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Building a Culture of Belonging: A Practitioner's Guide to Inclusive Leadership


Effective leadership requires understanding and appealing to the diversity within any organization. In today's increasingly globalized and multicultural business environment, inclusive leadership has become essential for success. An inclusive leader promotes equality, values diverse perspectives, and empowers all individuals to participate and contribute to their fullest potential.


Today we will explore what research tells us about inclusive leadership and provide practical guidance and examples for how leaders can foster inclusion within their organizations.


Research on Inclusive Leadership


Academic research offers useful insights into the behaviors and mindsets that define inclusive leadership. According to Ferdman (2014), inclusive leadership focuses on leveraging diversity to enhance organizational performance. It requires actively valuing and promoting equal participation from all groups. Ferdman identified five key dimensions of inclusion that inclusive leaders cultivate:


  • Fairness and justice: Ensuring equitable treatment, compensation, opportunities for development and advancement regardless of identity or background.

  • Interpersonal valuing: Respecting, valuing and learning from individuals of all groups through open and supportive interpersonal interactions.

  • Intergroup collaboration: Promoting cooperation, sharing, and coalition-building across diverse groups.

  • Authenticity: Allowing individuals to express authentic identities while still meeting organizational goals.

  • Shifting perspectives: Encouraging considering issues from others’ perspectives and learning from diverse ideas.


Inclusive leaders embrace and act on these dimensions through their behaviors and policies. Research by Nishii (2013) identified seven core inclusive leadership behaviors:


  1. Demonstrating awareness of own biases and blind spots

  2. Promoting understanding between groups

  3. Role-modeling inclusive behaviors themselves

  4. Holding people accountable for inclusive behaviors

  5. Communicating commitment to inclusion clearly

  6. Participating in diversity trainings

  7. Actively soliciting input from diverse groups


Inclusive leaders engage in these behaviors to foster the values outlined by Ferdman. The next section will discuss practical ways for leaders to enact inclusive leadership in their organizations.


Practical Application


There are several specific steps leaders can take to make inclusion a reality in their organizations:


  • Developing an Inclusive Vision and Strategy: An inclusive vision starts at the top. Leaders must clearly communicate commitment to inclusion, define what it means for their company, and ensure inclusion is a strategic priority infused throughout policies, practices and culture.

  • Recruiting and Promoting a Diverse Workforce: To foster inclusion, a diverse workforce is needed. Leaders should partner with diverse recruiters to expand applicant pools beyond usual networks. They should also review hiring and promotion criteria to mitigate bias and support underrepresented candidates.

  • Designing Flexible, Inclusive Work Environments: Given today’s diverse workforce, one-size-fits-all policies don’t work. Leaders need to explore flexible arrangements like remote work, adjusted schedules or prayer/nursing rooms to fully include different identities and caregivers.

  • Providing Inclusion Trainings: All employees benefit from education on inclusion fundamentals like unconscious bias, microaggressions and privilege. Leaders must mandate and participate in trainings to develop awareness and shared language around inclusion.

  • Soliciting Ongoing Feedback: Leaders should check in regularly with employee resource groups and conduct climate surveys to understand challenges, get suggestions and course-correct as needed based on employee experiences. Anonymous feedback mechanisms also encourage bringing issues forward.

  • Holding Managers Accountable: To permeate the organization, leaders must incorporate inclusive competencies in performance reviews and advancement criteria for people managers. This holds managers responsible for role-modeling inclusion and addressing barriers in their teams.


The next section will share examples of companies successfully applying these inclusive leadership practices.


Examples of Inclusive Leadership in Practice


Several organizations demonstrate exemplary inclusion through strategic leadership:


  • Intel: Intel's CEO has championed inclusion as central to culture and innovation. They conduct climate surveys and voluntary conversations with underrepresented groups to address concerns. Intel also requires all new people managers complete unconscious bias training and is recognized for its family-friendly policies supporting work-life balance for all.

  • PwC: At PwC, the leadership team takes personal ownership of increasing representation of women and people of color in senior roles through systematic sponsorship programs. Managers are also held accountable for inclusion results through performance reviews. PwC’s inclusive culture has supported recruiting and retaining top diverse talent.

  • EY: EY's Global Inclusion and Diversity leader directly reports to the CEO, signaling its importance. EY runs affinity networks where employee resource groups provide feedback and recommendations to leadership. Cross-cultural mentorship programs pair junior/senior employees across identities to foster perspectives and support individual development.

  • General Mills: To empower employees to contribute authentically, General Mills established the Visible Impact brand for LGBTQ+ allies. They have also changed policies like parental leave to be fully inclusive of non-biological parents and non-binary identities based on employee input. This has strengthened engagement and retention among historically underrepresented groups.


Conclusion

In today's globally interconnected and diverse world, inclusive leadership delivers competitive advantage by tapping into a broader range of talent, perspectives and innovation. Through cultivating fairness, valuing identities and encouraging collaboration, inclusive leaders ensure full participation and optimal performance from all groups. By understanding inclusion research, clearly communicating commitment, modeling behaviors, reviewing policies and soliciting ongoing feedback, leaders can systematically embed inclusion into their organizational culture. Companies that successfully implement inclusive practices through proactive leadership reap benefits including stronger talent, engagement and business results to succeed in today's environment.


References


  • Ferdman, B. M. (2014). The practice of inclusion in diverse organizations: Toward a systematic and inclusive framework. In B. M. Ferdman & B. R. Deane (Eds.), Diversity at work: The practice of inclusion (pp. 3–54). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

  • Nishii, L. H. (2013). The benefits of climate for inclusion for gender-diverse groups. Academy of Management Journal, 56(6), 1754–1774. https://doi.org/10.5465/amj.2009.0823

 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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