How Leaders Create and Sustain Inclusivity within Teams

June 16, 2022 Jeff Cole

Globalization and the pandemic have reshaped the workplace. These two forces have created an exponentially larger talent pool with employees working in a significantly more diverse context. Ensuring each member of the team feels a sense of belonging and inclusion is critical for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is the ability to tap into each person’s peak performance.

The benefits of a diverse work environment are clear. Analysis of data about inclusion in the workplace shows that when people feel included, key metrics jump. According to Harvard Business Review, when people feel included at work, there is a 56% increase in job performance, a 50% drop in turnover risk, and a 75% reduction in sick days.

Conversely, the same article found that 40% of people feel isolated at work. While the primary reason people leave their role has traditionally been due to misalignment with a leader, the market has witnessed a dramatic increase in people leaving organizations because they feel excluded. An organizational environment where diversity, equity, and inclusion are not valued tends to become toxic in nature, a leading indicator for mass resignation. If people are not comfortable showing up as their true selves, they will look for a more welcoming place. The challenge is that leaders need to be equipped with the mindsets and skills to make inclusivity a reality.

There are four major components for creating an inclusive team environment. Here is a closer look at each of them.

Create a Safe Space

Inclusive leaders create an environment that is psychologically safe. This safe space allows people to show up authentically without feeling the need to shield something about themselves, whether it be socio-economic background, educational experience, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, or other areas where they potentially could be marginalized.

Creating a psychologically safe space rests with a leader's ability to communicate effectively and to build trust among team members. It also includes providing a space where people can have effective conversations that are high impact and at times emotionally charged without fear of reprisal.

First, since communication is such a vast skillset, inclusive leaders are highly competent in their ability to balance being candid and being curious. The ability to have a high impact conversation about a charged issue is a learned communication skill. It means showing the willingness to change your mind or accept that you might be wrong while also being mindful about the sensitivities of the person or group with whom you are speaking. It also means engaging with an openness that there may be other equally valid points of view.

Next, building trust supports an inclusive environment within teams. Leaders are constantly asking themselves which mindsets and behaviors they are adopting or exhibiting and if they are building or eroding trust by using these behaviors. Without question, the actions of leaders set the tone for a team. In fact, people will often imitate the actions of their leaders. When inclusive leaders model trustworthy behaviors, the team is likely to follow suit.

Hone Emotional Intelligence

Being emotionally intelligent in 2022 is critical to creating an inclusive environment. Starting your journey begins with completing some type of personality assessment. An objective, third-party perspective of yourself is a must.

Emotional intelligence includes the ability to be empathetic. In fact, it has been rated as the most important leadership skill. Leaders must be attuned to the needs of their people and respond appropriately. The need for these kinds of leaders is even more pronounced in the wake of the pandemic. We all have struggled through a global traumatic event. We want our leaders to be sensitive to it.

Manage Multigenerational Teams

Today's workforce is made up of multigenerational workers. One of the tests of a leader is to make sure every person feels included. This can be challenging since each members of each group have unique preferences for how they lead, communicate, and collaborate. Good leaders understand this—and, just as important, they know they are building the next generation of inclusive leaders.

For example, different groups view communication and collaboration differently. People from younger generations need to express themselves more frequently than do those who are older. They want their voice to be heard. As a result, they communicate very differently. Leaders need to be aware of these preferences.

Collaboration is another area where there are generational differences. Younger generations place a great value on collaboration; older generations, not as much. This doesn't mean collaboration isn't important to them; it’s just not a priority. In contrast, younger generations thrive on lively exchanges of ideas. They enjoy communicating and being heard.

Become Aware of Your Cultural Competence and Implicit Biases

All leaders have unique experiences that make up their cultural awareness—and this includes conscious and unconscious biases. They are part of being human. One of the key goals of inclusive leaders is to ascertain which experiences or biases contribute to who they are and identify ways to neutralize them so that they can remain candid and curious about others with different experiences.

Jennifer Brown, author of How to Be an Inclusive Leader: Your Role in Creating Cultures of Belonging Where Everyone Can Thrive and one of our partners, explains how to face off against our (sometimes) unconscious biases. According to Brown, inclusive leaders experience biases in four different phases: unaware, aware, active, and advocate. 

Sometimes we may be unaware that a bias exists, and we need a set of mindsets and behaviors to navigate out of this state. Once aware, inclusive leaders lean in to difficult, awkward, and uncomfortable situations with curiosity and openness. Here we learn the mindsets and behaviors needed to confront biases. We sometimes navigate into the active phase by speaking out and engaging in actions to challenge the status quo. The fourth phase, advocacy, is probably the most difficult to attain. This is when inclusive leaders seek organizational and systemic changes to bring about justice, equity, and equality for all employees.

Creating and sustaining an inclusive environment takes considerable awareness, effort, and persistence; however, the research and data are clear about the exponential impact of inclusivity.

About the Author

Jeff Cole

Jeff Cole is a Solutions Architect for The Ken Blanchard Companies®. In this role, Jeff partners with organizations to translate leadership development strategies into innovative leadership development experiences. Jeff focuses on the seamless integration of Inclusion, Diversity and Equity initiatives and multi-generational leadership sensitivity to build capacity for innovative leaders of tomorrow.

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