11 April 2024 | Jonathan Taylor

How to develop inclusive leaders

Inclusive leaders are essential for creating a culture of inclusion – and the organisations they work for have a key role in supporting them. We look at seven things that organisations can do to help develop inclusive leadership.

Inclusion is a bit like driving – everyone likes to think they’re better than they really are. Research we conducted with 200 leaders at Pearn Kandola has shown that when asked to rate whether they were ‘average’ or ‘above average’ at inclusion, 100% of the leaders we questioned rated themselves as being ‘above average’ – clearly a statistical impossibility.

So, are we all just a bit deluded? Well, not exactly. It’s partly because most of us are well-intentioned, and we assume that these intentions will automatically translate into our behaviour. However, the truth is that we are not naturally inclusive with everyone, which is why being an inclusive leader requires conscious effort. While leaders themselves need to take a proactive approach to becoming more inclusive, the organisations they work for have a key role to play in actively developing and supporting them on their journey.

Here are seven things that will help your leaders get to grips with inclusive leadership and set them up for success.

1. Understand their drivers

Start by finding out what’s keeping your leaders up at night. Try and discover what’s important to them, the challenges they are facing, and what they want to achieve. Get them to reflect on where a lack of inclusivity might be impacting their function or performance – are they struggling to connect with a particular market demographic? Or is there a recruitment freeze on, meaning that leaders need to uncover new skills and diverse talents within the business?

Being able to show how inclusive leadership skills will benefit them and their diverse team members will ensure that they are motivated to make changes to their leadership style and behaviours.

2. Recognise their vulnerabilities

Learning to be an inclusive leader is a journey, and it’s never going to be plain sailing. Changing our behaviour takes time, and mistakes and missteps are par for the course, so make sure that your leaders feel safe to try new things and aren’t hung out to dry for getting it wrong.

While it’s important to set high standards and expectations, a ‘zero-tolerance’ approach may not always be the best one. If leaders hold others to impossibly high standards, then they can only expect the same treatment when they make a mistake themselves. Leaders need to know they won’t be hung out to dry if they say or do the wrong thing – for example, if they accidentally mis-gender a colleague or use out-of-date language around race or gender. Make it clear that it’s expected that they will put a foot wrong from time to time, and that genuine mistakes will be forgiven and should be seen as a chance for them to learn and grow as a leader.

3. Help them develop perspective-taking

Inclusive leaders are able to understand people’s different experiences and unique perspectives. Perspective-taking is where we really try to understand someone else’s experience – what happened, what they thought about it, how it made them feel and the impact that it had. The degree to which people feel comfortable doing this can sometimes vary depending on the sector they work in and their working culture.

For example, people whose roles are typically focussed on facts or hard data may find this comes less easily. It’s therefore helpful to explain how it can bring a new dimension to how they relate to their staff and improve their ability to build better relationships. Think about how you can create opportunities for leaders to interact and engage with people who are different to them in some way, be that from a minority group or a different part of the business, and encourage them to reflect on these experiences and share any insights with their peers.

4. Consider how best to engage them

Accept that different learning approaches will work for different people. Think about the method of learning that’s going to be most effective for engaging your leaders. In-person inclusive leader workshops provide the opportunity for leaders to discuss issues with their peers and benefit from social learning and support.

However, it may be the case that self-guided e-learning solutions that allow people to explore inclusion issues in private will be more appropriate. For senior leaders who are leading large and complex business functions, specialist inclusive leader coaching, where a coach works alongside a leader to provide in-depth advice and guidance, may be the best option and allow you to focus on specific aspects of inclusive leadership in your enterprise. Alternatively, you might want to explore solutions that blend elements of all three.

5. Give them insight

The key to effective learning is getting insight into what we’re good at and what we need to work on. We all have a tendency to think that we are better at something than we really are, and leaders – particularly those from majority groups – may well be behaving in a non-inclusive way without being aware of it. Our Inclusive Leader training programme goes beyond simply raising awareness of the day-to-day inclusive leadership behaviours that make a difference and provides leaders with personalised insights – both into the inclusive behaviours that they are already showing, and those that they need to put conscious effort into developing.

Our unique leadership tools provide individual feedback on personality preferences – how we naturally prefer to behave and how this aligns with inclusion. They also provide 360 inclusion feedback, so leaders can see how their own self-assessment aligns with the behaviours that colleagues are noticing in day-to-day situations. This allows leaders to focus their efforts on introducing specific behaviours in their routine that will have a meaningful impact on how included others feel. This is important – inclusive leadership research shows that having personalised feedback provides the clarity needed to plan effectively, which in turn increases the transfer of learning back into the work environment.

6. Guide them on practical actions they can take

People need to know what ‘being inclusive’ looks like in practice. Being told that you need to be an inclusive leader can feel a little daunting. Leaders may not know what it means in practical terms – and they may lack the confidence to try out new leadership behaviours.

Giving leaders clear, granular guidance on the small, practical actions they can take and encouraging them to focus on little but frequent inclusion behaviours as opposed to grand gestures doesn’t just give them a practical steer, it can help to build their confidence through achieving small incremental goals.

Pearn Kandola’s model of inclusion maps onto many of the common scenarios that leaders find themselves in – for example, chairing a meeting, delegating a piece of work, or discussing team performance. Based on their individual strengths and development areas, we help learners to make changes to how they conduct these activities by sharing small, practical actions that they can immediately lift and apply, making it easy to embed inclusive behaviours into their everyday working lives.

7. Give them feedback on progress

Like everyone else, leaders want to know how well they’re doing. Encourage them to seek out feedback from their peers and subordinates on how their behaviour has changed and ask them to share examples of what they’ve done differently and the impact that this has had. Sharing any blocks or challenges they’ve encountered with other leaders in the organisation can also help to encourage open and honest discussion, as well as sharing of ideas and best practice.

Our digital DEI diagnostic tools enable leaders to measure their progress and gauge their impact on those around them, so they can see that what they’re doing is really making a difference, which in turn builds their confidence and encourages them to do more of the same. At a macro level, our programmes include data analytics that allow employers to identify inclusive behaviours that their leaders are struggling with and monitor progress on diversity and inclusion across the whole organisation.

This data also helps organisations be more targeted and strategic with their investment decisions and ensure they get maximum payoff for their learning and development investment, while at the same time supporting more effective DEI benchmarking.

Take the next steps towards inclusive leadership development

Inclusive leadership is at the heart of every successful organisation. Contact us today to find out how Inclusive Leader training from Kandola+ can help you identify, evaluate and progress your future leaders.