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Becoming a More Inclusive Leader

Recently, I trained for a group of leaders on unconscious bias and inclusive leadership. As we were discussing the impact of exclusion in work environments, particularly the impact of microaggressions, a leader commented, “Sometimes, I don’t have the time to worry about how I say something to a team member. Sometimes, they are wrong, and their ideas aren’t very good. Sometimes people are too sensitive. Where does it end? I worry that everything I say can be construed as offensive or microaggressive. How far is too far with all of this sensitivity and inclusion stuff?”

This leader expressed a deep concern and perhaps even a bit of fear about the very real shifts in expectations in today’s workplace requiring leaders to adapt their behavior in ways that may not be their natural inclination or comfort zone. What was acceptable behavior even five years ago in many work environments isn’t any longer. Driven by influences such as our political climate of lambasting and degradation, societal incivility and celebrated bad behavior in media, some of our workplaces have spiraled into environments of questionable, rude, and sometimes-hostile behavior, leaving team members feeling devalued, disrespected, alienated, abused, isolated, and disengaged. All it takes are a few “bad apples” to spoil an otherwise winning work environment, especially among those in positions of influences or leadership.

As leaders, we often say we support diversity and inclusion within our organizations. We create core values espousing these beliefs. So, it is our job to be sure that our actions and our words are in line with these stated values. We’ve got to stop disseminating lofty ideals to our teams without fully understanding and doing what is required of us as leaders. It is our job to model the values of our organizations in ways that encourage the behavior we have outlined in our vision and mission statements and core values. The statements are meant to inspire and be walked out in our workplaces. Leaders must be at the forefront of driving inclusion. This means inspiring others to collaborate and work together, ensuring everyone is heard and ideas are shared.

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?

If you’re on the inclusive leadership journey, chose one of the strategies below and put yourself on an IIP (inclusion improvement plan) until you’ve mastered them in yourself and on your team.

 Stay thirsty. By this, I mean stay focused and committed to diversity and inclusion because they align with your personal and organizational values, and because you believe in the business case.

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

 Stay woke (aka aware). Know your personal and organizational blind spots. Assess and re-assess yourself and your team to help ensure your culture is inclusive and equitable.

 Inquire. Be openminded and curious about how others view and experience the world, and be comfortable in ambiguity. Be able to relinquish control in order to make room for new and emerging connections to develop into a clear direction. Accept that there may be numerous ways of answering the same question, each with different, but potentially positive results.

Culture up. Always be learning, reading, exploring, and engaging in experiences of culture that are beyond your own background and comfort zone. Engage in active inquiry and observations, being mindful that your assumptions or interpretation of a given culture might not be accurate or applicable in a given context.

 Collaborate. Empower individuals and leverage the thinking of diverse groups. Trust the people on your team. Know that people want a workplace/team environment fit for the human spirit, where they feel psychologically safe, free from fear, and honored.

The leader in my training was genuinely frustrated by what being more inclusive would mean for his behavior and leadership style. I empathize with him. I, too, struggle to change, especially when I do not clearly see the need or the value. That’s when I have to ask myself, “Am I only looking out for my own preferences or am I looking out for the best interests of the team or organization? Am I fully doing the work I am asked and paid to do?” Of course, we make the widgets and provide the services, but we do much more than that. As leaders — inclusive leaders — our marching orders are also to engage with and build up the people around us in ways that create belonging, value, respect, supportive energy, and commitment from others, so that every team member can do their best work.

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