Eight ways to become a more inclusive leader

Leadership meeting

As humans, we’re hardwired for connection.

Our need to feel included is fundamental to our being – a 2020 MIT study found humans crave interactions in the same region of our brains that we crave food, and another study showed we experience social exclusion in the same region of our brain that we experience physical pain!

So it should come as no surprise that feeling included and a sense of belonging, especially in the workplace, has profound benefits for employees and employers alike.

Sonali D'silva educates leaders about the power of inclusion in the workplace as a facilitator for Professional and Continuing Education (PACE) at the University of Adelaide. 

Driven by diversity of markets, customers, ideas, and talent, she says that inclusion is becoming an increasingly important practice for leaders to master.

"Inclusion is a feeling of being welcomed, acknowledged and respected for one’s unique background, experiences and identity," Sonali says in the Levelling up: Creating inclusion in the workplace podcast episode.

"It is a powerful way to activate diversity at the workplace, and allow people to experience connection and a sense of belonging.

"This leads to tangible positive effects on employee engagement, workplace culture, team performance, commitment and decision making," she says.

Becoming an inclusive leader doesn’t require big, complicated actions or policies by following Sonali’s eight thoughtful and practical tips, you can create a culture where everyone feels welcomed, acknowledged, respected and valued at work. 

1. Speak respectfully

While hierarchies exist in many workplaces, that shouldn’t stop you from speaking respectfully regardless of who’s in front of you, Sonali says.

"This includes treating people as your equal, on a human level, and not being dismissive, judgemental or parental if you feel disappointed with them, or if they made mistakes at work.

"It also means giving people time, offering equal opportunity to share their ideas and listening to their concerns and complaints with fairness and openness."  

2. Be curious

As humans, we learn through curiosity and by learning, we’re able to challenge biases we might not even realise we hold, and make important decisions based on accurate information rather than assumptions. 

"Showing curiosity is one of the most effective ways to counter judgement and challenge assumptions."   

3. Value uniqueness

According to Sonali, one of the most common complaints she receives is when people who are in a cultural or racial minority are confused for others in the same, or similar identity group.

Always take the time to remember people, apologise when needed, and don’t assume awareness or information.

4. Appreciate individual contributions

Studies show that when people feel a greater level of cohesion with their colleagues, they perform better. That’s because as humans our desire for acceptance from a group is often a greater motivator than money.

"Research shows that non-monetary rewards prove to be the decisive factor in both engagement, and talent retention.

"So next time someone does something worthy of praise, or even fails after genuine efforts, let them know you appreciate their contributions and hard work."

5. Be a role model

One of the key responsibilities of a leader is "protecting the baseline of team culture", explains Sonali. This means that when you observe poor behaviour, inappropriate humour or disrespectful communication be a role model, and act.

"Reminding people of behaviour expectations raises accountability for inclusion and respect.

"As a leader, role model what you want others to do."

6. Show empathy

If one of your team members is facing adversity, show empathy. Being empathetic makes people feel visible, cared for and significant at work, Sonali says.

"This doesn’t mean you have to solve problems or have long and emotional conversations this is about listening to someone’s struggle, acknowledging that they’re having a tough time, asking what support they have, what more they need from you, and how you can contribute to their wellbeing and recovery."

7. Address people using their preferred names and pronouns

According to Sonali, this is one of the easiest ways to be a more inclusive leader. 

"People feel excluded when either their names are not remembered, or mispronounced, or even smiled at for being unusual or difficult.

"Ask people how to say their name currently, and then write it down in a way that works for you."

8. Give everyone your attention in a meeting

It’s a leader’s job to ensure everyone is invited to the table and when at the table has the space and time they need to make meaningful contributions during meetings.

"Consider introverts, or those who are neurodivergent, new employees, the junior-most person at the table, or the most different person at the table, and often women, who do get interrupted more than others."

Want to learn more from Sonali?

Register for From Team Member to Team Leader, a day-long course delivered by Sonali designed to help new and aspiring team leaders to successfully navigate the transition from co-worker to high performing leader.

Upcoming courses are available on Tuesday, 8 August and Tuesday, 5 December.

Or, if you’re already a manager looking to sharpen your leadership approach, register for Leadership and Management Essentials. Sonali is one of four expert facilitators delivering this two-day course, which is next available on Thursday 3 and Thursday 10 August 2023.

Tagged in Pace article, PACE