Inclusive Leadership in Business

Effective business leaders strive to foster feelings of connectedness among the individuals and teams under their direction. It’s simply the right thing to do, of course, because it fosters well-being and cooperation, but it’s also the right thing to do for the bottom line of the company or organization. An examination of the data comparing employees’ sense of comfort and belonging to revenue reveals that when the people in a company feel connected to each other, revenue gets a boost of up to 7.4% per year.

Yet most leaders fall short in fostering inclusivity and team spirit. Here are some illuminating data:

Only 16% of employees feel a healthy connection to the people they work with and their supervisors. With regard to sharing problems or working through conflicts with peers, only 20% of employees are comfortable doing so. And a disappointingly low of only 25% feel that their leaders communicate regularly, respond to their needs, and treat all team members fairly.

It’s Important to Make All Your Team Members Feel Included and Fairly Treated

If this sounds like a tall order, it is and it isn’t. You may need to make a significant shift in your allocation of attention and time, and let’s be honest —old habits die hard, and change takes time. But on the other hand, the changes required aren’t rocket science, and often they aren’t difficult. And, interestingly, many leaders report an improvement in their own sense of well-being after they implement regular activities to foster feelings of inclusivity among their staff. “After a while, I could feel that the atmosphere had changed,” reported one construction company CEO after he began holding a start-of-week meeting every Monday that fostered both personal sharing and idea-and-conflict airing in a casual environment. “Yes, it was a bit of a struggle to carve out that company time, but the so-called lost time has paid off in better overall team performance, and, sometimes, great suggestions for new ways of doing things. I personally feel more relaxed and positive at my own company because my employees are happier and more comfortable.”

What Exactly Is Inclusivity in the Workplace?

Inclusivity is a process of fostering the contribution and acknowledgment of varied individuals, each of whom helps to improve productivity and the quality of the company’s services or products. Inclusivity isn’t concerned with including more brown-eyed workers, or tall workers, or Asians, or women —it’s about including more people, whoever and whatever and however they are, who contribute positively to the organization’s mission. Says Kathy Gurchiek in “6 Steps for Building an Inclusive Workplace,” “Think of diversity as being similar to selecting people for a chorus who have different musical backgrounds, vocal ranges, and abilities. The inclusion piece . . . means making sure that those different voices are heard and valued and that they contribute to the performance.”

Pitfalls in Making Efforts to Foster an Inclusive Environment

Ludmila N. Praslova writes of the benefits that inure to all when autistics are included and also involved in inclusivity processes; what she calls the “Canary Code.” In “An Intersectional Approach to Inclusion at Work,” published in the Harvard Business Review, she observes, “Historically, most organizations have approached inclusion sequentially: gender this year or two, race next, then sexual orientation, and maybe someday disability and age. Or maybe class. . . . Generally, sequential inclusion is expanded from the power center to bring in the next-most ‘acceptable’ characteristic.” But people often don’t fall into just one category. Says Praslova, “Sequential inclusion leaves people behind.”

A wise and effective leader will avoid thinking of the individuals under his or her supervision as falling into one hard category or another. Race, for one, can be an issue but is not always a top-of-mind defining factor nor a source of division among employees. The same is true of sexual orientation or gender identification. Your crew may have no serious issues with these visible differences. Other more subtle differences, however, might pose larger issues; cultural differences, extroversion versus introversion, or neurotypical versus neurodivergent makeup can be hard to discern but intensely felt by individuals. The first step in fostering inclusivity is to “see” the people who work for you.

The point here is that you’ll do better at fostering inclusivity among your team if you first find out who they are and what might be causing some of them to feel un-included in the group. Individual meetings with a casual tone can be highly effective in parsing out the issues, especially if conducted by a member of your staff who is adept at putting people at ease; a member of the Human Resources Department, perhaps, who has a naturally warm and understanding demeanor. An anonymous questionnaire can be very effective too. Then, after some issues have surfaced, you can examine what needs to be addressed and how best to do so.

A Popular Current Issue: In-Office Versus At-Home Productivity

The issue of workers returning to the office, now that COVID is waning, is top-of-mind for many corporate leaders. This is another major area where pre-held assumptions can lead you astray. Consider this: Most corporate and organizational leaders have risen to the top because of their interactional skills; a significant majority are extroverts. And extroverts prefer in-person interactions and group-based environments. Thus, many leaders in the business world naturally assume that an in-office work setting is best for everyone for engagement and productivity. Therefore, according to this logic, workers should be brought back to the office as soon as possible. But a study conducted by the University of Chicago in conjunction with the Mexico Autonomous Institute of Technology found that 15% of respondents felt they were more productive when working on-site, while a whopping 40% felt their productivity was greater when they worked from home. It’s important for supervisors and managers to consider this data and reexamine their beliefs about the benefits of requiring in-office attendance. The corporate culture may need to not only allow employees to work from home, but normalize the perception of that choice.

Inclusivity Takeaways

  • Set aside the notion of “the inclusivity issue of the day.” Each pool of workers presents a complex array of characteristics and needs that may warrant recognition and acceptance.
  • Get to know your own employees’ feeling of inclusivity, or not —and why.
  • Consider your own preferences and biases, and how those may affect your ability to foster inclusivity for all.
  • Involve your own employees in the process of shaping the workplace to foster their feelings of inclusivity.

Further information & resources:

“An Intersectional Approach to Inclusion at Work,” by Ludmila N. Praslova, published by Harvard Business Review

“From Always Connected to Omni-Connected,” published by Accenture

“6 Steps for Building an Inclusive Workplace,” by Kathy Gurchiek, published by SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Management

“The Evolution of Diversity in the Workplace – 2000 to 2020,” published by Vsource

“The Invisible People: Disability, Diversity, and Issues of Power in Adult Education,” by Tonette S. Rocco, abstract published by Scholarworks

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