The Defining Traits of Inclusive Leaders

The Defining Traits of Inclusive Leaders

by Felicity Menzies

Inclusion is an active management strategy for addressing barriers to participation so that employees with different backgrounds, skills, experience, and work styles are both able and willing to contribute fully to work practices and decision making. Without inclusion, the challenges of a diverse workgroup can overshadow the potential benefits. Diversity may even detract from work performance. Prejudice, discrimination, stereotyping, isolation, communication, and accessibility barriers may prevent employees from underrepresented groups fully contributing to workplace decision-making and practices and have negative implications for employee satisfaction, engagement, performance, and productivity. Diversity, per se, does not guarantee workgroup outperformance, but diversity plus inclusion does. Studies show that when leaders succeed in cultivating a diverse and inclusive workplace, the organisation will be rewarded with better decisions, creative collaboration, motivated and engaged employees, and improved individual, team and organisational performance.

In our work with organisations, we have identified six leadership traits that correlate with employees’ perceptions of inclusion:

  1. Optimism—having the belief that others are well-intentioned and competent. Optimistic leaders understand that deeply ingrained preferences and blind spots might cause them to hold individuals to different standards of performance, to misinterpret underperformance as a competency issue rather than contextual, or to dismiss differences in work styles or thinking as inferior. Optimistic leaders ask, ‘Am I maintaining a positive view of others?’
  2. Curiosity—approaching interactions with a learner rather than judger mindset. Curious leaders know that individuals face different barriers to participation at work and that supporting individuals to achieve and apply their full potential requires leaders who actively listen and seek understand their challenges. Curious leaders ask, ‘Am I seeking to understand and learn or rushing to judgement?’
  3. Humility—letting go of the need to be right; accepting there is more than one way to interpret and respond to the world and that your view is limited. Humble leaders know the best decisions result from the integration of different ideas and perspectives and that their innate tendency to seek out, pay greater attention to, and reward ideas that align with their prejudgements may cause them to more readily dismiss or reject the contributions of people with experience and expertise different from their own. Humble leaders ask, ‘Am I inviting and welcoming constructive challenge?`
  4. Mindfulness—consciously reflecting on how bias is influencing your interactions and decision-making, and acting with a conscious intent to be fair. Mindful leaders know that their social judgements and interactions are influenced automatically by hidden preferences shaped by their past experiences and understanding of the world. Mindful leaders ask, ‘How might my ingrained preferences be limiting my openness to different people, ideas, perspectives, and ways of working?’
  5. Flexibility—willingness to flex expectations and interpersonal/leadership style. Flexible leaders understand that individuals perform at their best when workplaces meet their unique needs and that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to employee engagement. Flexible leaders ask, ‘How can I modify my words and behaviours to engender trust and optimise individual and group performance?’
  6. Emotional intelligence—responding to others with empathy and regulating your emotional response to bad news and challenge. Emotionally intelligent leaders understand that leader empathy and approachability fosters trust and a speak-up culture. Emotionally intelligent leaders ask, ‘Am I seeking to connect or correct?’

Leaders that approach their interactions with the mindsets above are best placed to build a diverse team, foster interpersonal safety, and integrate differences to optimise individual, group, and organisational outcomes. While some leaders naturally possess these traits, they can be developed and strengthened with formal instruction and reflective practice. If you would like to learn more about our solutions for developing leaders, please email us at info@cultureplusconsulting.com. Alternatively, we invite you to visit www.include-empower.com.

Felicity Menzies is CEO and Principal Consultant at Include-Empower.Com, a diversity and inclusion consultancy with expertise in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, cultural intelligence and inclusion, gender equity, empowering diverse talent. Felicity is an accredited facilitator with the Cultural Intelligence Centre and the author of A World of Difference. Felicity has over 15 years of experience working with and managing diverse workforces in blue chip companies and is a Fellow of Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand. Felicity also holds a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology.