Six skills inclusive leaders practice at work everyday


Leaders can find it challenging to relate to people and situations that don’t reflect their own thinking, social norms, and decision-making practices.
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Inclusive Leadership is the ability to activate diversity through conveying psychological safety, empathy, inclusion, and respect. This inspires everyone at work to utilise their differences.

Even so, being inclusive as a leader can continue to be an obscure and nice-to-have skillset. There are three challenges that come in the way of leaders in being inclusive at work.

The first challenge is unfamiliarity with the contents and impact of leading inclusively. Leaders may not know what it takes to turn their leadership inclusive. And even if they did learn the skillset, what material difference would it make to their leadership outcomes, if any.

The second challenge is the fear of offending others. Leaders can find it challenging to relate to people and situations that don’t reflect their own thinking, social norms, and decision-making practices. To wilfully invite this social risk is often not welcomed.

The third challenge in leading inclusively is the ease of sameness. Research points to the fact that leading homogenous teams is easier than leading diverse teams. However, leading diverse teams can be more rewarding. This dividend can take intention and patience.

Irrespective of these perceived challenges, Inclusive Leadership is an obvious choice for organisations, as they grapple with increasingly diverse and complex business circumstances.

The following six skills help leaders develop an inclusive approach to leading at work.

1. Self-awareness

This is about leaders recognising unconscious biases, stereotypes, and prejudices as unfair and exclusionary at the workplace. Inclusive leaders are honest and aware of their beliefs, biases, and limitations. They are also tuned into their own sense of diversity and unique value. Being aware of biases and cultural traps is crucial for leaders to execute on being inclusive and fair in a diverse team. This helps leaders harness creativity and new ideas from the team, and know what helps their own leadership thrive and succeed. Self-awareness prevents inclusive leaders from over-estimating their skills, and prioritising learning.

2. Courage

Inclusive leaders need courage to interrupt their own biases and promote inclusion for others. When team members don’t see leaders being brave in their leadership, they anticipate indifference and rejection. Leadership courage is built through being prepared and managing the discomfort of differences at work. Inclusive leaders also develop courage through acknowledging and owning their sense of diversity as productive and significant to the workplace. Without cultivating courage it can prove hard for leaders to speak up, listen empathetically, and stay open and inclusive of mutual differences.

3. Curiosity

Being curious is vital to succeeding in business. Curiosity helps leaders promote diverse thoughts and ideas and legitimise holding differing opinions. Think of curiosity as an outcome of self-awareness, and together they prove a great combination for leaders to cultivate. Self-awareness provides the foundation for staying open and stepping into curiosity through willingness to listen and learn. Leaders can practice curiosity through asking questions, instead of prescribing tried and tested solutions from the past. Leaders who take time out to nurture curiosity find themselves growing more comfortable with diversity.

4. Humility

Far from being self-effacing or weak, humility indicates strength. Humility is most closely associated with a cluster of highly positive qualities including sincerity, modesty, fairness, truthfulness, unpretentiousness, and authenticity. Without being humble and therefore, open to influences, bias can run rampant and subvert fairness. This misplaced confidence can push people into conformity, silence and groupthink. Instead, developing humility involves assuming ignorance and asking questions with curiosity. This raises awareness and learning, and improves decision-making for leaders and teams.

5. Empathy

Curiosity and empathy are deeply linked. Showing curiosity helps inclusive leaders to understand what is being said, suspend judgement, and offer empathy and belonging. Curiosity leads to learning about differences, but this can also prove uncomfortable and daunting. Empathy helps respond to emotions that come up when leaders meet the unfamiliar. This allows them to take a step back and let people share who they are without needing to evaluate or judge them. Inclusive Leaders understand empathy is central to their functioning and respond with consideration and care in the face of diversity and discomfort.

6. Accountability

Inclusive leaders take ownership for their unconscious and conscious biases and stay accountable for team culture. They avoid a one-size-fits-all approach to leadership, and embrace the more complex role of responding to individual needs. This requires the other five skills of leading with inclusion, especially, courage, curiosity, and humility. With taking accountability, and being consistent and transparent in how people are treated at work, leaders also hold others to account. This involves not allowing hurtful stereotypes and biases to exclude some people at work. Inclusive leaders have candid conversations about showing respect and encourage their team to stay inclusive of each other.

Sonali D’silva is a Certified Professional in Inclusive Leadership from Catalyst Inc. She is the Founder of Equality Consulting, a training and advisory service for raising diversity awareness, leading with inclusion, and creating psychological safety at work. Find out more about Sonali at