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How to Succeed at Being an Inclusive Leader

Inclusive leaders diligently identify potential biases, work to overcome them, and solicit a diverse range of perspectives. By Carolyn Heinze

GOOD LEADERS cultivate professional environments where people can get their work done effectively. Inclusive leadership is “a layer on top,” says Karen Catlin, leadership coach and author of Better Allies: Everyday Actions to Create Inclusive, Engaging Workplaces. Inclusive leaders ensure “that everyone can do their best work and thrive in your workplace, not just the people [who] may be in the majority,” she explains. This includes people of all genders, sexual orientations, races, ethnicities, abilities, and more.

When employees feel like they’re valued members of the team, they’re likely to perform better. Here are some inclusive practices leaders can follow to bring out the best in everyone across a company.

Understand Your Privilege

To assess how inclusive their businesses are, leaders should first examine their own privilege, Catlin advises. In the context of the workplace, she defines privilege as “a set of unearned benefits” that certain people enjoy based on their gender, race, financial standing, personal and professional networks, and support systems. She’s compiled a list of “50 Potential Privileges in the Workplace,” which includes things like: You don’t receive comments about your accent or the way you pronounce certain words. Others don’t routinely assume you’re at a lower seniority level than you are. You’re rarely interrupted or ignored in meetings.

Karen Catlin

After identifying their own privilege, leaders can zero in on problem areas in their organizations, Catlin says, asking questions such as, What causes challenges in my workplace for someone who doesn’t have these privileges? She encourages leaders to solicit feedback on this from their employees, and to take this input seriously. “Don’t discount it and say, ‘That doesn’t happen here––I’ve never seen it,’” she stresses. “Listen and understand what role you can play as a leader to address that situation and be more inclusive going forward.”

Adopt Small, But Meaningful Behaviors

Inclusive leadership doesn’t require businesses to launch big, formal initiatives, according to Catlin. There are everyday practices that can go a long way toward driving inclusion. For example, leaders can make meetings more inclusive by encouraging everyone to participate in the conversation, ensuring that people get credit for their ideas, and having everyone share the “housework” associated with meetings, such as ordering food, setting up chairs, and taking notes (rather than always having a woman handle these tasks).

Leaders can also employ language that models inclusivity, Catlin notes. This is as simple as recognizing an employee: “Here is what I learned from Naomi on this subject” or “I want to build on the point that Naomi made earlier on during this meeting.” In doing this, leaders set an example. “You might start a ripple effect of other people mimicking [what] you’re doing because you’re the leader––people look to you and how you operate,” she says.

Know Your Why

Bernardo Ferdman, an organizational psychologist and diversity and inclusion consultant, says one of the first things he tries to help leaders understand is why they’re focusing on inclusion. These reasons can vary, says Ferdman, who is also co-editor of Inclusive Leadership: Transforming Diverse Lives, Workplaces, and Societies. Some feel it’s the right thing to do, while others may do it to fulfill regulations or improve recruitment and retention. “Or it could be because it’s going to make us better as a group, as an organization; we’ll have more innovation,” says Ferdman, who advises leaders to specify their reason.

Finally, Catlin emphasizes that inclusive leaders encourage employees to speak up when there are issues. “That means you’re going to get the best out of your workers,” she says. “Who doesn’t want that?”

Image: iStock

About the Author

CAROLYN HEINZE is a regular freelance contributor to ChannelPro-SMB.

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