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Inclusive leadership: six characteristics to develop.

What makes people feel included in your organisation? Probably, your answer will be built around aspects of your company culture: fair treatment and being valued, a sense of belonging and open communication with co-workers. All of this is true, but research* showed that this sense of inclusivity mostly comes down to leadership. So, let’s investigate the traits of inclusive leadership and see how to build them in your organisation!

Leadership plays a critical role in fostering inclusivity in organisations. In fact, what leaders say and do makes up to a 70% difference to whether individuals report feeling included!* And this really matters.The more people feel included, the more they feel comfortable speaking up, going the extra mile, and collaborating, which ultimately leads to better performances. Now, the core aspects of leadership, such as setting direction and influencing others, are timeless, but we see other capabilities that are vital to the way leadership is executed when it comes to inclusivity. Research from Deloitte has identified six traits that characterise an inclusive mindset and inclusive behaviour. We’ll break them down for you one by one.

1. Commitment

Building a diverse and inclusive company culture in which people thrive calls for commitment from leadership. That’s not just because it’s a process that will be ever-changing, but because leadership sets the tone for organisational culture. Inclusive leaders send a clear message and lead by example.

Inclusive leaders are committed to diversity and inclusion because these objectives align with their personal values and because they believe in the business case. They see DE&I as a business priority and take personal responsibility for the outcomes of their efforts. They allocate resources toward improving DE&I in the workplace.

However, it’s not just the business case that has them engaged. On a personal level, they believe that creating an inclusive culture starts with them, explaining why they possess a strong sense of personal responsibility for change. This is something that also shows up in their behaviours. Inclusive leaders not only treat all team members with respect but they also understand the uniqueness of each individual and take action to ensure each team member feels part of the organisation.

2. Courage

As inclusive communication expert Hanan Challouki explains in the video above, it takes courage to become an inclusive leader. Highly inclusive leaders dare to speak up and make the hard decisions. They challenge the status quo and hold others accountable for non-inclusive behaviours. This also holds a vulnerability for them, since confronting others and being an agent for change invites cynicism, resistance, and challenges from others.

In inclusive leadership, courage and humility therefore go hand in hand. Being an inclusive leader also means speaking out about yourself and revealing your own limitations in a very personal way, instead of shying away from the challenge of imperfection. Highly inclusive leaders adopt an attitude of humility. They don’t shy away from admitting they don’t know everything. They admit to making mistakes, seeking help from others to overcome their limitations in the process.

3. Cultural intelligence

For inclusive leaders, cultural intelligence is more than the ability to have a mental map of different cultural frameworks. It’s about working well with individuals from different cultural backgrounds, being confident in leading cross-cultural teams, and being able to effectively use appropriate verbal and non-verbal communication in this multicultural setting.

In other words, highly inclusive leaders are confident and effective in cross-cultural interactions. They take an active interest in learning about other cultures, while at the same time understand how their own culture impacts their personal views of the world, as well as how cultural stereotypes can influence their expectations of others. And while an understanding of cultural similarities and differences is important, since not everyone sees the world through the same cultural framework, inclusive leaders are motivated to deepen their cultural understanding and to learn from the experiences of working in unfamiliar environments.

4. Cognisance (of bias)

Cognisance has everything to do with bias. Biases are a leader’s Achilles’ heel, potentially resulting in decisions that are unfair. That’s why inclusive leaders are mindful of personal and organisational blind spots. They are very much aware of their personal biases and, therefore, work on their self-awareness. As they acknowledge that, despite the best intentions, their organisations have unconscious bias. By putting in place policies, processes, and structures, inclusive leaders try to mitigate these existing biases to ensure ‘fair play’. That doesn’t always mean the exact same. In other words, inclusive leaders are aware that ‘fair’ doesn’t necessarily equate ‘the same’. They give their employees the opportunities to become their best self, even if that can mean different things for different people at different times.

5. Curiosity

With curiosity comes learning and new ideas, something inclusive leaders can benefit from in multiple ways! Inclusive leaders should be curious, as it helps them have an open mind and a desire to understand others and their views of the world. They accept their own limitations (as described in courage) and welcome the views of others to complete the picture. Asking curious questions, actively listening, and withholding fast judgements are three of the core skills that inclusive leaders should learn to master.

This openness is a defining characteristic of inclusive behaviour, as it gives weight to the insights of others from different backgrounds. Curiosity encourages connection, which in turn promotes empathy and seeing things from new perspectives. This helps foster a more constructive exchange of ideas and decrease biases.

As an inclusive communication expert, Hanan has some practical advice to build on your leadership’s curiosity:

6. Collaboration

At its core, collaboration is about individuals working together as a team. It’s about team members building on each other’s ideas and strengths to produce something new or to solve something complex. However, in terms of inclusive leadership, collaboration becomes more about creating an environment where individuals feel valued personally and empowered to contribute. For collaboration to work, people should first feel safe and be willing to share their different perspectives. Because collaboration amongst similar people is much more comfortable and easy, the challenges and complexity lie in working with people from different walks of life. That’s why inclusive leaders encourage autonomy, empowering their team to connect with others in the pursuit of different perspectives. They give their teams the freedom to actively contribute to the decisions that impact their work and hold them accountable for the performance they can control. All this creates a setting in which diverse thinking can flourish. After all, a diverse-thinking team is greater than the sum of its parts.

Communication

If you were counting, you probably noticed that you’ve already read the six traits of inclusive communication promised by the header of this article. However, based on the podcast episode with Hanan, we believe there’s one thing missing. To be precise: communication.

Communication is a crucial one. Because that’s what it’s really all about. How do you, as a leader, communicate with people from different walks of life, people with different backgrounds?

Hanan Challouki

A lot of the traits come down to personal, interpersonal,and leadership communication. That means communication is the ultimate skill for inclusive leadership. It serves as the cornerstone for understanding, empathy, and collaboration. Effective communication ensures that diverse perspectives are heard, valued, and integrated in decision-making processes. It allows organisations to build an environment where all voices feel acknowledged and respected, regardless of background or identity. Moreover, inclusive leaders actively listen to feedback and actively seek out diverse viewpoints, recognising that true inclusivity requires ongoing dialogue and understanding. Ultimately, communication empowers leaders to cultivate a sense of belonging among team members, thereby creating a more inclusive and equitable workplace culture. And after all,that’s what inclusive leadership is all about!

Sources:

*Harvard Business Review

*Deloitte University Press Report

Want to listen

to the full episode?

Discover more of Hanan Challouki's insights, tips and tricks in our podcast episode 'Learning the language of inclusion and diversity'.

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