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4 essential behaviors of the most inclusive leaders

A director of DEI at McLean & Company says inclusive leaders become beacons for top talent, allowing the organization to more easily attract the best of the best—and even more critically, retain them.

4 essential behaviors of the most inclusive leaders
[Photo: Hudson Kintze/Unsplash]
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Accelerating support for Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo movement, and Indigenous rights is pushing organizations to examine their own practices around recognizing and working to eliminate social inequities and systemic racism. The pandemic only intensifies this trend. HR leaders’ efforts are focused on addressing challenges around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and building a diverse workforce that keeps top talent from heading for the exits.

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But there’s a wide gulf between promising an inclusive workplace environment and actually delivering it. Organizations that succeed in building an appropriate DEI framework stand a much better chance of generating returns on their investments than those that simply pay lip service to whatever DEI themes happen to be garnering headlines at any given moment. This is the right thing to do, and it must be embedded not only within the strategic framework but within individual behaviors, as well.

Of course, execution matters just as much as sincerity. All too often, DEI initiatives fail because they are implemented on the fly, by organizations looking for quick wins. Strategies are incomplete, engagement is inauthentic, and data is collected but not acted upon. This compromises their sustainability and risks alienating employees let down by these largely incomplete, insincere roadmaps.

Our research confirms the steep climb ahead, with fewer than half of organizations reporting leadership committed to modeling inclusive behaviors or championing DEI. Over 40% of respondents say they’re focused only on meeting minimum legislative requirements, and initiatives occur only on an ad hoc basis. We’re long past the moment where organizations can get away with paying scant attention to what has very much become the professional issue of our time. Indeed, the time to act is now.

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While our 2021 HR Trends Report data shows improvement—only 6% of respondents report not focusing on DEI in 2021, down from 25% the previous year—overcoming the delivery gap will require a significant shift in behavior throughout the organization. Leaders must prioritize modeling best practices and appropriate behaviors, and implementing the kind of robust, bidirectional messaging that ensures all stakeholders are heard and feel comfortable raising their voice. This is a fundamental aspect of the employee experience and is critical to organizational health and effectiveness.

It sounds like a tall order, but none of this is impossible. It also doesn’t have to be expensive. Indeed, organizations that choose to prioritize inclusion in their drive to improve DEI stand to gain a distinct competitive advantage over those that don’t. Talent wants to work in an environment where they feel valued and included, where inclusion is embedded in the culture and not insincerely reflected in behaviors that can be turned on and off. More inclusive leaders are better equipped to recognize the corrosive effects on individual and collective performance. Inclusive leaders become beacons for top talent, allowing the organization to more easily attract the best of the best—and even more critically, retain them.

But before leaders can model inclusivity, they need to know what those inclusive behaviors are at a fundamental, day-to-day level.

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Ensure everyone is heard

Inclusive workplaces are environments where everyone feels free to speak up when they have a fresh idea. They’re also places where everyone is willing to listen, regardless of who they are, what their background may be, what title they may hold, or where they fit on the org chart.

Leaders don’t just set and chase performance metrics. They set the tone, both within their own reporting structure and throughout the organization, for ensuring everyone is heard, and the best ideas are given every opportunity to see the light of day. They serve as allies by acknowledging the power and privilege of their position to advocate on behalf of others who may have less power, and who may have been treated unfairly. They create safe spaces for others to share their own perspectives and look for opportunities to identify and address stereotypes before they can further compromise individual and organizational performance.

Leaders who proactively work to ensure everyone is afforded the opportunity to have their voice heard are, in fact, helping to overcome the barriers that may prevent some employees from speaking up in the first place—or being taken seriously when they do.

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Make it safe to propose new ideas

The most inclusive environments are also the most innovative. It’s not difficult to understand why. If people feel safe to share new ideas, they’re more likely to speak up and contribute to the team.

Inclusive leaders identify multiple opportunities for everyone to share their own ideas and feedback. They are responsible for creating a healthy internal culture where members are encouraged to have open and honest dialogues by sharing, debating, and even disagreeing. By showing respect for a variety of perspectives, effective leaders build trust—both in each other and in the process—as they build an environment that rewards employee engagement and maximizes output from the collaboration that results.

Give team members decision-making authority

Hatching good ideas by harnessing the power of engaged teams is one thing. Giving the members of these teams the power to turn those ideas into concrete results for the organization is quite another. The organization must move beyond simple integration where despite greater diversity among employees, the bulk of decision-making authority remains within a non-diverse group of leaders. Full-on inclusion is where everyone, at any level, is recognized as a value-added contributor to organizational success.

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Inclusive leaders are always looking for ways to empower those who report to them. They give those who first identify problems or challenges the chance to also propose and implement solutions to them. They freely delegate responsibilities and coach and mentor team members to grow their skills.

Share credit for success

This behavior is a direct outcome of the previous three, because if you’re carving out an environment where they feel safe to step forward and you’re then giving them the authority to make decisions, then it’s only logical—and fair—to share credit for success. Inclusive leaders point out everyone who contributed to an initiative, not just the leaders. They also explain how each contribution specifically resulted in overall project success. In doing so, they demonstrate humility and foster a level of trust that encourages deeper and more profound employee engagement.

Ask yourself who on your team typically gets recognized for achievements and contributions and who, conversely, is routinely overlooked. That may be due to what degrees they may or may not hold, their experience in their respective field, their gender, or their racial background.

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From a DEI perspective, these best practices shine a brighter, more uniform light on everyone’s involvement in the team, which ultimately helps break stereotypes, as well as the dysfunctional processes and interactions that perpetuate them.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that 2021 will challenge HR professionals as never before to creatively navigate their organizations through historic levels of uncertainty. Inclusion is no longer just an aspirational catchphrase. It is the very engine of talent performance, and it must become the pillar of your leadership strategy. Fortunately, the tools and tactics for making it happen are in all likelihood relatively easy for most organizations to implement. Small investments in focus and reprioritization will net significant returns in the months ahead.


Cinnamon Clark is a director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) Services at McLean & Company where she leads the development and delivery of client-facing DEI services such as strategy development or enhancement, diagnostics, change management, and workshops.

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