neither.
One employee said, “the [leader] never tells me the truth. In my evaluations, they say all positive things but never the things I need to work on. I know I’m not being promoted for a reason, but they just don’t want to tell me. I trust the leader more if they are honest or transparent.”
Leading with inclusion
The employees described inclusive leaders, on the other hand, as leaders who act in ways that demonstrate their values and communicate openly and honestly. They treat each employee as a unique individual, recognize each person’s strengths, and value diverse perspectives.
One employee recalled an experience where someone on their team needed extra shifts during the holidays to afford medical care for an ill family member. Their manager brought the team together and asked if everyone would be willing to donate one of their shifts. This employee described this experience as being inclusive because the leader was sensitive to the unique needs of one of their team members and felt that if they needed help, the leader and team would do this for them.
Inclusive leaders were also described as asking others for feedback when making important decisions and providing everyone access to critical information. They encourage everyone to work together as a team and go out of their way to make sure employees of all job positions are valued and encouraged to be involved.
As companies strive to fulfill their pledges to improve workplace inclusion and decide whom to promote to leadership positions, they should bear in mind what their employees actually say about what makes someone an inclusive leader. I believe that’s one of the best ways to ensure workers feel equally valued with a shared sense of purpose.
Kim Brimhall is an assistant professor of social work at Binghamton University, State University of New York.