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Diversity & Inclusion as a Leadership Skill

Diversity & inclusion cartoon by Randy Glasbergen.

Diversity & inclusion – what it means

In honour of the 50th anniversary of Pride, it is fitting to talk about diversity & inclusion (D&I) as a leadership skill. Let’s start by tackling the proverbial elephant in the room – D&I is not about token diversity hires or quotas. It’s about recognizing and embracing the fact that diversity within a team is a fundamental strength, and a necessity to create high-performing teams.  

Diversity is fundamentally about differences. Different experiences, genders, perspectives, ages, and cultures amongst other things. Inclusion is the organizational practice of incorporating different individuals with diverse backgrounds in a culturally and socially acceptable way such that they are welcomed. So, it follows that inclusion gives us a sense of belonging and feeling valued. The linkage to our need to feel, within workplaces, that we are part of something bigger than ourselves is built into D&I. 

The case for D&I is a well-documented one, yet many leaders struggle to overcome the negative sentiment on inclusion (averaging 61% negative according to McKinsey) to put it into practice. It remains an unrealized opportunity, however, there are steps individual leaders can take to harness this asset and overcome their own biases (conscious and unconscious). 

Real benefits of diversity & inclusion

The demonstrated benefits of a diverse and inclusive workplace include above-average innovation, productivity, decision-making, engagement, creativity, reputation, and financial results. Arguably in this regard, the default KPI that executives use to assess success is financial performance. Here McKinsey found statistically significant financial outperformance within diverse and inclusive organizations as noted in the following chart.

McKinsey business case for diversity, 2020 study.

So, how do we promote diversity and inclusion as individuals, even if our organization may not yet embrace it?

Steps to gaining alignment 

The change also starts by answering the why. Leaders are driven by results; however, they are individually measured. Diversity drives results thanks to different work experiences and fresh ideas. A diversity of opinions and perspectives can feel uncomfortable, however, it is necessary to dust off irrelevant or stale approaches. Through experiential learning, seeing is truly believing and is the catalyst for creating wider buy-in on the D&I case for change.

Beyond leadership influence at the executive level, tactical actions will benefit us and our team. In particular when we:

  1. Develop our self-awareness
  2. Treat everyone with respect
  3. Ask all team members for their perspective 
  4. Invest time with each team member
  5. Show empathy towards others
  6. Lead by example

Let’s delve into one of these skills a little more: self-awareness.

Developing Self-Awareness

Being self-aware is critical to moving toward effective leadership because it’s the key that allows us to open our minds up to possibilities. Why? Because self-awareness shines a light on our own beliefs, ideologies, and perspectives in such a way that we end up challenging our own assumptions and mindset when faced with new information. 

A self-reflective approach also means that others will not need to tell us what to think or do, something we each tend to resist at the best of times. Raising awareness, without judgment, is a leader’s best offense when they need to convey a tough message. 

For instance, if an individual on the team uses veiled humour to sleight his female peers. Telling the person to stop speaking in a disparaging manner can, and often does, backfire. Defence barriers rise and resistance kicks in. A more effective approach in these moments is to ask open-ended questions. One example may be: “I wonder how we’ve been overlooking Josephine’s strengths?” It not only calls attention to the disparaging language without directly confronting the individual, but it also sends a signal that change is necessary.

Open questions open one’s mind to the possibilities, a willingness, and ultimately change.

Self-awareness also tends to result in higher levels of confidence. Armed with self-confidence, we make better decisions, build stronger relationships, and communicate more effectively. So, self-awareness is the foundation for being open to the benefits of building a diverse team.

Final Thoughts

At first glance, our biases may seem beyond our control. However, biases are something we can absolutely change. This is an important first step toward enhancing our view on diversity & inclusion. 

Contrary to its name, there are steps we can take to reel in the effects of unconscious bias. For instance, several good leadership development programs offer a variety of approaches to help identify and understand our unconscious biases. Self-awareness underpins success.

Your turn

Sign in to the Community Member Area or comment below to share your views on the best approaches you’ve used or seen to embrace and embed diversity & inclusion as a normal part of the team’s culture.  

Give it a try!

Cartoon credit: Randy Glasbergen

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