Inclusive Leadership: Effectively Leading Diverse Teams | Weatherhead School at Case Western Reserve University

Inclusive Leadership: Effectively Leading Diverse Teams

Posted 4.3.2012

by Diana Bilimoria

LEADERSHIP IS ABOUT engaging and energizing people, and inspiring them to give their best, to stretch, to achieve, and to excel. We’ve all been in places where leaders have served as role models and examples of the behaviors we want to emulate—where they’ve sought our input in making things better, made the work we do meaningful, recognized our skills and talents, treated us fairly, and served as stewards and champions of the human assets into the future. When working with such leaders—we are engaged, energized, willing to give our all, to be challenged, improve, achieve above and beyond what we imagine is possible.

In other workplaces, we’ve felt the opposite. Our bosses have been concerned with self-interest—with their own private gain and ego aggrandizement. These so-called leaders are consumed by power and control. They holdback their people; keep them tethered to stagnant jobs; share information only on a need-to-know basis; favor some staff over others; treat their employees as small cogs in a big wheel; obsess about their image, how good they look in the short run; and constantly spin information. At best, under such leadership people become stealth employees who spend inordinate energy trying to fly under the radar until some other work option materializes.

The difference between these leaders is palpable. Inclusive leadership is energizing and motivating; each employee feels authentically valued and respected and is engaged in achieving a shared vision. Inclusive leaders effectively lead diverse teams by creating workplaces where all employees feel valued for who they are, and know their ideas count. They enable their people to feel like owners of the system—like they have a stake in its future—not renters. By acting as owners, team members can leverage their diverse perspectives (ways of thinking) and approaches (ways of doing) to enhance learning and growth and drive business success.

On today’s diverse teams, members may differ in several characteristics and yet feel a sense of true inclusion and ownership. How can a leader engender a sense of inclusion in the face of such diversity? People feel included when they belong to meaningful groups and are accepted and treated as insiders and not outsiders by others, can access the information, resources, and networks necessary for effective job performance, have the chance to influence decisions and to develop and advance.

Engage in two Sets of Behaviors

To bring about this sense of inclusion, leaders engage in two sets of behaviors:

1. Authentically value and respect all individuals for their talents and contributions. Leaders’ words and deeds must demonstrate an authentic appreciation for the diverse identities, backgrounds, talents and contributions of all team members. Leaders should first be aware of their stereotypes, biases, and mental models that impede valuing diverse others. They should allow and recognize diverse identity expression from their employees. They should hold others accountable for disrespectful behavior toward different others. Inclusive leaders should articulate the value of diversity for team effectiveness and show a commitment to diversity in hiring, advancement, compensation, and retention practices. And, inclusive leaders should demonstrate a willingness to learn from diverse perspectives.

2. Actively create a high-engagement culture by encouraging the input and initiative of all employees. Leaders should monitor their own behaviors to ensure that they treat all opinions equally and respectfully. They should engender a sense of shared purpose and clear paths among team members, promoting a common vision based on shared values that are directly linked to team outcomes. Leaders should create team conditions that encourage members to speak up about ideas, opportunities, problems, and errors, and to engage in vigorous debate about these if necessary; such conditions include a sense of psychological safety that allows the voicing of dissent or imagination, and a learning orientation. By their words and actions, leaders should promote team relations that are fair, democratic, supportive, and welcoming of questions and challenges, rather than team relations that are authoritarian, unsupportive, defensive, or based on favoritism. Inclusive leaders increase the transparency of team decision-making and processes.

By undertaking these two sets of actions, leaders can engineer a shift from an exclusionary and stagnant culture that is de-motivating and de-energizing, to an inclusive and open culture that brings out the best of people, energizes them, encourages collaboration, and supports initiative and innovative contributions from all individuals. Such inclusive leadership leverages team member differences to tap into new opportunities and innovate new ways of doing business. By propagating a sense of inclusion and ownership, inclusive leadership is persuasive and inspiring, and people are motivated to invest themselves in achieving extraordinary results.

Increase Gender Diversity at the Top

Companies with more women on boards and executive teams out perform those with fewer women on a broad range of indicators—and yet women leaders are still sparse. Why? First, individual women may choose to not seek the top jobs, fail to obtain the qualifications, or scale back on full-time work during the career advancement years that coincide with family demands. Second, organizations may not facilitate women’s career advancement because they: permit a culture that is inhospitable to women, impose higher standards of performance for women, allow unconscious preferences for gender similarity, practice conflict-avoidance in personnel decisions, take no action in the face of gender prejudice and stereotyping, or constrain women’s access to developmental opportunities.

CEOs can take actions to more systematically advance women to the top and thus bring women’s perspectives to executive decision-making.

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