Why inclusive leaders are good for organizations and how to become one

by Juliet Bourke and Andre Espedido

Companies increasingly rely on diverse, multidisciplinary teams that combine the collective capabilities of women and men, people of different cultural heritage, and younger and older workers. But 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 they belong, and are confident and inspired. Inclusiveness isn’t just nice to have on teams.

Our research shows that it directly enhances performance. Teams with inclusive leaders are 17% more likely to report that they are high performing, 20% more likely to say they make high-quality decisions, and 29% more likely to report behaving collaboratively. What’s more, we found that a 10% improvement in perceptions of inclusion increases work attendance by almost 1 day a year per employee, reducing the cost of absenteeism.

What specific actions can leaders take to be more inclusive? To answer this question, we surveyed more than 4,100 employees about inclusion, interviewed those identified by followers as highly inclusive, and reviewed the academic literature on leadership. From this research, we identified 17 discrete sets of behaviors, which we grouped into six categories (or “traits”), all of which are equally important and mutually reinforcing. We then built a 360-degree assessment tool for use by followers to rate the presence of these traits among leaders. The tool has now been used by over 3,500 raters to evaluate over 450 leaders. The results are illuminating.

These are the six traits or behaviors that we found distinguish inclusive leaders from others:

– Visible commitment: They articulate authentic commitment to diversity, challenge the status quo, hold others accountable and make diversity and inclusion a personal priority.

– Humility: They are modest about capabilities, admit mistakes, and create the space for others to contribute.

– Awareness of bias: They show awareness of personal blind spots as well as flaws in the system and work hard to ensure meritocracy.

– Curiosity about others: They  demonstrate an open mindset and deep curiosity about others, listen without judgment, and seek with empathy to understand those around them.

– Cultural intelligence: They are attentive to others’ cultures and adapt as required.

– Effective collaboration: They empower others, pay attention to diversity of thinking and psychological safety, and focus on team cohesion

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