Several years ago, a large, global company asked me to help improve their employee engagement. I suggested a strengths-based approach to the problem: a search for “hot spots” in the organization where people were highly engaged and performing well. By understanding what was working, we could harness and replicate these factors across the greater organization.
We surveyed thousands of employees from all over the world. Our findings were fascinating, but one key factor emerged: from the Netherlands to India to the United States, those who were most engaged had bosses who gave them personalized attention.
I’ll never forget the story we heard from one very junior employee. An assertive, high-ranking (and potentially intimidating) leader of the business unit in which she worked sat with her and asked her to walk him through her perspective on an issue. Think about the kind of impact that interaction must have had on the young woman. A senior executive was genuinely curious about her point of view and her opinions. This strategy was integral to the way he led his team, and, as a result, the group was performing exceptionally well.
This is what ”inclusive leadership” really looks like. Too often the term is used as a buzzword, read through the lens of demographics. When someone says a leader is inclusive, we might assume that he’s a supporter of women and minorities. But inclusiveness is about more than gender, racial or cultural diversity. What matters most is a fundamental mindset that embraces every person as an individual and helps them bring who they are – both their backgrounds and their opinions – into the workplace.
To increase inclusiveness into your organization, encourage the following practices:
Be aware of biases. Social psychologists have found that even people who do not intend to discriminate are likely to hold implicit biases against certain people, perhaps those who are new or less senior, or who represent a certain function. Inclusive leaders actively fight against these tendencies. Make note of potential blind spots: unconscious favoritism, conformity, or silence in certain situations. Proactively address those problems and be receptive to feedback from every employee.
Create a shared identity. Inclusive leaders also create a sense of shared identity and purpose within their teams. This doesn’t mean groupthink. Instead, our research found that the most effective leaders had frequent conversations with team members – both one-on-one and in group settings - about what was important to them. This practice advanced an explicitly held set of values and enabled people to learn about and connect with one another. It is in this context that inclusive behaviors emerge.
Be attentive to emotions. Inclusive leadership also requires an emotional skill-set: the ability to recognize emotion, to understand what’s being felt and why, and to use emotion effectively. For example, a leader who can’t spot the emotional angst on an excluded employee’s face will not be able to change her behavior to make him feel more included.
Organizations that want to boost employee engagement should start by cultivating more inclusive leaders. These executives will need to spend time looking not only at demographic breakdowns but also at the people in front them. Interest and attention help employees thrive.