Are You an Inclusive Leader?

I am grateful to be living and working during a time when organizations take diversity seriously. Over the last two decades, attitudes toward diversity in the workplace have changed significantly. It has gone from being a complete non-issue, to a “nice-to-have” to a “must-have.” And the data backs up the contention that diversity benefits organizations in many ways: Companies with more diverse employee rosters perform better financially. Furthermore, those that focus on ensuring the presence of women in leadership roles experience considerable benefits.

This move toward more diverse workplaces is something to celebrate but there’s still more work to be done. Consider the fact that when we talk about diversity, we tend to pair it with the concept of inclusion. Diversity and inclusion go hand in hand, and most leaders can talk at length about the benefits of “D&I.” I have noticed something interesting that needs to be called out: There are many organizations who excel at increasing diversity, yet they struggle with the inclusion part of the equation.

If you have assembled a diverse group of people to contribute to your organization, you should feel good about your efforts. However, it’s important to understand that the work should not stop there. To truly experience the potential of having a diverse workforce, you need to ensure that your inclusion efforts are also strong.

What Does it Mean to Be an Inclusive Leader?

Diversity and inclusion are two separate concepts that are often paired together. For most people, the idea of diversity is well understood: It’s all about the people in your organization and how they are hired, promoted and given responsibility. Different people have different characteristics, and an organization’s strength is largely determined by how well it recognizes the power of multiple characteristics, viewpoints, backgrounds and life experiences.

Inclusion is all about how those individuals with their unique characteristics are included in the operations of an organization. Diversity describes the demographic state of the workforce; inclusion describes how well the different members of the workforce are integrated and utilized.

For many leaders, hiring and promoting for diversity is the easy part, but they tend to struggle when it comes to being more inclusive. And it makes sense — being an inclusive leader is difficult. It requires a commitment to embracing the wisdom and expertise of many different voices. It means being open to challenging assumptions about how work should be done. It also requires leaders to set the example for the rest of the workforce to follow.

Inclusion is also difficult to understand because it’s much harder to measure than diversity. A simple head count calculation is the basis that determines an organization’s level of diversity. Inclusion is not so clearly quantified — it is achieved when members of the workforce feel included. For leaders to understand the state of inclusion within their organizations, they need to do more than just look at the numbers; they need to know their people, be able to communicate with them effectively and determine plans of action that ensure a greater feeling of inclusion.

Hiring and developing a diverse workforce is a sign of progress. But inclusion is absolutely critical when it comes to ensuring continued diversity — and the gains that come from diversity. Your most valuable people are at their best when they feel included. If they do not feel included, they will look elsewhere for a better fit for their talents, so you cannot afford to avoid including them.

How to Become a More Inclusive Leader

If you recognize that you struggle with inclusion, here are some of the areas where you can improve your leadership:

  • Create a Culture of Open Communication — When we talk about inclusion, what are the areas where we need to do a better job of including people? More often than not, it all comes down to communication. When individuals feel excluded in the workplace, it is usually because they don’t feel like they have a voice, or they feel that the communication flows one way or is lacking altogether. Creating a culture of open communication throughout an organization ensures that people’s voices are heard, considered and responded to. It is up to leaders to establish and maintain lines of communication. If you can only do one thing to improve inclusivity within your organization, improving the general flow of communication should be your priority.
  • Make it Safe to Succeed or Fail — People who feel excluded are often afraid to take action or speak up because they are afraid of the consequences. Successful organizations are spaces where everyone is encouraged and supported to embrace success or failure. Too often, leaders assemble diverse teams only to marginalize certain members. They ridicule failures and ignore successes. Effective leaders create an environment in which people feel comfortable to suggest novel ideas. They make sure individuals know that failures are valuable learning experiences, and they reward successes appropriately.  
  • Allow People to Be Themselves — Sometimes an organization’s culture can be so powerful and restrictive that individuals don’t feel comfortable being authentic. They feel as though they need to sand off their rougher edges in order to “fit in.” All this does is deprive the organization of the amazing perspectives that come from a diverse workforce. To be inclusive you may need to rethink the way you enforce your organization’s culture. It may be well established and based on decades of tradition, but that doesn’t mean it’s useful, especially if it makes individuals feel like they can’t be their authentic selves.
  • Be a Champion — As a leader, it is your responsibility to keep your finger on the pulse of your organization. You must pay attention and practice awareness, which allows you to notice when certain people may be pushed to the sidelines. If you notice that an individual is being excluded, you have the power to engage them, which will boost their confidence and visibility. Be a champion for the marginalized members of your workforce, and the rest of your team members will follow suit.
  • Get to Know Your People as People — Yes, the members of your team form a diverse group, but they are also unique individuals. Each one of them has a different story to tell, and they should not be reduced to qualities like skin color, sexual orientation or gender. Instead, approach your people with genuine curiosity and authentic humanity. You will learn what drives and motivates them, and you’ll find out how they can best contribute to your organization’s endeavors. Don’t forget that communication is a two-way street, as noted earlier. With that in mind, be sure you share your story and let the members of your team experience you as a more than a boss; let them see you as a human being.

Diversity and Inclusion Need Each Other in the Workplace

You have hired a diverse workforce, which is great — diverse organizations perform much better than others. But your work is just beginning. The success of your organization depends on your ability to include the members of your team in ways that draw out their unique value, talents and positive characteristics.

Communication is the key to inclusion, but it’s not always easy for leaders. If you struggle with communication, or if you are unsure how to be a more inclusive leader, I would love to talk and offer some advice. Leave a comment below or contact me by phone at 1-855-871-3374 and  email at

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