The Diversity Council of Australia defines inclusive leadership as “the capabilities (i.e. mindsets, knowledge, skills, and behaviours) which ensure that a diversity of employee perspectives shape and improve an organisation’s strategy, work, systems, values and norms for success.”1
In essence, inclusive leadership works to make everyone associated with a company feels welcome and empowered to be themselves, regardless of personal identity or background. And it allows employers – and customers – to feel valued for who they are, how they think and feel, and what they have to say.
An inclusive leader makes all their team members feel accepted, and fosters an environment in which all customers are welcomed. They are cognisant of implicit bias – whether in terms of race, class, education or gender – and work to overcome it. Most importantly, they amplify employee voices that otherwise may not be heard.
Inclusive leadership benefits
There are a wide range of benefits that inclusive leadership brings to an organisation, in terms of both workplace culture and the bottom line.
Leading inclusively by example shows employees important expectations and values to follow and how to best treat colleagues. It fosters a culture of open discussion and collaboration, so employees feel valued. This means inclusive leaders are more likely to attract, and keep, highly qualified talent.
Diverse teams bring a variety of perspectives and experiences to the table, leading to more creativity, innovation, and problem-solving. Diverse teams experience stronger, more inclusive cultures, and can better understand and meet the needs of diverse clients, partners, and other important stakeholders.
Of course, inclusive leadership would probably get short shrift if it negatively impacted upon an organisation’s market performance. Fortunately, inclusive leadership actively helps companies succeed.
The management consultancy McKinsey & Company conducted a survey of more the 1,000 companies across 12 different countries. They found that inclusivity in a company’s management and operations resulted in greater business success.
For example, companies in the top-quartile for gender diversity on their executive teams were
21 per cent more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth
quartile. For ethnic/cultural diversity, top-quartile companies were 33 per cent more likely to outperform on profitability.2
Inclusive leadership at the very top
Imagine if inclusive leadership was demonstrated by those in government, the people who make decisions that affect the whole population.
The Australian Indigenous Voice is an example of inclusive leadership at the centre of government. Of course, it’s not without its critics – both First Nations and not – but in a broad sense it displays a willingness to embrace inclusion.
If inclusive leadership is about valuing diversity and creating an environment where everyone’s voice is heard and respected, including the voice of the traditional owners of Australian lands – who have unique perspectives and experiences – in national decisions can contribute to a more inclusive and equitable society.
Another way that the Indigenous Voice is linked to inclusive leadership is through the concept of reconciliation. Reconciliation is about acknowledging past wrongs committed against First Nations Australians as a step to working towards a more just and equitable future. Recognising marginalisation and discrimination does not salve the wounds of it, but it does signal a willingness for inclusion rather than continued division.
Inclusive leadership behaviours
As a leader, there are two types of behaviours that you can engage in to create an inclusive workplace: personal and practical.
Understand unconscious bias
Unconscious bias refers to a bias that happens automatically. It’s outside of our control and is triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences. Being aware of this and making a conscious effort to counteract it is a key behaviour for inclusive leaders.
Inclusive leaders focus on actively listening to colleagues to gain input and ideas from everyone involved in a project. This behaviour allows you to collect valuable insight to support better decision-making. And it makes people feel heard and appreciated.
Inclusive leaders are motivators. Guide and direct your teams through avid curiosity. Take an active interest in learning about the world and others. Motivate your team to embrace curiosity – which helps drive improvements and innovations in the workplace.
Provide feedback, offer methods of improvement and give your team strategies to apply to their work. It’s equally important, as an inclusive leader, to seek feedback from your team. This can help you find ways to improve your approaches, add new management techniques or consider changes to the way you direct and manage your team through projects.
Empathy and compassion
Inclusive leaders are empathetic and actively seek to understand others’ perspectives, feelings and ideas. This compassionate approach to communicating and working with others lets you consider all aspects of a problem, assignment or other work processes before making important decisions or making major changes to a project, task or process. And it allows you to remain flexible to the needs of their team members.
Teamwork, collaboration and working with others are all traits of inclusive leadership. Inclusive leaders work as part of their teams as much as they lead, delegate and direct. In an inclusive workplace, all employees have an equal say in initiatives, creating a unified team with inclusive leaders as role models.
Inclusive leaders are aware of and sensitive to the cultural diversity of their teams. Cultural knowledge – also known as cultural competence – allows you to recognise the cultural differences of others and find ways to adapt to and embrace this diversity in the workplace. You can move easily between various cultural settings and pay attention to the words and experiences of others.
Create a welcoming environment
As a leader, it’s important to create an environment where everyone feels welcome and included. This can be done by creating forums in which people feel heard, valued and comfortable expressing themselves. Also, encourage feedback – between team members and on your own performance.
An inclusive leader understands the value of diversity and seeks out a diverse range of perspectives and experiences. This could take the form of actively recruiting from a wide range of backgrounds, as well as activities such as celebrating important cultural or religious events in the lives of your team members.
Foster a culture of belonging
An inclusive leader ensures that everyone feels like they belong in – and contribute to – the organisation. Promote open communication, provide mentorship to help people develop skills and aptitudes that can enhance their career prospects, and use public forums to recognise the contributions of all team members.
Address bias and discrimination
An inclusive leader recognises and addresses any biases or discrimination that may exist within the organisation. They stand up and call out divisive and discriminatory practices. And they work to create policies and procedures that are fair and equitable for all. And that ensure everyone is held accountable for their actions, from the top down.
In a collaborative environment everyone has an opportunity to work together towards a common goal. Inclusive leaders encourage teamwork and help people develop their skills by giving them opportunities to work on diverse projects and with diverse teams.
Provide training and development on inclusion
An inclusive leader provides training and development opportunities that help team members understand diversity and inclusion, as well as things like unconscious bias. This helps people empathise with others and can mean they can go on to be more inclusive leaders themselves.
Become an inclusive leader
Charles Sturt University’s Graduate Certificate of Intersectionality, Diversity and Inclusion has been co-designed by academics and industry professionals worldwide to give you the theory and skills to become an inclusive leader yourself.
Advance diversity, inclusivity and representation. Support your organisation to transform policy and practices that create inclusive workplace cultures. Maximise the potential of all your employees.
Be the best leader you can be.