Work Relationships

Inclusive leadership: how to become a leader for all

Written by Kate Lopaze

Inclusivity isn’t just a goal for recruiting or for your specific team. It’s a goal for anyone in leadership in an organization. The responsibility doesn’t start with HR, or a board—it starts with you. And me. And anyone with aspirations of moving up to a senior role. The best leaders don’t just say they’re inclusive; they show it in every aspect of their professional lives.

Inclusive leaders aren’t just team builders, they have the talent to find people who bring diverse backgrounds and perspectives. A truly inclusive leader makes sure everyone feels heard, engaged, and supported. This translates very directly into results: a Harvard Business Review study found that teams with inclusive leaders were 17% more likely to report high performance. Respondents also reported being significantly more likely to make high-quality decisions and act collaboratively. Inclusive leadership also gets people through the door: the HBR review found that for every 10% increase in perceived inclusivity, work attendance improved almost one day per year per employee.

One of the great things about leadership is that as a skill, it’s always growing and developing—you always have room to improve. And if you’re interested in becoming a more diverse leader in your organization, there are ways you can build those skills.

Commit to inclusivity

This should be a personal goal, one that should be clear in all of the work that you do. That includes voicing open support for diversity and inclusion. It also includes doing so when it’s not so easy or when you might experience pushback from others. Agreeing that there are imbalances in power isn’t enough—by speaking out about the status quo and expressing specific ways you can work on changing it to be more inclusive, you’re showing your commitment.

Understand how biases work

Very few of us would say outright that we’re biased. In reality, bias is often an inherent part of human nature and perception. The trick to overcoming it is to understand what’s going on. You may feel a certain way about someone, but do you understand why? And once you consider why you perceive things as you do, are you willing to do everything you can to minimize those personal predispositions that might have more to do with you than the other person?

Bias can take many forms in an organization, from straight-up discrimination to assumptions. For example, assumptions like “this system works well for me. It must work well for everyone here.” Or “as long as someone works hard, they’ll naturally get promoted.” Others may be facing challenges that you can’t see. These blind spots can prevent you from being a naturally inclusive leader.

Don’t be afraid to admit your challenges

Good leaders are modest and willing to admit when they’re facing challenges or making mistakes. This can be just as important as sharing “inspirational” successes. By sharing the bad with the good with members of your team, it helps create a space where people can succeed—and even fail—together, in a productive way.

Be curious about others

One of the most important aspects of inclusive leadership is being open to learning more about people: people’s experiences, perspectives, and ideas. Being openly curious about others (in an entirely professional way, of course) involves listening without judgment, offering constructive criticism, and asking open-ended questions that give team members a chance to show what they bring to the table.

This kind of curiosity also helps build cultural intelligence. The more you learn about your employees and their points of view, the more you’re likely to learn about different cultures, socioeconomic experiences, religious perspectives, etc. The goal isn’t to build a happy, seamless team that avoids those differences, but rather a team of individuals that demonstrates how those perspectives can come together and provide results for the company.

Emphasize collaboration

Leaders who turn their teams into competitive machines may get short-term results, but they also get high rates of burnout and turnover. Instead, make sure you’re doing everything you can to enhance collaboration and cooperation to achieve goals. When considering specific tasks or projects, think about how you can get team members to work effectively toward shared goals.

Being an inclusive manager certainly means prioritizing diverse hiring and team assignments. But if you’re looking to take your leadership skills to the next level, put the thought and effort into making sure that you’re truly embracing all of your team and finding ways for them to shine.

About the author

Kate Lopaze

Kate Lopaze is a writer, editor, and digital publishing professional based in New York City. A graduate of the University of Connecticut and Emerson College with degrees in English and publishing, she is passionate about books, baseball, and pop culture (though not necessarily in that order), and lives in Brooklyn with her dog.