The Key to Inclusive Leadership: The Why, How & What to Being an Inclusive Leader

7 min readMar 5, 2021


Have you ever been in a situation where you felt

- Left out?

- Unheard?

- Dissatisfied with seemingly unfair outcomes/decisions?

We tend to talk a lot about experiencing FOMO (fear of missing out) — but fearing you are missing out and knowing you’ve been left out, or not included, are two different emotions altogether

In a recent study* researchers at the University of Ottawa found that feeling left out or not included does greater harm to employees’ happiness than outright harassment. Startling but borne out by research!

So, what does feeling “included” or “inclusion” at work mean? And why does it matter?

If diversity is the ‘mix’, inclusion is making the ‘mix’ work. Inclusiveness isn’t just nice to have in organizations- it is essential to achieving a true competitive advantage from investing in diversity.

An organization can only capitalize on its diverse workforce if it is able to leverage diverse viewpoints and experiences in its decision-making.

Research indicates* that inclusion directly impacts performance. Teams with inclusive leaders are 17% more likely to report that they are high performing, 20% more likely to say they make high-quality decisions, and 29% more likely to report behaving collaboratively.*

Photo by Sinitta Leunen on Unsplash

With inclusion, organizations can achieve a distinct competitive advantage in the marketplace from changing demographics in the workplace. An organization with a reputation for inclusiveness becomes a magnet that attracts top diverse talent. And this, in turn, sparks greater creativity and propels innovation.

A lot of this research seems intuitive, perhaps even obvious. YET, moving towards inclusion is a challenge! Even leaders who fully embrace the business case for diversity are often ill-prepared to embrace inclusiveness.

In my experience working with leaders across cultures / organizations, I’ve realized that one of the key challenges is relatively lower awareness of inclusiveness as a trait, and what are some of the behaviours that comprise inclusiveness. So, let’s start by looking at ‘who is an inclusive leader?’ or ‘what are the behaviours that constitute ‘inclusive leadership?’

1. Awareness — At an individual level, inclusive leaders are self-aware, and act on the basis of this self-awareness. Awareness is also about having the emotional intelligence to recognize & accept a modicum of unconscious biases, as well as a big picture (or broad) understanding of the world’s constantly evolving demographics.

2. Cognizance of Bias — Highly inclusive leaders are mindful of personal and organizational blind spots, and self-regulate to help ensure fair play. They understand that their natural state, without these interventions, tends to lean toward ‘self-cloning’ and ‘group think’, and that success in a diverse world requires a different approach

3. Commitment — Leveraging diversity requires time and energy — two of a leader’s most precious resources. Making the time and the leadership commitment to create an environment of inclusion, are essential elements of this commitment.

Inclusive leaders are likely to take a high level of personal responsibility for D&I outcomes.

4. Openness to Different perspectives — An inclusive organization is one where individuals are willing and able to accept each other’s viewpoints. A leader’s role is to be able to enable this culture as well as integrate seemingly different, yet complementary views to shape strategy and drive growth. Inclusive leaders demonstrate the ability to view things from others’ perspectives. They avoid jumping to conclusions, instead focus on respectful/curious questioning to better understand others’ viewpoints.

5. Effective collaboration: Inclusive leaders focus on creating an environment of psychological safety where teams/individuals feel comfortable in expressing themselves. This helps to bring out the best in others as well as fosters cohesion amongst teams

An insight that struck me while reflecting on these behaviours is that inclusive leadership requires a combination of intellect, that is, belief in the business case of inclusion as well as emotion, that is a sense of fair play, and caring for people as individuals, not “resources.”

Photo by Gemma Chua-Tran on Unsplash

How can managers/leaders DEMONSTRATE behaviours that foster an environment in which all employees — regardless of age, race, gender, thinking style or personality type — feel valued?

It takes energy and deliberate effort to create an inclusive culture. Starting with leaders paying both greater as well as careful attention to what they say and do on a daily basis, to making the adjustments that are needed once multiple, diverse opinions are taken into consideration.

Here are five ways for leaders to get started:


One simple way to make colleagues and employees feel more included, is to ask for their input and opinions in front of others. Listening not only signals to them that you value their contribution, but also demonstrates to other employees that everyone has value.

2. Take on diverse experiences

Being informed about the ‘research’ on the benefits of inclusion is one thing, and experiencing it quite another! Experience helps us develop empathy for what it ‘feels’ like to either be part of or excluded from a specific set-up. Experience or (It) helps us understand the impact of diverse insights on innovation. Experience also helps us recognize the various facets of diversity — over & above differences in gender, race or age. Facets like cognitive diversity & personality differences. A better nuanced understanding of diversity is critical in the journey towards a truly inclusive workplace environment.

Here are examples of experiences one could seek to acquire:

- Global/international experience — in a different country or in a team with diverse cultures/nationalities

- Being part of or leading a team with diverse age demographics

- Taking on a short (3–6-month project) with a new team — this will force us to adapt to diverse thinking styles/personalities in a short duration to achieve results

- Leading or being part of cross functional teams within the organization

- Choosing to hire or work with diverse talent (despite your discomfort, if any, in doing so)

3. Nurture strengths vs focus on differences

Sometimes, inclusiveness is a challenge because leaders tend to be overly focused on the ‘differences’. It is worth reiterating that inclusion is about embracing differences and recognizing the strengths of a diverse workplace.

Ask yourself

- What is one thing that could become possible only because of diverse perspectives on this team?

- What is one strength that each individual on this team has? How can I leverage this?

4. Learn about diverse groups / strengthen your cultural intelligence — For inclusive leaders, the ability to function effectively in different cultural settings is about more than just having a mental map of different cultural frameworks. While an understanding of cultural similarities and differences is important, inclusive leaders also recognize how their own culture impacts their personal worldview, as well as how cultural stereotypes can influence their expectations of others. At a deeper level, inclusive leaders’ thirst for learning means that they are also motivated to deepen their cultural understanding and to learn from the experience of working in an unfamiliar environment. Therefore, it will help leaders to learn about various cultures, and deepen their understanding of this subject

5. Active self-reflection and regulation

Taking the time to pause, reflect, and then adapt your behaviour.

Some areas you could benefit from reflecting on –

· What are 3 skills/behaviours I have learnt by working with diverse teams/individuals?

· What is the one difference with a colleague or team member that is making me ‘uncomfortable?’ What is the deeper lesson or message this discomfort is giving me? (i.e. is it related to your values? Or to a fear/insecurity? Or perhaps just pushing you out of your comfort zone?). Often, just labelling and acknowledging the specific reason that is making acceptance challenging helps

· Have I observed myself making a ‘biased’ decision or experiencing ‘bias’ when working with diverse teams/individuals?

Finally, it isn’t only up to senior leaders to foster inclusion. It is the role of every single individual within the organization to value and respect those around them, and create a culture of psychological safety, inclusion, belongingness and high performance.


  1. HBR 2020 — The key to inclusive leadership
  2. HBR 2014 — Who is being left out on your team?

Written by: Nikita Singh

Nikita is an Organizational Psychologist from the London School of Economics, a Leadership Coach & Consultant and a certified Wellness coach. She has over 9 years of experience in the areas of talent management, leadership development, mental wellbeing & diversity and inclusion. You can read more about her work on

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