Building a Diverse and Inclusive Team: the Role of Inclusive Leadership

STEERus provides inclusive leadership training that blends unconscious bias training with self-awareness, communication, and emotional intelligence training.

By Amrit & Loralyn


Is it a thing? Yes, inclusive leadership is a “thing.” We have been discussing it for several weeks in our blog series on inclusive leadership.

Despite the opinions and musings of some people, diversity and inclusiveness in the workplace are not just woke fads: they make business sense. These concepts are good for the workforce and healthy for the bottom line. In fact, many organizations take diversity and inclusiveness so seriously that they designate positions such as Head of Diversity or Chief Diversity Officer who own the primary role of ensuring an inclusive and diverse environment for everyone within the organization. Inclusive leadership is not a passing fad – it has become today’s business imperative.

Job postings for diversity steadily increased over the past few years. Today, a little over half of the S&P 500 companies have a Chief Diversity Officer (CDO), or equivalent. However, despite rapid growth in the position for two years following the murder of George Floyd, hiring has slowed down in 2023. Many of those who have held the position of CDO and since lost it argue that they were set up to fail: they were given the impossible task of creating unity amongst clashing cohorts who held strong opinions and were given no resources to address the challenges. Embracing inclusive leadership does not just happen – companies need to be intentional about it.


We are a divided workplace and a divided society

Just look at how the battle of WFH (Work From Home) versus RTO (Return to Office) has played out. So, you’re probably thinking, “Well then, that just proves diversity and inclusion are part of a woke fad.” Au contraire!

The need is greater than ever – it’s just that companies, leaders, CDOs, and employees are finally realizing that diversity and inclusion is not one person’s job – it’s everyone’s job. And “checking the box” each year with the annual DE&I training isn’t getting it done: everyone sees that now. Some people have dared to be vocal about by calling out their employers for paying “lip service” to such an important workplace need. Others plod along, keeping their heads down and their mouths shut to simply flow with the status quo until they can find a better job.


Everyone needs to lean into inclusive leadership

What is a diverse and inclusive workplace? Does it mean different things to different people? Surprisingly, unlike most terms, definitions are hotly debated and discussing how to put those concepts into practice is often highly contentious. But this is not so when it comes to diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

Diversity means people of different backgrounds come together to work toward a common goal, like making the company profitable or offering superior customer service versus competitors. People may have different races, ethnicities, gender identities, abilities, political views, or ages. Regardless of their differences, the organization provides all employees with a sense of belonging and support. In an inclusive workplace free from psychological, cultural, and physical barriers, every employee can contribute productively. A strong sense of belonging boosts productivity and team performance.

Diverse workplaces experience 12% higher productivity compared to businesses that don’t prioritize inclusiveness. Gartner reports that gender diverse organizations outperform their homogenous counterparts by an average of 50%. The same report reveals that 75% of companies with diverse decision-making units exceed their financial goals. Diversity and inclusiveness also improve employee engagement, resulting in 19% higher retention and 50% more collaboration.

So, what’s the hang-up then?

The importance of inclusive leadership in creating diverse and inclusive teams

Finger pointing is surfacing as an issue when it comes to DE&I. Staff point up to their leaders to own it. Execs point over to their CDO to get it done. But CDOs point back at the execs to provide the necessary resources to HR to put initiatives into practice. HR is too busy and overwhelmed so they point back to the CDO to make the magic happen. Then nobody escapes the circle of blame and nothing gets done.

Positive changes often trickle down. Therefore, if you want to create a diverse and inclusive environment in your workplace, you must build an inclusive leadership. Inclusive leadership creates a culture where everyone feels welcome, valued, and respected, despite their differences. Having one inclusive leader can make a dent, but that person will eventually leave the organization because they lack the support needed to drive change.

In order to work, inclusive leadership has to be an all-or-none thing.

The problem is that within the traditional setups, diverse and inclusive environment doesn’t manifest automatically. Hidden biases exist. Attitudinal barriers exist. Age-old stereotypes persist. People cling to these perceptions as much as possible even though they know they harm their work environment. The resistance is usually unconscious.

An inclusive leader intentionally seeks out diverse perspectives. They are sensitive towards unintentionally nurturing a homogenous workforce and take corrective measures. An inclusive leadership team can collectively take the following actions to shape up a diverse workforce where everyone feels included:

  • Formally communicate the commitment to diversity and inclusion from the highest level of the organization.
  • Create a safe environment where every employee feels comfortable respectfully (this is the keyword) expressing their perspectives, ideas, and concerns without discrimination and retribution.
  • Identify and challenge unconscious biases among themselves as well as their employees.
  • Incorporate diversity and inclusion in their recruitment and hiring process.
  • Facilitate a workplace environment where people of different backgrounds and perspectives feel encouraged to contribute.
  • Empower individual team members to benefit from equal opportunities in the workplace, regardless of their backgrounds.
  • Reward and recognize individuals who are more accepting of people of different backgrounds: remember, you get the behavior you incentivize.
  • Handle conflicts and disputes without biases and stereotypes.
  • Kickstart initiatives and cultural activities that promote and foster diversity and a sense of belonging.


Challenges faced by the leadership team – besides not being inclusive

No matter what the intentions are, a leadership team aspiring to create a diverse and inclusive work environment faces multiple challenges. The good thing is that these challenges can be overcome with a strong resolve, a clear strategy, and regular training.

1 – conflicting priorities among the leaders

Although many organizations have designated DE&I campaigns, policies, and even whole departments dedicated to broadening inclusion, they don’t have clear priorities. From recruitment to interdepartmental coordination to employee engagement and retention, an inclusive leader may be handling different tasks with no focused priority on creating the diverse and inclusive environment itself.

2 – lack of power and influence

Despite being in a leadership position, many execs don’t wield enough influence over policy matters and procedures. There is often a singular “strong voice” that dominates everyone else. Even in highly supportive organizations, these leaders have little formal power over the processes and systems that they are supposedly tasked with changing.

3 – unconscious bias

The problem with unconscious biases is that employees don’t even realize that they have such biases. You make assumptions about a person without knowing them based on their race, color, religion, age, physical and intellectual ability, or political affiliation. Look at the mess pro- versus anti-vaccination has stirred up in the workplace. Such biases are embedded into our thoughts and behaviors. One can tackle a known problem, but tackling an unknown problem is very challenging.

4 – resistance to change

Change is difficult for many people. Okay, let’s call it as it is – change is difficult for just about everyone. Employees who are used to working in a certain work environment may resist the change being implemented. They may be uncomfortable with the presence of a diverse workforce. This Harvard study, although old, revealed that among Fortune 1000 companies, the success rate for corporate re-engineering and change is below 50%; and sometimes, as low as 20%.

5 – lack of awareness and understanding

Not everyone in the organization is on the same page when it comes to promoting diversity and inclusivity in the workplace. Some react with hostility whereas others feel threatened. Some complain that their old ways are being challenged. And there is always one or two who fake it in front of everyone but gripe about the change to whomever will listen. A few will fail to see the economic and commercial benefit of creating a diverse and inclusive work environment and fight it “on principle.”

Resistance may also come from a traditional company culture. In such organizations, it is difficult to challenge the embedded biases against diverse cultures. Timely training workshops in emotional intelligence and unconscious bias can raise self-awareness and overcome that pervasive lack of awareness and understanding typical in most workplaces today.

6 – lack of talent

What an “Arc of HR” we’ve witnessed first-hand over the past few years. The Great Resignation became The Great Regret which further morphed into The Great Glut and now we’re entering The Great Reinvention phase. In certain regions and industries, it may be difficult to find diverse talent due to historical disparities in education, opportunities, and other systemic factors. Unavailability of appropriate talent is sometimes a big challenge for diversity and inclusivity leaders. But, the global marketplace has provided the double-edged sword essential to driving innovation through inclusion.


Actionable strategies for building and leading diverse teams

Building and leading diverse teams is a long-term commitment. There is no shortcut or quick fix. And certainly, no checking-the-box. It requires dedication from all levels of the organization. You should also understand that it is an ongoing process that may require ongoing training, sensitization, and education. At the leadership level, you can implement the following actionable strategies to build and sustain a diverse team in your workplace:

A – set clearly defined diversity goals

If you simply talk about diversity and inclusion within your work environment without laying out clear goals, little progress will be made. Establish measurable diversity goals. You can set up these goals for individuals and the entire organization. The goals may include:

  • Increasing representation of underrepresented groups.
  • Promoting diversity in leadership positions.
  • Hiring candidates for diversity during recruitment.
  • Representing results with numbers and statistics.

B – incorporate diversity into the hiring process

People enter your organization through your hiring process. How do you make your hiring process inclusive? You can do the following:

  • Use inclusive language.
  • Leave out gender-based language and terms.
  • Implement standardized hiring processes that guarantee diverse and inclusive recruitment.
  • Stick to the core job descriptions and responsibilities that are truly required for the role and avoid “nice to haves”.
  • Block out information such as age, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and other identifiers when analysing resumes.

C- provide diversity and inclusiveness training regularly

Biases and stereotypes become ingrained over the years, and sometimes, over an entire lifetime. They may not go away with a single orientation class.  Even diverse employees may have peculiar biases that need to be dealt with. Just because they come from diverse backgrounds doesn’t mean they don’t have their biases and preconceived notions of people from other cultures.

D – form support groups and ERGs

You can facilitate employee resource groups (ERGs) that represent various demographics. Such groups can provide a platform for employees to share experiences and reach out to each other when they feel that they are at the receiving end of biases and stereotypes.


That’s a wrap …

Fostering a diverse and inclusive workplace makes a lot of business sense. Such a workplace is a breeding ground for innovation and creativity. Your business enjoys a wide range of skills. Your talent pool expands. Studies have shown that employees are happier in diverse and inclusive workplaces compared to organizations where the open culture hasn’t taken roots yet.

Good news is that most of the biases and stereotypes are unconscious. This means that people can unlearn prejudices and preconceptions through proper training, education, sensitization, and orientation by surfacing their biases to render consciousness of their limiting beliefs.

You’re not alone. Let’s tackle these challenges together. STEERus offers innovative Inclusive Leadership 360° and UP (Unlocked Potential) 360° for your staff along with training to drive changes in behavior and productivity through greater communication and understanding.

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