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Inclusive work cultures are found to be the most productive, yet many employees feel their companies lack such qualities. — Andrey Popov

It’s no secret that businesses that value diversity, listen to their staff, and stress a fair and equitable work environment are in high demand among talent for hire today.

The problem is, many companies lack these essential qualities, as well as leaders who practice them effectively. This can significantly hamper an organization’s growth, innovation and performance.

The challenge, in a word, is inclusivity—or, more specifically, lack thereof. The Society for Human Resource Management defines inclusion as “the achievement of a work environment in which all individuals are treated fairly and respectfully, have equal access to opportunities and resources, and can contribute fully to the organization’s success.”

A study by Deloitte found that organizations with inclusive cultures are six times more likely to be innovative, six times more likely to anticipate change and respond effectively, and two times as likely to meet or surpass financial goals. Yet, based on that same study, only 12% of organizations across the globe have reached full maturity in terms of adopting an inclusive culture.

In fact, only 28% of organizations have a diversity and inclusion leader in the C-suite, and 14% of all organizations surveyed have no such leader in place at all, per a PwC report. What’s more, about a quarter of 10,000 workers who participated in a SurveyMonkey poll revealed they don’t feel like they belong at their company, suggesting a major inclusivity problem in the workplace.

About a quarter of 10,000 workers who participated in a SurveyMonkey poll revealed they don’t feel like they belong at their company, suggesting a major inclusivity problem in the workplace.

Being the boss of belonging

Change, as they say, starts at the top. This is why it’s so important that leadership at your enterprise—from top execs down to middle managers—emphasize inclusivity.

“An inclusive leader creates an environment in which people feel they can be their authentic selves while also feeling that they belong,” said Inga Carboni, associate professor of organizational behavior at the Raymond A. Mason School of Business, College of William and Mary. “The people around inclusive leaders share who they really are and what they know without fear of being judged, disrespected or dismissed.”

Ben Renshaw, leadership coach and author of the book “Purpose: The Extraordinary Benefits of Focusing on What Matters Most,” echoes that sentiment.

“An inclusive leader is someone who welcomes everyone as an equal contributor. They create an environment where everyone can be themselves, play to their strengths, ask for help, and work together to get better solutions,” Renshaw said.

That kind of boss didn’t really exist a couple of decades ago, said Frederic Lucas-Conwell, a behavioral scientist and CEO/co-founder of Growth Resources, Inc.

“Twenty years ago, the focus for leaders was to transform, persuade and express charisma. We wouldn’t have spoken about an ‘inclusive leader’ then,” Lucas-Conwell said. “But today, leaders need to be able to manage diversity and inclusion more often than before.”

A management style that pays dividends

The plusses of inclusive leadership are plentiful, the pros agree.

“An inclusive leader creates an environment that engages employees, which leads to greater productivity, profitability, retention, creativity, and customer service,” said Ryan Gottfredson, a leadership consultant and assistant professor of management at Cal State Fullerton’s Mihaylo School of Business and Economics. He cites Pixar’s Ed Catmull, Bridgewater Associates’ Ray Dalio, and Boston Philharmonic Orchestra founder/conductor Benjamin Zander as hall-of-fame-worthy inclusive leaders.

Another benefit? An improved reputation for your company in the form of positive PR, word of mouth, and name/brand recognition.

“Today, employees, customers and shareholders expect organizations to do the right thing by creating a great company to work for. At the heart of this is employee engagement, which provides a direct link to business performance,” Renshaw said.

Inclusive leadership also encourages a healthy array of distinctive voices and ideas—ideas that can lead to solutions that otherwise would never have been thought of.

“When a company is able to attract, interview, recruit, manage and organize talent that is more diverse, this provides more options for leaders. And an inclusive leader will urge that diverse workforce to bring more varied perspectives on issues being discussed and decided,” said Lucas-Conwell.

Inclusivity school is open for enrollment

The good news? Inclusive leaders aren’t born—they’re taught.

“It’s a skill, not a trait. That means it’s something anyone can develop,” said Gottfredson.

Col. Terry Virts, former commander of the International Space Station, can vouch for the fact that inclusivity can be learned.

“You have to be open-minded and willing to learn. For me, that happened back at business school, when we did an Arctic survival exercise that showed that group decision-making was better than individual decision-making,” said Virts.

Managing inclusively requires a different outlook, too.

“In my research, I’ve found that only 5 percent of people consistently have the mindsets necessary for inclusive leadership,” Gottfredson said. “But if people can awaken to and identify their current mindsets and learn what mindsets would be better for them to develop, they can address their fears and quickly make great strides in becoming more effective leaders.”

A major part to successfully adopting this mindset is assuming you don’t have all the information. “It’s easy to assume you have the info you need to make decisions. Try to dig into what’s informing a different perspective and assume there are details you’re not privy to that could change your mind,” said Danielle Holly, CEO of Common Impact.

Gottfredson defines four positive mindsets that inclusive leaders can adopt:

  • Growth (vs. fixed) mindset. These leaders create an environment where diverse ideas are accepted, mistakes are viewed as positive, and workers are developed.
  • Open (vs. closed) mindset. These leaders judge their success by finding truth, which occurs when they are open to the ideas and perspectives of others.
  • Promotion (vs. prevention) mindset. Winning and making progress toward goals defines success for these leaders.
  • Outward (vs. inward) mindset. Leaders of this ilk view and value others as people, instead of objects, to make everyone feel valued.

While you can take classes, attend sensitivity training sessions and benefit from coaching in order to boost inclusivity aptitudes, on-the-job practice is often the best teacher.

“Reducing the time it takes to educate leaders to be inclusive is challenging, but it can be done through experience and hard work. I believe that you don’t learn about it at school or through an MBA program,” said Lucas-Conwell.

Action steps you can take now

To be a more inclusive leader, try these tips from the experts in this story:

  • Value all voices equally. Make sure everyone feels heard.
  • Actively ask people their opinions, especially if they’re being quiet.
  • Practice active listening to reduce conflict and encourages new ideas to emerge.
  • Don’t interrupt.
  • Ask open-ended questions.
  • State opinions respectfully, so people feel comfortable sharing perspectives.
  • Allow people to learn from their mistakes.
  • Create space for different work styles.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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