In previous articles, I discussed the value of diversity in the workplace and the importance of creating a workplace culture of belonging, diversity and inclusivity. More inclusive organizations are better able to attract and retain talent, experience greater customer loyalty, have greater productivity and are more innovative. For these reasons alone (and the fact that it is the morally right thing to do), leaders should have a laser focus on promoting greater inclusivity within their organizations.
I believe we also need to develop our leadership skills around inclusivity. So why are inclusive leaders good for organizations?
A recent Harvard Business Review article explores this question: “Simply throwing a mix of people together doesn’t guarantee high performance; it requires inclusive leadership — leadership that assures that all team members feel they are treated respectfully and fairly, are valued and sense that they belong, and are confident and inspired.”
But how do we become more inclusive leaders?
The Challenge Of Successful Unconscious Bias Training
Years ago, I was sitting in a leadership meeting when my boss announced that we were going to have unconscious bias training. There were probably a couple dozen of us in the room, and there were a lot of eye rolls, moans and groans, and other expressions of discomfort and annoyance. While I was excited about the training, it appeared that the vast majority of my colleagues weren’t. In fact, as the training progressed, I witnessed active resistance from many of my colleagues, who simply were not having any of it and didn’t want to hear about their privilege, their microaggressions and their unconscious biases. A couple of individuals even vocally objected and said that they felt personally attacked by the presenter.
Their thinking was that if their biases and prejudices were unconscious, there was nothing they could do about them, so why even try?
Overall, this training was not effective and probably caused more harm than good. It aggravated my colleagues, caused most of them to put up walls and resulted in their re-entrenchment to outdated and harmful perspectives. Of course, unconscious bias training done well can have better outcomes, but the point is that it is easier said than done.
If Not Unconscious Bias Training, Then What?
While unconscious bias training is an important part of an organization’s efforts toward making a safe and inclusive workplace environment and culture, I don’t think it is enough. Additionally, it carries with it a lot of social and cultural baggage, and many turn off as soon as they hear terms like unconscious bias, privilege and microaggressions.
Recently, I was interviewing Steve Yacovelli, author of Pride Leadership and an expert in organizational inclusion and LGBTQ+ advocacy, for my consulting podcast. Among the many things we discussed, he introduced me to the concept of being a consciously inclusive leader. He uses this action-oriented framing because he has seen many respond to unconscious bias training in very passive and often unproductive ways. So he wants to flip the script, break down resistance and help others understand why inclusion is in their best interest.
I think consciously inclusive leadership could effectively fill the gaps of unconscious bias training.
Becoming Consciously Inclusive Leaders
For Yacovelli, being a consciously inclusive leader requires us to not only work to uncover and understand our unconscious biases, but also to actively cultivate a culture and environment of organizational diversity, inclusion and belonging. According to him, “Diversity is being invited to the dance, and inclusion is being asked to dance. Belonging is feeling comfortable and being wanted at the dance. The feeling of belonging is key to a more productive and content workplace.”
He also suggests that the consciously inclusive leader needs to proactively “think in, speak up and act out.” Put simply, “think in” means to be willing to critically reflect on our own hidden personal biases and prejudices. “Speak up” simply means that we are willing to stand up for others when we witness an injustice occur. “Act out” means we need to be proactive about correcting the organizational systems to create a more inclusive workplace.
As we strive to become consciously inclusive leaders, I believe it is important to acknowledge that it isn’t rocket science. In fact, it is quite the opposite; often it is rather commonsense approaches that can help us be more inclusive. In large part, it is simply a matter of consistently treating yourself and everyone around you with dignity and respect.
Everything you do should demonstrate your awareness and understanding of the ambiguities, messiness and complexities of the world around you. Help those on your team understand and feel that you sincerely see them and hear them; that they are truly valued, needed and wanted; and that they have a meaningful opportunity to contribute to the organization’s successes and future strategic trajectory. Make your organization a place where everyone wants to be and where they can flourish.
An organizational culture and environment of diversity, inclusion and belonging are essential for the long-term sustainable success of any company. Not only do we need to create systems and programs to develop, promote and maintain a safe and inclusive workplace, but I think we also need to help all organizational leaders become more consciously inclusive in their interactions with their people and in modeling people-oriented values of dignity and respect for all.