I recently posted an extension to a well-established diversity and inclusion analogy. I went like this:
“If ‘diversity’ is being invited to the party, and ‘inclusion’ is being asked to dance, then I reckon ‘inclusive leadership’ is all about hosting great parties! Create a space of deep trust, where people can have great connections and be proud of their own unique dance moves.
The post itself garnered lots of views and positive reactions. The concept clearly resonates. So why is it that we haven’t nailed it yet? It’s a classic adaptive challenge – individually, we all want to create inclusive work environments. Collectively, we still haven’t moved the needle far enough on equality measures like the full-time working gender pay gap still sitting at $25,700 and only 2.3% of workplaces having targets for men’s engagement in flexible working (WGEA). Additionally, one in five of Australians report experiencing major discrimination based on their age, gender, identity, sexual orientation, religion, ability or origin (Inclusive Australia).
One of the barriers to action that I’ve observed is just the pure complexity of the problem. It’s an intersection between cultures, norms, structural inequality and individual lived experiences that can make the idea of being an ‘inclusive leader’ seem all too hard. Anxiety attached to the question ‘What if I don’t do ‘inclusion’ right?’ is often enough to allow the status quo to remain.
So, for a moment let’s set aside the concern that we might not do it right – and try out the tips below that will enable anyone to click in to action on their own inclusive leadership journey:
Tip 1: Articulate your own purpose for ‘why’
There is a lot of data and research that demonstrates the benefits of taking an inclusive leadership approach. Why do you want to create an inclusive working environment?
It might mean taking some time out to deeply understand that for yourself – beyond the formal business case. Being able to articulate a personal story of why inclusion matters to you will set a tone for the team and create a level of accountability on yourself to live up to that intention.
As an example, a story that I often share to articulate my personal ‘why’ for inclusive leadership:
“I was once working with an organisation where managers that arrived at work after 8:00am because they had to coordinate childcare arrangements would enter work through side entrances and emergency exits so nobody would see them come in. They were afraid of how people would judge them for not getting to work early enough. As a leader, all I could think about was how much mental energy these people were putting in to hide the reality of their daily routine. All that energy could have been spent on positive activities instead of planning covert office entries. It made me think about the message they were sending their own teams – ‘you can’t have a life outside this business’ and the flow on engagement deficit that produces… that is just one of many examples in my career for why inclusive leadership is critical. At the heart of a happy, high performing team is the confidence that being able to bring one’s full self to work creates.”
We operate in a world of reciprocity. It’s amazing when we share authentically and honestly, how much it opens the door for others to do the same.
Tip 2: Let people really ‘know’ you
Articulating your own personal ‘why’ for inclusive leadership is a great start to reducing the façade that we all walk around with at work. It is a starting point to building deeper trust with your team and peers around you.
It can’t be the only thing you share. Trust isn’t a transaction, it’s a tapestry of moments that show consistency and authenticity in a relationship – any relationship (work ones included).
If you want to create an environment where people are confident to bring their full selves to work, it starts with you, so you’ll need to start showing more of your full self. It doesn’t mean setting up a leather couch and vomiting out all your dark personal traumas and secrets, but it may mean showing more of the ‘human’ elements that you bring to work. Again, this role models for others that it’s okay for them to show more of their ‘human’ elements too.
An easy way to start could be to bring in the excess yield from your veggie patch if you happen to be a keen gardener. Perhaps one of your greatest joys is a big Sunday lunch with family – make an extra little batch of a secret family dish and bring it on Monday to share with others. You’ll open a window into your life that others may never have known.
A more overt version may be, as a leader, to say it out loud when you are doing something that enables you to prioritize the different parts of your life. If you need to leave at 3:30 to be at your kid’s school concert, leave loudly. Show people that you are balancing the priorities in your life and that work is a place that supports it, not judges it. This simple act lets people know that you have a school-aged child, that you think being involved in school activities is important, and that you support a mindset that seeks to balance work and life.
Tip 3: Really ‘know’ other people
The other side of the coin to letting people know you, is to be curious enough to learn about others. You may know what work they’ve done well and not so well in the time you’ve worked with them, but do you really know the full extent of their talents? Have you ever taken the time to find out, and see what unique value they could be bringing to the work or culture of the team?
You may start trying to understand others more deeply through the structure of a validated assessment tool. I use strength based tools like VIA Character Strengths, DiSC and MBTI with teams so that people can learn about each other’s unique strengths in a structured, safe way that also introduces new language that people can start putting to work in how they describe their work and experiences to each other.
When we understand more of the whole person that comes in to work, we can be more empathetic to things happening in their world, and we can also delegate and assign responsibilities within the team to match where individual people’s strengths and energy lie.
Most importantly, suspend judgement of others when they reveal things about themselves. Everything they share with you and the group is true and correct to them, so respect it and resist the urge to overlay your version of the world to the things they share about themselves. We all operate from our own version of the truth.
Tip 4: Share the distribution of power
Autonomy and the ability to control one’s own destiny is a driver for engagement and a willingness to bring ‘full self’ to work. One way we can enable that is to disrupt some of the traditional flows of power that happen at work.
Why does everything need to be decided from above? Often the best solutions and improvements come from the people doing the tasks, so it makes sense to involve the ‘doers’ in the way that work is organised and distributed in the team.
There is a balancing act in how this is operationalised. The fundamental requirement is deep trust – the kind of trust you build when you allow people to truly know you, and you are curious to truly know and understand them!
I find Lencioni’s 5 functions of a team model useful to build team participation and commitment to outcomes. It starts with building deep trust and giving people a real say in how solutions and work get done.
Tip 5: Role model inclusive behaviours and language
It’s hard to expect behaviours from others that you aren’t prepared to engage in yourself. This can be difficult to do if you’re not an expert on diversity and inclusion, so I recommend starting from first principles which is your own personal ‘why’ for inclusive leadership. How would you ‘walk the talk’ on your own why for inclusion?
You can work with the team on what inclusive behaviours and language might look like in their day-to-day work. It could be as simple as creating habits and rituals that increase connections across the team, giving and receiving feedback with respect and authenticity, and scheduling 10 minutes in the agenda at the start of every team meeting to acknowledge examples in the team where people have acted inclusively in different decisions and processes at work.
A more formal way to make inclusive behaviour and language front of mind and very tangible within a team is to engage in structured ‘ally’ or diversity training. Getting an expert in diversity and inclusion to run some training that explicitly demonstrates for people what inclusion (and just as importantly, exclusion) look and feel like is a great way to set a common standard and create momentum.
So, there you have it. Five actions that any leader in any organisation can start doing today to create a more inclusive work environment. As the original analogy directs us, if you want to become a great party host, all you need to do is create a space of deep trust, where people can have great connections and be proud of their own unique dance moves!
Lachlan’s commitment to helping people succeed in the future of work is driven by core values of inclusive leadership, strength-based growth, development for all, customer-led design, and deep relationships.