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“I’m already inclusive” – Not with that attitude!

“I’m already inclusive” – Not with that attitude!

Characteristics of inclusive leadership – and differences in awareness and attitudes

Diversity is a popular buzzword in corporate communications and is often associated with a range of too-good-to-be-true benefits, such as enhanced creativity, performance and competitiveness. However, diversity alone produces merely miscommunication and conflict. Therefore, organizations should turn to inclusion – the practice of involving, empowering and celebrating diverse talent. Although often referred to together as D&I, diversity and inclusion, the concepts are distinct, both requiring different kinds of attention. 

Leaders play a critical role in creating a feeling of belongingness and fostering an inclusive climate. They work as gatekeepers for organizational resources, mentors in individual leadership relations and implementers of organizational D&I policies. Yet, despite their obvious relevance, inclusive leadership qualities are currently understudied in research on organizational inclusion. Similarly, awareness and attitudes towards D&I are entirely overlooked. With this motivation, I deep-dived into the experiences of inclusion in leadership relations through 21 interviews with supervisors and their teams in two Finnish-based ICT companies. Here are my six takeaways for team leaders. 

 1. Create a climate of safety 

Psychological safety – the sense of being able to be yourself without fear of harmful consequences – facilitates a sense of inclusion. Fostering openness and honesty in leadership relations and endorsing uniqueness encourages employees to bring their true selves to work and not hide behind a smile. Giving responsibility, communicating trust, and providing support further underline that you are one of us, and we are in this together even when mistakes happen.  

2. Team spirit! 

Having an idea of “us” is the prerequisite to a sense of belonging. “Us” is different for different people: it might be the current project team for some and the whole office crew for others. Emphasizing a common tone – such as collective ambitions, similar professional identity or shared values – is the key to creating a shared identity in a group. Fostering a sense of community also contributes to the feeling of belonging rather than being a piece in a machine. 

 3. Understand individuality 

At the core of diversity is individuality, and, consequently, people look for different things in leadership. Engage in your employees’ concerns, encourage their uniqueness and listen to their personal needs. Demonstrate a commitment to D&I and show that diversity is authentically welcomed rather than just a marketing trick. Finally, and most importantly, discuss with your employees and explore what’s important for them – it might be something completely outside this blog post! 

4. “You’re more than a profit margin.” 

Showing employees that they are important as human beings rather than organizational resources contributes to the sense of inclusion. Convey that when you’re asking “how are you doing”, you’re not asking “are yo productive today.” Signal that you’re worth your employees’ time and effort by demonstrating availability and pro-activity in the relationship: be responsive, active and engaged in dialogues with your employees. Make them feel relevant with appreciation and empowerment. 

5. Involve people in the insider circle 

Everybody wants to be an insider, so make the insider circle inclusive! Show transparency by sharing what happens behind the curtains at higher organizational levels, and involve people in decision-making. Teach newcomers in the team the “local language” and explain inside jokes and slang. Furthermore, signal that everybody is an equally integral member of the group by demonstrating equality, fairness and low hierarchy in the team.

6. Can’t feel included alone 

Inclusion arises from interaction and relationships. Encourage networking, meeting new people and teaming activities. Promote open-mindedness in meeting people very different from you and even facilitate friendships. 

What about the awareness and attitudes?

Interestingly, the interviewees differed largely in their awareness and attitudes towards D&I. Building on such observations in the interview data, a specter of awareness and attitudes was formulated articulating the gradual differences in people’s understanding of D&I and its dynamics as well as their perceptional significance in people’s own behaviors.  

People who showed lower awareness were more confident in their inclusivity and ability to make unbiased decisions, whereas they yet hadn’t reflected on D&I topics. People who showed higher awareness, in turn, recognized how inequality might manifest in their organization and how they might exercise exclusive behaviors in some situations. What made a difference was critical reflectivity, self-awareness and a proactive attitude towards D&I and inclusive self-development. Even though my research did not study the effects of awareness and attitudes on inclusive leadership, hypothesis is that the more aware and motivated leaders are more likely to accommodate diversity in their teams and tackle exclusive elements.   

 The characteristics of inclusive leadership discussed earlier don’t seem too mystical. In fact,they are similar to a general conception of “good” leadership. However, having reflected on the role of awareness and attitudes, inclusive leadership becomes more than only a matter of leadership qualities but also of awareness and attitudes. In other words, inclusive leadership calls for the ability to recognize and avoid exclusive leadership. 

Olli Kiikkilä

Olli Kiikkilä worked at TEK during spring 2021 as a research assistant and thesis worker.

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