The Untapped Potential of Inclusive Leadership

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Got a boss who’s the lord of all he or she surveys? Is your leader someone who takes almost no well-meaning advice about their company’s direction, policies, or work culture on board, or never really seeks honest feedback? Then you may be in a business that’s using an outdated model of autocratic leadership that’s preventing that business from reaching its full potential.

Are you looking to change your company and create a happier, more motivated, and more productive workforce? Well, leadership is even more important than you think.

An article in the Harvard Business Review cites leadership as the main determining factor in whether or not people feel included and valued.

Leadership, then, is more important than how people feel about the business mission, practices, policies, and how their colleagues behave. So, what style of leadership should you adopt if you want a happy, motivated, and productive workforce who believe in your vision (almost) as much as you do?

I’d plump for inclusive leadership.

What is Inclusive Leadership?

Inclusive leaders look to lead by example. They work to create the best version of themselves so that they can make themselves into a person others want to follow, even if their experiences and backgrounds are vastly different from their co-workers. Inclusive leaders build diverse networks and bring together people of sometimes vastly different opinions in pursuit of a shared vision.

It’s the ability to continuously develop diverse networks of people, who feel invested and included in the pursuit of a shared goal that makes an inclusive leader stand out. Peoples’ different experiences may be shaped by varying socio-economic, racial, or religious backgrounds (to name a few). The skill of inclusive and productive leaders lies in learning how to adapt themselves so that they can bring together and motivate people who may have radically different views on various things but are nonetheless willing to work together to turn the leader’s vision into a reality.

Later, I’ll try to give you deeper insight into inclusive leadership. For now, though, let’s look at some other styles of leadership to gain a bit of context.

Four Behavioural Theories of Leadership

In July 2021, Setiawan and others published their study investigating the impact of leadership styles on employee productivity in Productivity Management. It focused on analysing the effectiveness of four behavioural styles of leadership: autocratic, democratic, transformational, and transactional. Let’s define these before moving on to what the study tells us.

Autocratic. This type of leader is the centre of power and decision-making within an organisation, they give orders and assign duties without seeking the opinions of employees. They assume full authority and take full responsibility. It’s a model based on close supervision, clear direction, and a clear hierarchy.

Democratic. A democratic leader is characterised by the willingness to consult with subordinates and actively seek their participation in the development of the organisation, typically by involving them in planning and policies. They share responsibility with their employees, which fosters enthusiasm and can boost productivity.

Transformational. Transformational leaders are typically energetic, passionate, and enthusiastic people focused not only on succeeding themselves but on helping members of their team to succeed as well.

Transactional. Instead of focusing on improving or changing the organisation as a whole, transactional leaders aim to meet short-term goals, by working together to do so. Leaders provide structure, supervision, and a system of rewards and penalties.

What the Study Tells Us

The study concluded that autocratic leadership usually had a detrimental effect on employee efficiency. A transformational approach to leadership allows people to revisit and reflect on past errors, and work to improve. Thereby, they find more job satisfaction which motivates them to produce better results.

Questionnaire respondents thought democratic leadership to be more centred around people. Respondents thought it fostered a better sense of community among employees. They thought the democratic style of leadership gave room for workers to express their opinions to the leader, managers, and team leaders too.

Setiawan and his colleagues suggest that one of the best ways to provide workers with the best parts of democratic leadership — like friendliness, engagement, motivation, and helpfulness — companies should prepare to meet goals. Leaders should be aware of the value of employees and take a creative, innovative attitude to whatever opportunities and challenges present themselves.

They also noted the importance of building a wider, more diverse network to offset any negative impact of autocratic, narrow-minded leadership and transform it into something more constructive.

This is where inclusive leadership comes in and, arguably, shines as the most productive form of leadership you can aspire to.

Why be an Inclusive Leader?

Cultivating the skill of inspiring, motivating, and making people feel included is becoming ever more vital. Those who feel included are more likely to go the extra mile, collaborate effectively and productively, and speak up – all of which lifts performance. For that reason, inclusive leadership is emerging as a unique and critical capability that helps organisations adapt to diverse customer bases. This makes companies that adopt this approach more likely to spot and take advantage of market change and make the best use of the ideas, talents, and experiences available to them.

It’s time to look at the characteristics inclusive leaders show and can develop over time.

5 Signature Traits of Inclusive Leaders

Visible commitment: They show real commitment to challenging the status quo, increasing diversity, and holding others to account. They make the inclusion of people of all backgrounds and experiences a personal priority.

Empathy and Humility: They display modesty, admit mistakes, and make room for others to contribute.

Awareness of blind spots: They know themselves well and are aware of their personal biases and blind spots. They work to spot the flaws in the system and to ensure that people within the organisation get what they work for and deserve.

Curious about other people and cultures: They show open-mindedness and have profound curiosity about others and the world. This is part of what helps them maintain a high level of diversity in their network because they’re attentive to other cultures and adapt as needed.

Empower people: They allow others room to shine, listen to different ideas without judgement, and are attentive to their teams’ psychological well-being and to how well teams can collaborate.

Later, I’ll share three ways you can practice and develop these traits. First though, let’s ask which of them is the most important.

Shared Goals – Photo by on

Which Trait is the Most Vital?

The answer usually depends on your position within a team. If you’re the leader and don’t show visible commitment, the other four traits cannot be fully developed. If you’re working around the leader, as a manager or a direct peer, the single most important trait that makes you feel included, according to The Harvard Business Review, is that leader’s awareness of their own biases and blind spots.

The Harvard Business Review analysed the 360° inclusive leadership assessments of over 400 people and found that while all the traits are important, and work together, a leader’s awareness of personal and organisational biases was what people cared about most.

The Importance of Humility and Empathy

People working with leaders are looking for them to connect and empathise with their experiences and different viewpoints, and not just as a sort of intellectual exercise. They are looking for leaders to acknowledge their own vulnerabilities, and actively ask others for feedback on how they can mitigate the negative effects of their biases. It seems that people like leaders who show willingness to improve themselves and take the opinions of their colleagues on board.

Research conducted by the Harvard Business Review indicates that leaders who show empathy, are thought more approachable, trustworthy, and eager to support others. If you’re humble, others feel confident enough to offer their feedback. Showing empathy gives people hope that you care about them and value their comments, views, and suggestions. When people feel valued they are likely to be more motivated and productive, which will help create momentum and keep your business powering on.

It’s time to find out how you can start becoming a more inclusive leader.

Ways to Practice Inclusive Leadership

Bring together a group of people who have regular contact with the leader and whom that leader trusts to say it like it is. Those trusted advisers can give detailed invaluable feedback on everyday social and interpersonal behaviours that support or inhibit inclusion. They can help answer questions like:

  • Does the leader give equal time to each of the participants in the meeting, or tend to favour those who are in situ with them, over those who are phoning in from somewhere else?
  • Do they always refer to one gender when giving examples?
  • Does the leader only ever use one set of metaphors, to describe concepts even though he or she is talking to a diverse group of people, for some of whom those images might not make sense?
  • Is their way of speaking, and imagery that they use representative of those they are speaking with? If not, it might make it harder for people to understand what the leader wants and needs from them.

By constantly getting feedback from their trusted group of advisers (typically called a personal advisory group or PAD), leaders can better understand whether they need to make changes or whether they’re hitting the mark.

This feedback is ongoing, so it may be an effective way for you and those close to you, to spot areas where things are likely to change early enough to take risks that may pay off. It may help you anticipate a market shift and take all the benefits inherent in being one of the first to spot it before everybody else jumps in. You’ll have increased your chances of having First Mover’s Advantage.

Another way you can move towards becoming a more inclusive leader is through sharing your own learning journey about identifying and addressing your own biases. Here are some ways you can do this.

  • Discuss your 360° feedback assessment results with your manager.
  • Making time in weekly meetings for a team member to tell others what they’ve learnt about diversity and inclusion during that week.
  • You could do this in a cycle so that the first week is your turn, as the leader, then it’s the managers, then the most senior of your peers and so on, until your get back around to the leader again.
  • To be extra inclusive, try changing the order occasionally, so it’s not always decided by a person’s seniority within the company or across teams. Just make sure you remember to say this in the agenda you send out before the meeting.

A third way you can practice developing the traits of an inclusive leader is by deliberately exposing yourself to difficult, uncomfortable situations, in which you’re confronted by your biases. This needn’t be anything earth-shattering. Simply moving around in the workplace, so that each week you are sitting with different people, and in a different environment might do it for you. It doesn’t really matter how different the environments are, as long as it introduces something unfamiliar to you. Here’re a couple of examples.

  • You might never have eaten lunch with Haroon from marketing and his team. Why not go and talk to them and see if you can gain any new perspectives?
  • You could ask to hop on a call with someone on the sales team who you don’t normally have much contact with and gain new insights through the exchange of candid feedback.

Putting yourself out in this way will help expand your horizons, and potentially disrupt any preconceived ideas you might have, making you more aware of your biases.

The Wrap Up

Inclusive leadership is a valuable, sought-after set of skills that are becoming ever more crucial.

Remember, the key traits to work on are:

  • Visible commitment.
  • Empathy and humility.
  • Awareness of your own biases and blind spots.
  • The ability to empower others.
  •  Curiosity.

If you work to develop yourself into the kind of person you’d want to follow and take a step or three outside of your comfort zone every now and then, you’ll start to build more wide-ranging networks that include people from all walks of life. Soon enough, you’ll have a greater pool of talent to draw upon.

By working to get people interested and invested in your vision, you can transform your vision into a shared goal that drives you all forward. You can help everyone involved become more motivated and productive by showing your commitment and empathy. In short, you can give yourself and your colleagues the best possible chance of achieving big success if you strive to master the art of being a first-rate inclusive leader.

Published by Lizzie

Lizzie here. I'm a freelance copywriter and editor based in the UK. I'm also passionate about volunteering and hold a MA in History from the University of Warwick. I've written for a multitude of fantastic websites and companies, including a legal automation software company, a dog training site and more. Check out my reviews on Fiverr and Upwork for more info!

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