How to be an inclusive leader

How to be an inclusive leader who harnesses the Power of Collective Genius that fosters innovation, breakthrough thinking, problem solving, and unlocks growth and progress.

inclusive leader
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Diversity is having the right amazing ingredients, inclusion is making those ingredients shine and come together to create an outstandingly delectable dish. Inclusion is about the Power of Collective Genius that fosters innovation, problem solving, and unlocks progress, like nothing else can. Diversity without inclusion is pointless. Most definitions of inclusion in popular media, about having a seat at the table, or having a voice, are inadequate and fall ineptly short. Inclusion is certainly about having a voice, feeling like you belong and are wanted, but so much more. Inclusion is having the power to drive change, like your other colleagues have.

Here are 5 tips to start your journey to be an inclusive leader

You think you are inclusive, but are you? Every leadership journey starts with soul searching and self awareness. Here are some questions and ideas to help you with yours. (See also : What is your Diversity Quotient?)

Do you lead with respect first? 

The Power of Respect is the least talked about, yet the most impactful, in being an inclusive leader and in building diverse and inclusive teams.

Respect defines our equation with others, and with the world. It reflects what we think of others. As with the most important relationships in our lives, respect is the cornerstone, the foundation and the bridge to how we connect to others. It defines how we treat others, it engenders empathy versus sympathy, and enables us to see others as valuable and unique in their contribution to society.

How can we teach ourselves to lead with respect first?

Start with curiosity. When we are curious, we are open. We are open to learn, to question, to understand, to see different sides of the story, to find common ground, to discovering our similarities rather than obsess over our differences. Open mind, open heart.

Try this:

Exercise 1 – Jot down the names of all your team members (every race, religion, nationality), and write down the reasons you respect them. If you are running out of reasons for some on the team, you will have clarity on where to prioritize your efforts.

Exercise 2 – Jot down the core strength of each team member and what you could learn from them. Respect, appreciation and parity are inextricably interlinked!

Everyone has a story? Do you know each team members’ story? 

We have a basic human need to connect meaningfully with others, it enriches our relationships and our lives. Work relationships, however, tend to be increasingly functional and transactional, rather than meaningful. Our experiences in the world seem so different, that it has become increasingly impossible to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. So we end up being selective and connecting more with people who are like us, …and that is the opposite of inclusion. We also end up attributing behavior that we dislike, to personality traits, stereotypes rather than reality. It divides us.

We have to consciously strive to reach out to every team member. We need to learn their stories. What is their personal purpose? How do they define themselves and want to be defined? What makes them unique? What pivotal experiences in their life has shaped them? What are their values? What is important to them? What triggers them and why do they behave the way they do? How do they handle disagreement and conflict?

Most importantly, what is the common ground? What are the similarities that you can amplify, and what are the differences that you can help the team appreciate and celebrate?

Knowing each other meaningfully at work, is the essence of the foundation of trust.

So, would unconscious bias reduce or disappear if we knew our co-workers stories? What do you think?

Try this : 
  1. Learn their story and reflect: What surprised you? What is your learning about who they are (see the questions above)? What are your assumptions and attributions that are not valid? What aspects have you gained an appreciation for? 
  2. Reflect and jot down: What are their expectations from you? How will you adapt your leadership style to be the most effective and bring out the best in that individual?

Do you listen? Reeaally… Listen?

It is fascinating how much we talk about the need to listen, and how little we actually do of it! The irony is astounding. It is so simple and yet so rare. Listening is not just about letting someone finish a sentence, so you can speak, it is not thinking of rebuttals when someone speaks, it is so much more. Listening is the ability to capture the spoken word, along with the underlying meaning, emotion, and intent.

Simply put, when you are not so focused on what you have to say, you can create space for others- to understand them, read nuances, figure out dynamics, and find common ground. I would contend that it is impossible to be an inclusive leader if we are not great listeners first.

Try this : 
  1. Ask your team / co workers to rate your listening skill.
  2. Ask them for one idea / suggestion that would help you listen more effectively. 
  3. Declare your listening goal publicly. 
  4. Ask them to call you out and hold you accountable when you don’t live up to your listening goal.

STOP the Stereotypes 

Stereotypes are among the most corrosive weapons against humanity. Stereotypes are a lazy person’s roadmap to the world. It lets them avoid the effort that is required in seeing people as individuals, rather than just their demographic. 

Most stereotypes are ridiculous at best, and reckless and just plain wrong, at worst. Don’t believe me? Let’s try one. The stereotype ’Asians are good at math’ is often touted as a positive stereotype that ‘helps’ the Asian community (just for context, we are labeling only >4.4 billion people with this stereotype!). There is increasing research (and organization structures of most companies) that reflect significant declining representation at higher levels of management. The reason often boils down to the stereotype ’good at math’ being interpreted as ‘ONLY good at technical stuff, not Leadership’. So, there you have it. Does it help you, in any way, to stereotype a majority of the world?

Leading effectively in different complex business and cultural contexts requires understanding people’s expectations from us as leaders in terms of coaching, problem solving, work allocation, team work, etc. The first step is figuring out how to adapt our style. The greatest obstacle to adapting leadership style is stereotypes. There is greater recognition today around the ridiculous stereotypes we used to be inundated with, however, we still have to find ways to discover and deal with our unconscious biases. 

Try this: 
  1. List all the stereotypes you know about – Review the list and reflect ;  Are you able to name as many positive meaningful stereotypes as you are negative ones? How balanced are your stereotypes? This helps us understand that stereotypes highlight the worst aspects, not the best. Do we really want to see only the worst in people around us?
  2. Draw a culture map – Think of every member of your team on a scale of various opposing cultural factors such as preference for face to face communication or preference for purely email communication, preference for highly structured environment/ project specification or preference for ambiguity, preference for high touch leadership style or laissez faire style, preference for high risk or low risk work product etc. The point of this exercise is to involve your team to understand their similarities and differences and figure out how to bridge the gap together. Also, as an inclusive leader, what will you do to help them find common ground?

So when you hear stereotypes masquerading as fact, the answer… the only answer to every such question is; ‘it depends on the individual and the situation’.

Ask why, why, why, why, why?

(5 whys are intentional as it is a tool for critical thinking and gets to get to root cause)

As our world gets more diverse and complex, we seem to want more and more short cuts, superficial sound bytes and anecdotal data, rather than the root cause. We live in a paradoxical world of infinite ways to learn, and increasingly narrow ways in which we consume it. Today the world conspires so that you only hear what you want to hear, read what you already know, learn only the minimum you need to, and stay within your comfort zone, …even though we know that growth lies just on the outside of it. So we go through life, led by a breadcrumb trail of assumptions. 

We have to try to get to the bottom of a situation and find the root cause, so that we don’t base our conclusions and decisions on assumptions, rather than on the root cause. For ex; A high potential team member suddenly seems disengaged. You could assume that he /she is not interested in the work or the company, or you might think he/she doesn’t like you, or you might take the effort to ask, and learn that he/ she has a very challenging family situation and needs some accommodation but was afraid to ask. Your assumption or attribution is more about you, than the team member.

As you go through the meaningful whys, you realize that you cannot get to the depth of the last why without empathy and true understanding. 

Try this:

Think of a recent difficult situation with a team member and the assumptions you made. Now, spend sometime with the person, create a safe environment, and then try asking the 5 whys and see how your assumptions stack up against reality.

Flip it to test it

Flip it to test it is a simple, but powerful idea introduced by Kristen Pressner. 

There are many conscious and unconscious biases we have that impact our team members – for example, research shows managers  sometimes make assumptions about whether pregnant women or women with children would be open to international or high risk high visibility assignments. This is the opposite of inclusive leadership.

Flip it to test it, is a great way to pause and reflect on our perceptions, assumptions and decisions by checking our unconscious biases. It enables us to reflect whether we would look at the situation differently if the person was from a different gender, race, religion, nationality. 

Try this:
  1. Reflect on a recent experience of a team member asking for a salary review or career advancement or investment for training, and how you handled it? If you think back on all such instances in the last year, did you handle all the cases similarly? If not, why not? Would you have handled it differently if the team member had been from a different gender, race etc?
  2. Ask your team (either anonymously or in a safe constructive environment) how consistently equitable you are in your treatment of the team.

Inclusion is the Power of Collective Genius, and you have the key to unlock it.

Are you in?

Also read:

How to be an inclusive leader and build an inclusive team culture.

How to be an inclusive leader and eliminate bias in hiring.

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