Inclusive leadership is not about “occasional grand gestures, but regular, smaller scale comments and actions.”
If you are a manager, you can build inclusion by intentionally practicing it within the countless interactions you have every single day. This is your primary sphere of influence and how you can directly impact the work culture.
The Role of Managers as Inclusion Catalysts In The Workplace
While top leadership commitment sets the organizational tone for inclusion, front-line managers weave the day-to-day encounters that create it. Ultimately managers are the custodians of everyday interactions that can add up to inclusion or exclusion.
What leaders say and do makes up to a 70% difference to experiencing inclusion. Managers who are fair and respectful, value different ideas and encourage collaboration are 2.5 times more likely to have effective team members. Individuals feel valued, supported, empowered and motivated to be authentic and contribute their best.
10 Actions Managers Can Take
Here’s ten ways to increase your ability to support inclusion, every day.
1. Practice self-awareness.
As a basis for emotional intelligence and a key criteria for leading from values, being able to consider your own thoughts and emotions with awareness, reflectiveness and responsiveness (rather than reactivity) is essential to empathy and showing compassion to others.
Among the core internal enablers of inclusive leadership are authenticity, emotional resilience, self-assurance, inquisitiveness and flexibility. The more rigidly you define yourself, defend yourself and judge parts of yourself - the more you will “other” individuals and judge differences. When you are authentic, you can be present to others and create trust, belonging and connection. Are you able to put egoic pride aside, show vulnerability and remain coachable?
2. Acknowledge bias and listen more.
The explicit acknowledgement that bias exists fosters inclusiveness. It’s valuable if you can provide examples of everyday unconscious bias and assumptions - whether about people’s differences or the assumption that others are having a similar experience to you.
Practice noticing your assumptions, slowing down and challenging them. Listen and allow others to tell you about their world and experiences firsthand. Notice where you make judgments or seek to confirm assumptions. Become observant of stereotypes (social and cultural beliefs activated in you) and consciously question and challenge how they impact your perceptions and interactions.
Strip assumptive, exclusive language (eg gendered: guys vs folks) from your communication and refer to people as they request for you to. Acknowledge where the system has privileged you, and extend opportunity.
3. Expand your circle and elevate your empathy.
Many white managers have few people of color in their network. How diverse is your inner circle and network? Intentionally get out of your comfort zone (affinity bias) to connect with different kinds of people, in both your personal and professional life. Notice who you interact with most and least on your team; are you spending less time with those who are most different from you?
Some effective bias training exercises focus on perspective-taking, where you look through someone else’s eyes. Participate in mutual mentoring to nourish new perspectives and understanding. Hold yourself accountable to expand your empathy to others’ life experiences. Active empathy means connecting with others to understand them and then demonstrating that understanding with care and concern.
4. Check-in, often.
With stress and burnout at high levels, soft skills are essential; poor communication from managers is associated with mental health declines and active disengagement. Having a supportive and empathetic manager creates greater engagement, job satisfaction, and performance among individuals and empathetic managers perform better.
Choose to see people as individuals first and employees second. Be approachable and show a genuine interest in your team members. Above all, inclusive managers regularly check-in on those who report to them and demonstrate empathetic listening, in hybrid workplaces too. Spend a similar amount of time on check-ins with each of your direct reports.
Checking-in means caring about each individual’s values, needs and ambitions and providing career support; helping to manage workload concerns and navigate work-life effectiveness challenges and showing interest in overall mental, emotional and physical well-being. Build areas of commonality with each person, but also make room to discuss the challenges they are facing. Listen to understand. Engage them in problem solving and hear their ideas. Not everyone will raise their hand for help, so check-in.
5. Appreciate, appreciate, appreciate.
This may come as a surprise or a no-brainer, but it would be a very smart decision to make gratitude practice central to your management style.
Seeing, respecting and rewarding an individual for their unique contributions is a key component in creating a sense of belonging. Recognition is the most rated form of support - and particularly, private recognition with a one-on-one manager. It’s motivating and engaging to be appreciated.
It’s an adage for a reason: what you give your attention to, grows. The more you look for what you can appreciate in people, the more you’ll find.
6. Encourage a positive team environment.
To be an inclusive manager, foster a positive team environment - the most important driver for psychological safety. In a positive team environment, members value each other’s contributions, care about well-being, and feel their voice matters in how the team works together.
Psychologically safe employees take risks, vocalize opinions, give critical feedback, present new ideas and challenge the status quo or consensus - which creates the most effective teams. As a manager, you influence culture when you visibly role model the mindset and behaviors that set the tone and expectations you want to create in the team.
7. Support and empower all voices in the room.
Find ways to bring out the underrepresented voices in the room, such as encouraging input from someone who knows a topic well but may not speak up as much. Know when to use your voice but when to also give room to other voices, instead. In private, ask quieter team members how you can support them in sharing their perspective.
Through facilitation, put a cap on overrepresented voices and stop interruptions. Avoid dismissing contributions, even when you disagree or allowing others to disparage them. Learn to handle conflict in a way that turns the friction into a catalyst for better discussions.
Give credit where credit is due, whether in a discussion or for a big idea. Acknowledge the person who originates the idea, not just the person who reiterates it loudly. Keep diverse candidates top of mind for opportunities and looking for ways to create connection and visibility.
8. Embody allyship in action.
It’s not enough to embody certain inclusive behaviors but then look past bullying, microaggressions, or inappropriate behaviors occurring around you. As a manager, that normalizes them.
So don’t be passive towards negative experiences of exclusion. Be an active upstander which will encourage others to do the same. Encouraging allyship can double belonging and job satisfaction experiences. Be willing to disrupt, and understand how to challenge, discriminatory and derogatory comments and acts in the work space.
9. Foster a growth mindset.
Cultivate a team culture that allows for curiosity, learning, imperfection, risk-taking and honesty. When you practice vulnerability as a manager, you lead on developing a tone of learning that allows for mistakes and grace. Whereas when a team runs on high-pressured competitiveness, blame and shame then exclusion is going to rear its head and you won’t be equipped to navigate it openly and constructively.
If your direct reports feel safe to learn on the job, you will increase effectiveness and resilience in your team. Not only that, but you can also embrace stumbles around inclusion from a learning standpoint.
10. Keep learning and evolving.
Advance your own awareness and learning through the ways that resonate most with you. Maybe you want to read on themes of inclusion, watch intriguing YouTube videos, follow interesting Instagram accounts or engage more deeply with ERGS in your office.
Like any skill, if you want to be effective at inclusion, you need to keep proactively evolving your own personal understanding to expand your capacities and minimize your blindspots.
But most of all, inclusion comes down to everyday interactions. Interact with intentionality, not on aut0-pilot.