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Do you have all the traits of an inclusive leader? A guide for managing diversity and inclusive cultures.

What kind of leader is needed to implement an Inclusive culture? In this second article on diversity and inclusive culture (D&I), we will explore leadership at all levels of an organisation. Various personality traits and skills that are well suited to enabling both diversity and inclusive cultures, will be analysed to create an understanding of what it takes to initiate meaningful engagement of D&I practices. A strong leader is needed to spearhead this mission. Such a person must be many things, and expanding the culture of an organisation only adds to the demand for an adaptable, mindful, humble and communicative leader. Recognising the actions a leader takes to create change is an imperative starting point. It is also important to acknowledge that when the culture of an organisation changes, a social contract is, in effect, being broken. Public demonstrations showing appreciation for this breach, as well as stating the how and the why, is critical for employee buy-in. Without buy-in, change may never be given a chance. With training, anyone, at any level of a company, who possesses the willingness to accept a challenge and hold themselves accountable, can be a D&I champion.

28% more likely to financially outperform

As touched on in our previous article, What is D&I, diversity is not limited to ethnicity, but also encompasses gender, sexual orientation, religion, disabilities, education, nationalities and professional background. Though women make up about half the global population, they are significantly underrepresented in business, especially at the executive and board levels. Even when an organisation has gender equality, women are typically working in support roles. This only becomes more obvious the higher you go in an organisation’s hierarchy. A study in 2020 found proof showing that organisations whose board of directors are in the top quartile of gender diversity are 28% more likely to report better financial performances than their peers. This same research found that of the hundreds of companies analysed, those with leadership teams in the top quartile of both gender and ethnic diversity are 12% more likely to outperform all other companies. They also uncovered a 19% likelihood to underperform when lacking gender diversity, a 10% increase between 2009 and 2019. As the world starts to recognize the need for D&I this gap is likely to quickly increase.

Commitment and Courage; Key Leadership Traits in Inclusive Cultures

While any approach to D&I cannot be done with a check-list, there are certain traits that can be highlighted. These traits are often seen in inclusive leaders and can help managers at any level. Demonstrating these will go a long way in earning the trust, respect, and buy-in, of an organisation’s workforce.

One of the most important things for employees to see from their managers is a visible and transparent commitment to both diversity and an inclusive culture. This will also require a commitment to holding everyone accountable, themselves included. Embedded in this commitment should be a demonstrated willingness to be transparent about both judgements and rewards. Employees at every level should not only clearly see that no one is treated differently, but that everyone is approachable. The commitment to D&I should be spread throughout the organisation, allowing and encouraging everyone to add their perspectives during the development of an inclusive culture.

Humility and courage, which contain the ability to demonstrate awareness of one’s own biases, are other traits often shared by leaders of inclusive cultures. Being able to accept and admit to one’s limitations and mistakes will go a long way towards earning trust and respect. This can be further demonstrated by taking ownership for any personal biases one might have, while working to ensure that they do not disrupt the focus of creating diversity and an inclusive culture. Demonstrating an awareness of, and a desire to work on personal biases will make a leader more approachable, which helps management take big steps towards declaring and displaying their commitment to D&I.

Curiosity is another important trait to demonstrate. Showing an openness, curiosity, and empathy will go a long way towards eliciting authentic employee reactions and generating the needed feelings of respect and value. This is especially beneficial when leadership can build upon employee interactions with responses that take their opinions into account. Understanding the needs of a diverse team can only be understood by listening to the individual members of the team. A leader must follow up on employee engagement with active listening skills to continue developing the trust that builds in the process. If it is not done, you risk losing whatever trust you’d earned, while earning a greenwashing label. 

Another very important trait for a leader to display publicly is their ability to connect the need for diversity and an inclusive culture to established goals. Relating inclusion to strategic goals such as increased productivity, innovation capacity, as well as employee and customer satisfaction, not only promotes the desired change, but also helps create employee buy-in.Combining these traits together is a great way for a leader to start building an inclusive culture with a strong collaborative foundation. 

Empowering Those Around You

Ken Fraizer, then CEO of Merck, was quoted in the Harvard Business Review saying that, “A big organisation needs only a few generals and a lot of sergeants. The sergeants deserve respect too.” This is especially true when considering that managers who have high employee contact tend to be the drivers of change, as well as overall employee experience. By emulating the traits mentioned above, leaders can start demonstrating their commitment, creating an expanding and downward flowing impact. In a research report published by Deloitte, the need for flexibility was discussed. The powerful impact that an authentic commitment to flexibility has on employee perceptions of an organisation’s commitment to D&I, was established. Considering the variety of requirements for diversity, it makes sense that the impact of leadership on such teams is increased when compared to more homogeneous groups. Empowering managers to create their own approach, based on the needs of their team, is a necessity. Demonstrating the ability for employees to be their authentic self, without consequence. It should also be noted that anyone can make this commitment, and have an impact by doing so. People at any level can champion issues that are important to them and their team, helping lead the change in attitude amongst their peers.

Avoiding The Rebel Inside Us All

Psychological reactance is an inherently human reaction that can lead someone to do the opposite of what they feel pressured to do. It is often felt when someone feels that their freedom is being taken away or limited, or when they feel that they are being forced to adopt a certain attitude. Making sure employees don’t feel attacked while creating buy-in is one of the most common barriers faced in organisations that implement D&I practices. This is true for employees at any level of the hierarchy. Managers must also recognise that if they do not receive any complaints, that does not mean there aren’t any. 

Employees who feel that their organisation is committed and supportive of D&I are 80% more likely to report that they work for a high-performing company. When employees are empowered to contribute to the development of their organisation, their motivation increases and they gain respect and trust for their leaders. Management can further build cohesion by working to empower specific inclusive personality traits while leading from the front. Finally, understanding the common barriers to effective D&I leadership will help create a more nuanced approach for any leader, be that the executive board, a team manager, or the leader of an employee-run diversity group.

Language Partners and Mazi-Inc have developed culture courses as well as trainings and services based on the needs of those who aim to build, and sustain diversity and an inclusive culture. To get a quote, or to learn more about how we can help develop both you and your team, book a free 30-minute chat with us!

In our next article we will shed light on what structures can be implemented during the implementation and practice of D&I.

Paul Van Zanten
Paul is an American intercultural communications professional living in the Netherlands and connecting with his Dutch roots. With a passion for travel, as well as gaining new perspectives and experiences, Paul aims to further his growth, as well as that of others at Language Partners.

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