Diversity needs inclusion to work – 7 steps in helping leaders be more inclusive

The business case for diversity is plain to anyone who has had even a cursory glance at any one of the thousands of pieces on the topic over the past two decades. Diversity, when managed well, drives better business outcomes through improved decision making, increased productivity and positive disruption through innovative ideas.

But here’s the crux of the issue, diversity needs to be managed well in order to produce the results that executives are looking for. Diversity for diversity’s sake is ineffective at best and damaging to the culture of the organisation at worst. Hitting (often arbitrary) targets is only the start of seeing real return on the investment in diversity. The key to making diversity work is creating an inclusive work environment where individuals can bring their whole selves to the workplace, thereby creating real and significant rewards for the organisation.

Inclusion is often the lost piece to the diversity puzzle that leaves employers disillusioned with their efforts when they fail to deliver on their promises. Worse still, badly managed diversity initiatives can, in fact, turn people away from the very thing that they were striving to reach – innovation through diversity.

So, how can employers and leaders create a more inclusive work environment that supports and nurtures diversity of background, thought and perspective, thereby delivering better business outcomes?

1. Set the tone and role model

It is the responsibility of any leadership team to set the tone for the culture of any organisation – what is acceptable, what is frowned on and how things are done. In order to create an inclusive work culture, it is reliant on leadership to be clear about what they expect from their employees and what behaviours will not be tolerated.

But saying what you expect and living those values are two different things. Leaders need to be aware that everything they do and say is viewed by employees as permission to replicate the same behaviour. For leaders to be effective and inspiring, they must walk the talk – ensuring that they consider the impact of their decisions, their messages and their actions on those around them.

However, the culture of any organisation is not ‘owned’ by the leadership team. It is engrained in the behaviours that are exhibited by each employee on a daily basis and especially their attitudes and behaviours to one another. Leaders should be vigilant to ensure that their people are focused on the values of the organisation. Real consequences for not living the values need to be made clear and carried through on.

2. Be curious

Being curious and asking questions about other’s backgrounds, cultures or interests is an important way to break down barriers and invite people to share their stories. Leaders who are genuinely curious and ask respectful questions about things they are not familiar with creates an environment where people feel safe to be themselves in the work environment.

3. Trust people to do the right thing

Not everyone does their best work in an office environment between the hours of 9am and 5pm. Flexibility in where and when people work (within the restraints of the work that they perform) allows people to produce their very best. Trusting people to meet their goals, whether they are working in the office in front of you, or on the other side of the country is the cornerstone of inclusive leadership.

4. Recognise your own biases

Personal preferences and biases are an inescapable and very human condition. Every one of us is hard wired to take short cuts in our decision making by basing our understanding of any given situation on previous experiences, belief systems and teachings.

As unavoidable as biases are, the impact that they have on team dynamics and the roadblocks they throw up in creating an inclusive work environment is very real and requires attention by any effective leader.

Unconscious bias training is a positive first step in personal awareness. However, the work starts when leaders return to their desks and are confronted by the day to day challenges that are inevitable.

Asking yourself the following questions may assist during decision making:

  • Am I making decisions based on the evidence in front of me rather than my previous experience or personal philosophy?
  • Am I making assumptions about a group of people that I know little about?
  • Am I making decisions that will unfairly benefit one group of people over another for no obvious reason?
  • Do I know enough about this situation to make a decision or do I have to ask someone for their advice?
  • Am I making a decision based on what’s best to meet the goals of the organisation or what’s easiest for me?

5. Invite discussion

Providing team members and individuals with a safe place to discuss issues and different perspectives is a positive way in creating a more inclusive work environment. People recognise when they are safe to speak up and when they are not and a safe environment to voice differing opinions is the cornerstone to an inclusive work environment. This responsibility falls to leaders to ensure this environment is free of judgement and repercussions for respectful dissent.

6. Don’t assume

Assumptions made by leaders in regard to their team and what they are able and willing to work on is the quickest way to disengage and frustrate people. Assumptions hinder effective teamwork, collaboration and stand in the way of a truly inclusive work environment.

Assuming a woman will not travel for work due to family commitments, assuming a man will be able to work around the clock on a one-off project, assuming that a single person does not have personal interests or responsibilities is a recipe for discontent.

Creating open two-way communication channels that allow for effective dialogue will ensure that leaders have the right people in the right roles at the right time to meet the goals of the organisation.

7. Ask for feedback

Recognising that feedback is an integral part of continuous learning and development is the first step in inclusive leadership. Seeking feedback from individuals and teams is an important part of checking in with the team and ensuring that you are getting the best out of your people.

Inviting constructive and respectful feedback shows that a leader is open to listening to their team and taking on board the notion that they may not always have all the answers.

Optimiss Consulting works with you to build better business outcomes through diversity and inclusion. Visit us as at www.optimiss.com