Organizations have two integral objectives: Create value and establish processes to deliver this value.

One of the many roles of a leader is to cultivate an environment where their diverse employees can successfully meet these organizational goals. As the workforce becomes more and more diverse, these tasks become increasingly difficult to execute. There are employees with different voices, experiences and expertise all vying for a chance to be heard and recognized.  

Inclusive leadership among diverse teams is the foundation to meeting key organizational objectives and navigating this new space. These data points from the global consulting firm McKinsey & Co.’s “Delivering through Diversity” report clarified the value of diversity:

Diverse teams (of three or more people) outperform individual decision-makers up to 87% of the time.

Racial and ethnically diverse companies are 35% more likely, and gender diverse teams are 5% more likely, to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians. 

Companies with above-average diversity had 19% higher innovation revenues.

While there is not a “one size fits all” formula to becoming a more inclusive leader, there are practices and strategies to create a space where employees are valued and heard. As studies have shown, engaged employees lead to increased productivity and profitability as a cohesive team.

Establish Expectations

Employees want to know what their leadership expects of them and their role within the organization. Without this basic understanding, it will be difficult to meet deadlines and objectives. It will also make addressing performance concerns more challenging. While expectations may be discussed during a review period (oftentimes only annually or semi-annually), this is something that is rarely discussed on a consistent basis. This leads to team members being left out of important details vital to their success. The fix for this problem is simple: Include employees in a conversation around what is expected of them as an individual contributor, as a member of the team, and in team outcomes.  

The outcome of these conversations should clarify:

  • Desired outcomes and deliverables inclusive of examples for clarification
  • Specific deadlines and timelines
  • Communication methods and processes  
  • Metrics of evaluating 
  • Follow-up process 
  • Access to resources 
  • The “why” behind the expectations for them as an individual, member of the team, and organization, and for the community/clients served (if applicable)
  • Additional questions and issues that need to be resolved and discussed
  • An understanding and agreement of this commitment

These conversations should be ongoing, provide a space for employees to ask questions, and continuously clarify expectations. This is not a “set it and forget it” process. If it makes sense for your team and organization, you can also have this information on a shared drive to reference and update.

Create Spaces for Open Dialogue and Feedback

Establishing a psychologically safe space one-on-one with your team and as a group to share concerns, issues and resources starts with getting to know your team professionally and personally. This means spending time having conversations and asking questions about their well-being and following up with meaningful responses. Simple questions like “how are you,” “how is your family,” or “what are you looking forward to this week” can be the start to developing a more personal relationship. The questions you ask of your team should be questions you would be willing to answer yourself. This can be during a brief one-on-one meeting, walk around the workspace, or kicking off a team discussion.

People want to work with leaders they know, like, trust and can relate to. Without these conversations, it is difficult to build trust and for employees to bring their most productive selves to work. From there, you can start soliciting honest feedback by asking questions like:  

  • What do you need from me to be successful in this role?
  • What/who are we missing to meet our objective(s)?
  • What could we do differently?
  • What are we doing well that we should continue doing?
  • What should we start doing?

This vital feedback can help you grow as a leader and ensure constructive collaborations. To ensure your team has ample time to think through their responses, try sending these questions ahead of a more formal conversation. Allow them to think in their own space and time, and then come together as a group to hash through the ideas. When people feel like they are put on the spot to answer something that may require more time, they can easily feel excluded, leaving you with a lack of responses and an unproductive conversation. 

To keep the momentum going, ask similar questions during regular intervals (i.e., after each team meeting, during one-on-ones), and be transparent about communication channels. Communication is the foundation for trust, and your team needs to know how to reach out to you with issues or concerns.

Establish and Develop Strength-based Teams

When creating and/or cultivating a team, it is important to bring people together with varying strengths and talents. This is difficult as we naturally defer to people who think, act and experience life similarly to ourselves. But without thinking differently about our teams, we may not be able to get things done. Not to mention, we can miss out on developing new ideas and concepts or creating more efficient and sustainable processes. According to Gallup’s assessment, CliftonStrengths, there are four domains of leadership in employees. Within each domain, there are varying strengths. The domains are:

  • Relationship building: People who accept and include others while actively listening to bring people together
  • Influencing: Employees who help others to get their voices heard, sell ideas, and convince others
  • Strategic Thinking: Individuals who analyze information to inform their decisions by thinking about current and future problems
  • Executing: People who set goals and have the stamina to get things done accurately and quickly

As you are deciding who to bring together and why, consider looking for employees who bring these varying strengths. If you are unsure where your employees fall, ask for suggestions from colleagues who work directly with them, take time to observe how they work, and/or consider conducting a strengths assessment. You can also work through the following questions:

  • Who follows through and gets work done?
  • Who is able to get buy-in from other members of the team, organization and outside stakeholders?
  • Who strategizes and has a plan A, B and C to ensure nothing is missed?
  • Who can spot the talents in others and can develop that talent in employees?
  • Who brings people together to ensure everyone’s ideas are heard and taken into consideration?

Build Partnerships, Invite New Voices, and Make More Conscious Hiring Choices

As humans, we tend to feel safe and comfortable around people who seem similar to us. This also goes for hiring, inviting people to the table to make decisions, and who we offer promotions and advancement opportunities to. When we hire for “culture fit” and put together teams of people like ourselves, we can miss out on valuable opportunities, such as varied experiences, cultural perceptions, or neglected target markets, among other potential workplace or financial benefits. And when we give promotions to people not based on the quality of their work, but on who they know within the organization, we are watching quality talent walk out the door.

This does not mean people like us are not capable of doing the work, but this strategy can lead to a lack of diversity and productive outcomes. As you are working on your inclusive leadership practice, try to:

  • Build partnerships with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and organizations like the Society of Women Engineers and Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. These referral sources lead to a stronger and more diverse talent pipeline.
  • Connect with your Employee Resource Groups (ERG) by supporting their mission, attending their events, and using them as an additional resource for questions and triage. If you are in an executive-level position, it is especially important to fund these groups and provide them with the tools and resources to be successful.  
  • Invite employees from other departments to share their input on a process and share the challenges they face as they relate to your team. This can lead to intentional collaboration and prevent reinventing the wheel. It is also a win/win for multiple departments.
  • Create connections between newer employees and more seasoned ones. This can be in terms of apprenticeships, coffee chats, or even short-term observations. These relationships can help decrease skill gaps.
  • Proactively seek out new voices, invite them to the table, and listen to their input. This creates an intentionally inclusive space that challenges the status quo and can yield high results.
  • Developing the skills to be an inclusive leader is not a one-time task or project. It requires consistent attention and ongoing evolution. Talent should never be wasted or overlooked. It is critical to take the time to get to know the people you work with, include them in decisions, and identify areas for improvement. It is also essential to ensure they understand expectations, outcomes and how to access necessary resources. 

And just because you included someone on a project once does not mean you are an inclusive leader. Continue to find opportunities to involve others and ask for feedback. It is easy to fall into old habits and difficult to create new ones. Employees come and go for managers, but when employees feel valued, heard and included, they are more likely to stay with and benefit your organization long term. 

Alissa Carpenter

Alissa Carpenter

Featured in Forbes, NPR, ABC, FOX, CBS and TEDx as a workplace inclusion expert with a Masters in Social and Comparative Analysis, Alissa empowers leaders with practical strategies to communicate effectively with their diverse workforce. She is also the author of one of Cosmopolitan’s top non-fiction books of 2020, How to Listen and How to Be Heard: Inclusive Conversations at Work, the founder of the Everything’s Not Ok and That’s OK consulting firm, and creator of the DE&I Intention to Action: How to Be a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Changemaker program.