July 31, 2023

Thriving through inclusion: Unpacking the importance of inclusive leadership

The significance and impact of fostering a diverse and inclusive workplace cannot be stressed enough. Today’s leaders and people managers have either learned or are learning that DEIB (diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging) work and initiatives go well beyond meeting quotas. The work is about fostering and harnessing the collective strength of unique perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences to drive innovation and growth.

In an effort to expose some of the many ways in which managers can further fuel positive change in support of DEIB initiatives, a panel of Bravely coaches came together to share their thoughts, experiences, and advice on the topic of inclusive leadership. Host and coach Ami Watkin was joined by fellow coaches Debra Turner Bailey, Kashia Dunner, and Lisa Ukpong.

This discussion — Inclusive Leadership: Your Key to a Thriving Team and Company — was an empowering exploration of the vital role inclusive leadership plays in shaping progressive and dynamic organizations. In this post, we’ll dig into the key takeaways from our panelists, including the benefits inclusive leadership offers individuals and organizations, how it shapes workplace culture, the barriers to fostering inclusivity and how to overcome them, and more.

What leadership challenges do you see coming up for your colleagues and coachees?

Maintaining transparency in the face of uncertainty

The current economic environment isn’t a mystery to most these days. With that in mind, one of the more common challenges Kashia has been seeing leaders face has been figuring out how to balance transparency and inclusivity with the needs of the business and a changing, retracted market. This means that often decisions are being made with different levels of transparency than what people were accustomed to in the past, which creates issues. “Why does this person know and I didn’t?” “Why is my team here when it was previously over there?”

That is the challenge: navigating meeting both the needs of the business and maintaining the level of privacy required for sensitive decisions while upholding transparency enough to demonstrate inclusivity that allows people to feel they are part of the organization.

Applying metrics to measure the impact of inclusivity

Without a shared understanding of what inclusivity means and how it’s applied comes a lack of commitment. And while leadership may say they want to see more inclusivity, what does that mean to folks? When you don’t know what inclusivity and inclusive leadership looks like, then it’s much less clear how you go about implementing and practicing it.

Once applied, how do you measure inclusivity? How do you measure it to ensure that progress is being made? When Lisa finds that there’s a lack of goals around the metrics that must accompany these practices then there’s a real challenge for leaders when it comes to understanding when they’re doing well and if they’re moving the needle.

What is inclusive leadership? How is it defined?

Inclusive leadership is about actively encouraging communication and collaboration between people on a team when solving problems and making decisions. The leadership practice makes such a difference when applied because it draws on the experience and knowledge of everyone and increases the likelihood of success.

Debra described inclusive leadership as the skill of balancing equity and equality. She noted that not everyone needs the same things with the same organization. “People are at different life phases, facing different opportunities and challenges. Inclusive means being able to hear all those voices, bring all those voices to the table, and then chart a path that allows the organization to move forward” where every individual is getting what they need. This is a critical skill for inclusive leadership, and HR professionals and coaches can help leaders and managers navigate this path with intention.

And what if we broadened this definition and moved beyond visible diversity to instead think about neurodiversity and neuroinclusion? And what about recognizing the very different ways in which people approach work at different periods in their life, Kashia asked. There will always be people who show up to work to do their job, get paid, and go home. There will also be people who want to stay for years and years so they can climb the ladder and become a more senior leader. Both ways of working are okay, and being an inclusive leader means creating space and permission for people to show up as they need given where they are in life.

To summarize, Ami shared that “All of us, and any organization, must support and walk alongside its people. It’s meeting people where they are, which in turn creates support for intentional inclusivity and inclusive leadership. Ultimately, this is what translates into positive business outcomes, team effectiveness, employee retention, and diminished turnover.”

How to practice and build inclusive leadership skills

Despite recognizing a number of different parameters and acknowledging the need to operationalize inclusive leadership practices, taking this idea from theory to practice can understandably feel daunting. This can be especially true for smaller companies that don’t yet have the resources to hire additional people or consults to focus on this work.

Kashia urged challenging HR teams to empower and train their managers and leaders. In the case of first-time managers especially, but also experienced managers, there may be times when they are unsure of what they are doing or the impact they are having. Asking HR business partners and specialists what they can provide in terms of resources to help people navigate the challenges before them on a micro level. With that support, managers can have an even greater impact on the organization as a whole.

Another idea to consider is the importance of internal communication. “Company leaders are very focused on external communication but not so much on internal communication,” says Debra. “Inclusivity calls for a consistent cadence of internal communication with varied formatting — not always a big town hall or one-way communication from the CEO or a department executive.  It includes focus groups, surveys, and functional input. These are some of the skills that inclusive leaders demonstrate to their organization that says they’re taking it seriously.”

And when programs and projects don’t go as planned or are abruptly halted, communicate this out to the team. Inform employees what happened and why. Not only does it go a long way, it also makes it more likely that people will engage in future activities (e.g., focus groups and surveys).

Finding the right place to practice and experiment with developing inclusive leadership practices

It’ll come as no surprise, but the panel of Bravely coaches suggests finding a professional coach to support in developing one’s own unique style of inclusive leadership. Debra reported spending roughly 25-30% of her time supporting leaders this way. They demonstrate the skills they’re working on and she provides feedback.

Therapy was also recommended, but was something that came up only if the coach had a well-established rapport with their coachee. By understanding different parts of yourself as an individual you can become an even better leader. Therapy helps us to manage the emotions that come with the pressure of being a manager and can model how to foster safe and inclusive environments in which your team members can thrive.

Finally, another place to turn is to your DEI team if your organization has one. There’s a good chance that members of that team have programs and ideas that you can learn from, and they might even have the bandwidth to consult and coach you toward implementing inclusive leadership practices.

Did you find these ideas and suggestions helpful? Ready to start your own journey toward creating a team and workplace that amplifies the unique capabilities and perspectives of your team members for the benefit of your organization?

You can watch the full recording of the webinar on-demand to learn even more about inclusive leadership, what is it, and how is it adopted and practically implemented as a leadership style along with all the nuance and tips shared by our panel of great coaches.

And if you’re looking to support the development of your team or organization, Bravely can help. We’re a training and coaching platform that provides employees with on-demand, personalized development and equips people leaders with invaluable employee engagement data. Request a demo here.

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