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How to realize the benefits of inclusive leadership

Workplace expert Shirley Davis PhD explains exactly what to do after you complete implicit bias training to make a sustainable change at work.

How to realize the benefits of inclusive leadership
[Source photos: Rebecca Diack/Pexels; fauxels/Pexels]

Implicit bias training has seen a significant uptick in the past year following the national and international calls for greater justice, equity, and inclusion. I know this firsthand because my firm has been flooded with hundreds of requests from clients wanting their entire leadership teams and general staff to go through it. The core message of implicit bias training is that all humans have it as a built-in safety and survival mechanism. Our brains are hardwired to be biased but when left unchecked, it can have a negative impact on everyday interactions and decisions, especially in the workplace.

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But simply being aware that we all have biases does not let us off the hook. That matters more than ever because the workforce and the marketplace have become more global, multicultural, multigenerational, and hyper-connected. On top of that, they all bring differing needs, expectations, and ways of thinking, working, and doing business. The ability to lead more effectively across differences is a key lever for attracting, engaging, and retaining top talent, driving innovation and creativity, as well as expanding into new markets, and serving new customers and clients.

In addition to implicit bias training, in the last 18 months alone, my consulting firm has conducted nearly 100 listening sessions, and more than 50 inclusion and employee engagement surveys and focus groups, and the results have been consistent across industries, sectors, and company sizes.

Workers expect their employers to:

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  • value diversity, equity, and inclusion
  • want their leaders to be authentic, walk the talk and live the company values
  • have the opportunity to grow their knowledge and acquire new skills
  • work flexibly and have more autonomy in how they work
  • be paid fairly and competitively
  • work in a ‘safe-to-speak” culture where their ideas and opinions can be shared without fear of retaliation
  • be recognized and appreciated

And they report that if they don’t get it, they are willing to walk away.

Today that threat has become real. The U.S. job market is slowly recovering by adding thousands of new jobs, while at the same experiencing the Great Resignation, where workers are quitting their jobs in record numbers. In June alone, 3.9 million people said “I quit” which was slightly down from the nearly 4 million who quit in April. In a recent Monster.com survey, 95% of 650 U.S. workers said they were thinking of quitting their jobs. The main reasons for quitting are very aligned with what our firm heard from workers in listening sessions and focus groups—they are experiencing increased burnout, work-related stress, a lack of development and growth opportunities, low wages and poor benefits, lack of flexible work, and toxic workplace cultures.

Wait, there’s more. The 2021 Work Trend Index report conducted by Microsoft a few months ago studied more than 30,000 people in 31 countries. It revealed some startling findings that should be a warning to all leaders. Five that stood out to me because of the consulting work we’re doing with clients around the world include:

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  • more than 40% of the global workforce is contemplating leaving their current employer this year
  • flexible work is here to stay
  • leaders are out of touch with employees and need a wake-up call
  • authenticity will spur productivity and well-being
  • high productivity is masking an exhausted workforce

Wow, talk about having some work to do to re-engage, re-energize, and retain existing talent. This is a clear and compelling business case and a loud cry for more inclusive leadership.

Successful organizations recognize that in order to attract top talent, increase employee engagement and job satisfaction, drive innovation and creativity, and enhance the customer service experience, they must cultivate an inclusive workplace culture. And that begins and ends with inclusive leadership. It cannot be a nice to do, it must be intentional and a continuous development process.

While culture is everyone’s responsibility, leaders set the tone. I call them “thermostats” in the company because they set the temperature and create the atmosphere that workers experience. In my 30 years in human resources, I’ve seen more often that people don’t leave bad jobs, they leave bad leaders and toxic workplaces. Many of the reasons listed above of why workers quit or plan to can be avoided/recovered by having inclusive leaders.

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I get it. Being an inclusive leader is not as easy as it sounds. Inclusive leadership is much more than having a title, giving a hug, and being nice. It requires a paradigm shift, an openness to different ways of doing things, leaning into some discomfort, and demonstrating the courage to embrace the unfamiliar. Many leaders have neither the basic foundational knowledge about inclusive leadership nor an idea of what workers expect in their leaders today (they are out of touch, as the Microsoft study revealed).

Employees are demanding, at the very least, that our workplaces be more inclusive, welcoming, and respectful, that they create a sense of belonging, and are free from harassment. For some companies with legacy cultures and others that have existed for more than a century, this is an extremely hard change management process. But it’s necessary.

Therefore, every leader should upskill and develop new competencies that will do those three things: re-engage, re-energize, and retain their workers. They must be intentional about valuing diversity and inclusion. Intentionality can include listening attentively to understand others’ perspectives and points of view and creating safe and brave spaces for staff to feel comfortable sharing their ideas without fear of retaliation. Instead of using the same person(s) to carry out tasks and special projects, they need to intentionally spread opportunities around. And it means not only inviting more diversity to the table but soliciting diverse perspectives and ideas. When they observe or hear something that is inappropriate, insensitive, or insulting, they speak up and call it out. These daily acts of intentionality can go a long way to foster trust and belonging.

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Additionally, leaders must increase their level of cultural competence, which can begin with a self-assessment and a clear understanding of their own culture. They can also interact with people who are different from themselves (could be on a project, securing a mentor, joining diverse networks, etc.), and they can attend events and training programs that expose them to a variety of cultural learning experiences.

Just as important is that employers must hold their leaders accountable for being more inclusive. They can do so by embedding inclusive leadership behaviors into their company values and performance goals, by frequently asking staff about how they are experiencing the culture through their leaders, and by tracking employee complaints, turnover, and levels of engagement and productivity.

My hope this that every leader will heed the warnings of these current and impending demographic shifts and worker trends. That they will become more adept and intentional about developing and demonstrating the competencies and traits that workers need and expect in the workplace.

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When they do, they will realize the benefits that follow: workplace cultures that are considered “employers of choice” by top talent, that are high-performing, innovative, and bring out the best in their workers. That contributes to business success and long-term sustainability.


Shirley Davis, PhD, is president of SDS Global Enterprises, Inc., a strategic development solutions firm that helps organizations transform their cultures, empower their workers, and increase their productivity. She is also the author of Living Beyond What If? Release the Limits and Realize Your Dreams.


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