Previously published on Forbes
It was my second week at a new job, right out of college. I was eager and excited to contribute my newly minted skills. My boss, Anne, told me to pack a bag before coming into the office. I would be traveling to Omaha, Nebraska for work that week. Of course, I was nervous. But I could take comfort in the knowledge that I would be traveling with two other women, my boss and her peer, Jeanine.
As we navigated through the Los Angeles airport, an unfamiliar adventure for me, Jeanine walked ahead of me by ten paces. I couldn’t keep up with her. I asked her to slow down. She ignored me and kept going. I remember feeling very left out. Somehow, I didn’t matter to her. I guess I was too junior for her time and attention.
It was my first experience of non-inclusive leadership.
In an HBR article on The Key to Inclusive Leadership, Juliet Bourke and Andrea Titus observed, “We find that what leaders say and do makes up to a 70% difference as to whether an individual reports feeling included. And this really matters because the more people feel included, the more they speak up, go the extra mile, and collaborate — all of which ultimately lifts organizational performance.”
It certainly mattered in my case. After all, it was my first “real” job, and already I was feeling like I didn’t matter at all. That I had nothing of value to offer. It’s a lesson that’s stayed with me. It’s why being an inclusive leader matters to me today.
What does it mean to be an inclusive leader?
Let’s start with the basics. Being an inclusive is defined as “not excluding any of the parties or groups involved in something.” In other words, not walking ten paces in front of someone who is looking to you for approval and guidance. Basic good manners.
Putting it into the context of the work environment, here are some things we can do as leaders to be more inclusive every day:
Be empathic and compassionate.
“Can you love him?” One of my colleagues asked me this big question about a team member I was struggling with several years ago. Yes, our perspectives and even values had collided. But underneath it, was there affinity, respect, love? Yes. And when that’s present, all the rest can be worked out. I would naturally find my way to the heart of things—because he mattered to me.
Being inclusive naturally requires that you are empathetic and compassionate about the people you lead. You care about them as people. You know their stories, their heartache, their triumphs.
Know that all perspectives are valid
My friend and colleague Joel Kampf, who runs what he calls “The Inclusive Leader Project,” explains why this matters:
These times find us more divided than ever, so we must operate from the perspective that we’re more alike than different. That requires letting go of opinions and assumptions about ourselves and others so that we can all adopt the shared purpose of mutual respect and appreciation for differences—the first step to living more fulfilled, together. This work requires leaders to show up every day as role models and advocates for a more diverse, equitable and inclusive culture.
Inclusive leaders understand that people have different life experiences, which shape different perspectives. They can hear those different perspectives and acknowledge that they are valid without judgment or defensiveness.
According to Bourke and Titus, the single most important trait for creating a sense of inclusiveness is a leader’s visible awareness of bias.
Greater insight into personal limitations prompts increased humility, empathy and perspective-taking. We like to say, “If you spot it, you got it.” You must be willing to see your own blind spots and biases (or be willing to have them pointed out to you) without looking away out of embarrassment, shame or defensiveness. You can offer yourself kindness and compassion as aspects of who and how you are exposed, sometimes in an unflattering light.
Leaders who are humble acknowledge their vulnerability to bias and ask for feedback on their blind spots and habits. They don’t assume, ever, that they’ve got it all figured out, that their learning has come to an end. There is always more to learn.
Becoming an inclusive leader is a journey. Start with empathy and compassion. Know that all perspectives are valid, and access your own humility. Along the way, you’ll unlock more motivation, collaboration and ideas from everyone around you.