Three Steps Toward Inclusive Leadership

We’re having more direct and honest conversations at work given the events of the past two years. Here are three steps to help leaders ensure they’re being inclusive in a world that expects this.

Pointing to the presence of Diversity in our organisations is no longer enough. We also need to foster Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging. We need to ensure that our work culture is one where the diversity of people who join us, also stay and continue to progress.

To be a truly inclusive leader means growing in our own self-awareness, owning up to our built-in biases and consciously getting beyond our own limiting habits and behaviours. It means having openness, curiosity and interest regarding the experience of others and a commitment to working out what genuine fairness means.

As we continue on that journey, here are three simple leadership actions to help create an inclusive culture.

1. Hire and Progress for Skills, Rather Than ‘Fit’

It is a well-documented phenomenon that we tend to hire or promote those who are like us. It’s in the small talk, the shared assumptions, the natural familiarity. It takes deliberate effort to get over these instincts. We need to make sure we hire and promote with head as well as heart, and particularly that we sit with our teams to identify the competencies – the specific skills and behaviours – needed in a role. We might then see the advantage in hiring or promoting someone with a different approach and different experience from the rest of the team, but with relevant, transferable skills. They are likely to fill out the team’s capability and also challenge our tendency to ‘groupthink’

2. Foster Psychological Safety, Connect on a Personal Level

A few years ago, Google analysed what makes teams most effective. It turns out that ‘psychological safety’ is a key success factor. If we feel safe enough with each other to speak up and take risks in how we communicate, we generate better ideas, waste less time and fix mistakes more easily. Being able to ask what might seem an ‘out of the loop’ question is especially important for people who are not familiar with reading the unwritten rules or subtle signals of a group. This is equally true whether due to cultural background, social mobility, neurodiversity, gender identity, sexuality or a range of other ways that we accidentally create ‘in groups’ and ‘outsiders’ when we tolerate a culture where it’s not OK to speak up. Connecting with people on a personal level builds psychological safety. As a leader, take the time to find out what matters to each member of your team, how they would spend their perfect day, and who they consider family. Share these things about yourself also. Be honest when you are not sure: ask how you can best support your team members to be heard. Be intentional about making space for everyone to air their views in meetings and discussions.

3. Provide Opportunities to Learn More

  • Encourage team members to attend affinity groups for affinities which are different from their own - and do so yourself.
  • Encourage simple activities when you have an event, such as a multi-cultural pot luck in which team members share traditions and food from their culture and heritage.
  • Start a book group in which all employees choose a book that provides insights into what shaped them.
  • Set up meet-and-greets for team members with others who they might not typically work with.

No doubt, true inclusive leadership takes commitment. It includes reflecting honestly on our experiences and behaviour. It means taking feedback on board, without defensiveness. It also means having the humility to know that our instinctive way of doing things is not the only way. But once we experience the power of true workplace diversity that fully brings in everyone's strengths, the rewards are great, on a personal and commercial level.

Jennifer Liston Smith is Bright Horizons’ Head of Thought Leadership