Inclusive Workplaces Start with Inclusive Leaders

Inclusive Workplaces Start with Inclusive Leaders

The power of inclusive leaders: How to help your people build the mindsets and behaviors that create belonging

The world isn’t what it was a few years ago. That’s obvious. What’s less obvious is how we’re supposed to adapt to so many changes at once. The events of the past few years have shone a spotlight on myriad social problems. In response, we’ve seen a radical shift in how work gets done as well as what workers expect—and need—from employers.

With an increase in remote and hybrid offices, dispersed teams, and an “always-on culture,” work now happens from dawn to dusk in kitchens, living rooms, hotels, and cars. The fusion of public and private spaces has led to context collapse—family and friend personas merged with the professional—and the result is a new type of person showing up to work. A whole person, with a full, authentic self.

For the authentic self, systemic racism, climate change, and wealth inequality are all top of mind. For employers to ignore the concerns of the whole person is to foster a sense of alienation. Enter worker burnout, languishing, and the Great Resignation (or great reshuffle).

Team leaders’ jobs are more complex and more important than ever. That’s why diversity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) initiatives are critical and why a focus on inclusive leadership must be a top priority for leading organizations.

We know that people are the engine driving any organization’s success and that when workers’ needs are not met, they leave. Yet 25% of employees say they don’t feel a sense of belonging at work.

Why does this happen? For several reasons.

First, DEIB has traditionally been relegated to Human Resources, making it a “them” issue rather than an “everyone” solution.

Second, many organizations increase staff diversity by hiring a percentage of new employees without making changes to leadership, culture, or support initiatives. While representation companywide matters, leaders who model inclusivity and diversity make a difference in retention, culture, and opportunities for recognition and advancement.

Third, many organizations that require DEIB training offer one-and-done sessions—although science proves we forget most of what we learn this way—and don’t require leadership to participate. And these organizations often don’t put systems in place to track progress.

Last, the responsibility of carrying out and implementing DEIB initiatives far too often falls on staff members from underrepresented and marginalized groups.

A majority of companies have been “just going through the motions and not holding themselves accountable” and treating DEIB as a “compliance issue,” according to a 2020 report by The Josh Bersin Company, a team of analysts whose focus is researching the way people work in order to support HR efforts. As a result, only 35% of DEIB programs in UK organizations are adopted and 39% of workers think their employer implements DEIB initiatives just to look good.

What are the effects of a noninclusive workplace? First, feeling excluded makes people 25% less productive. What’s more, they are actually unwilling to work hard for the team. A sense of belonging is a basic human need; we feel exclusion as physical pain. When employees don’t feel a sense of belonging, they naturally withhold—they don’t share ideas or give feedback—which means teams can’t benefit from the diversity of ideas and experiences they bring to the table.

If that’s not enough, the most important factor to a team’s success isn’t the talent or even the IQs of its members but their sense of psychological safety, a research project conducted by Google found. People who don’t feel safe can’t think clearly, let alone access their creative potential. Without a sense of belonging, innovation is stunted.

There is, however, an answer, and fostering an inclusive environment where psychological safety is paramount is within reach. It starts with inclusive leaders.

Inclusivity is ultimately a simple principle: At its core, it’s the practice of being observant, fair, and empathetic. An inclusive leader—a people manager or team lead—has six defining qualities:

  1. They invest time in relationships, which means they know how to support the people they oversee.
  2. They recognize and verbalize their recognition of the work others are doing and reflecting the value each member brings to the team.
  3. They are empathetic. They know who everyone on the team is and what they do, see their efforts, and model nonjudgmental behavior.
  4. They have a genuine social connection with those they oversee and encourage connections among teammates. Belonging hinges on true social bonds as humans, not just as coworkers.
  5. They elicit participation, especially from those who might otherwise not speak up.
  6. They generate alignment by communicating the company vision and goals and ensuring that everyone is working toward the same things.

It may seem easy enough, but part of the reason only 31% of employees view their leaders as inclusive is that fostering inclusivity requires a significant effort and a top-down, companywide paradigm of growth. For many, becoming an inclusive leader requires a shift in mindset, which takes ongoing practice and training.

BetterUp’s 1:1 coaching is tailored to fit the needs of every organization. On average, after coaching, we’ve seen tremendous, measurable growth across all six leadership pillars. Inclusive leaders have an immediate, positive impact on their teams: Our research shows a 150% increase in a sense of belonging among direct reports to leaders who have had 1:1 coaching.

When people feel like they belong, they are 10 times more likely to be satisfied with their work and more than twice as engaged. Turnover plummets (sometimes by as much as 50%), employees take 75% fewer sick days, and innovation increases.

It’s clear that belonging starts at the core of your business—with your people. Let’s make this the year of belonging.

Learn more about the mindsets, skills, and behaviors necessary to take diversity deeper than demographics.

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