Asked to assess themselves, most managers would say that they strive to involve and empower others. My work with senior leaders shows however, that they’re often not as inclusive as they think they are. Inadvertently, many managers end up disempowering their teams because they fail to delegate, ask, listen and coach. Instead, there is a tendency to retain control, give too much direction, and stay attached to their own ideas and ways of working.
A 2014 study by Catalyst, highlighted the striking similarities across six major countries in how employees characterize inclusion and the leadership behaviors that help to foster it. The study, which included employees from Australia, China, Germany, India, Mexico and the US, revealed that:
- The more included employees felt, the more innovative they reported being in their jobs.
- The more included employees felt, the more they went above and beyond the “call of duty”.
- Perceiving similarities with co-workers produced a feeling of belongingness, while perceiving differences led to feelings of uniqueness.
The findings from the study show that in order for inclusion to happen, leaders have to value the differences as well as the commonalities of others. Valuing the differences is about recognizing the individual team member for who they are, acknowledging their uniqueness and helping them stand out from the crowd. Being acknowledged for our uniqueness and distinctive talents, is one of the most fundamental needs that all humans have. It makes us feel significant and special and makes us want to go the extra mile.
Valuing someone’s commonalities on the other hand, is about making team members feel that they fit in and are accepted within the group. This part speaks to another human need that everyone has – the need to develop rapport and closeness with like-minded people and feeling that we belong to the group.
When these basic needs are met, team members open up, collaborate and happily share their ideas. When they’re not met, for instance when a manager criticizes or excludes someone, it causes people to withdraw, stop engaging, or become overly critical and argumentative.
According to Catalyst, there are four major leadership behaviours that help to foster inclusion and lead to feelings of uniqueness and belongingness. The four attributes are Empowerment, Accountability, Courage, and Humility. Mastering these behaviours enables leaders to create an environment where team members can thrive and bring their whole selves to work.
Empowerment is the ability to enable team members to develop and excel and to give them the best conditions to do so. This is about helping team members to grow, giving them the freedom to handle difficult situations, and providing the coaching they need without taking back control. When leaders coach, they trust that the team member can handle the situation on their own with a bit of guidance. That’s very different to micro managing someone and telling them exactly how to do something.
Empowerment is also about allowing the team to work flexibly and make decisions about when, where, and how work gets done. That means accepting and celebrating different ways of working, even if they're different from their own preferences. Some people are most productive in the morning, whereas others work better in the evening. Some people work well in loud coffee shops, and others prefer to be in a space that’s quiet. It shouldn't matter whether an employee is leaving early, as long as they're getting the work done and are collaborating effectively with others.
Accountability is the act of demonstrating confidence in team members by holding them responsible for performance that’s within their control. Many managers struggle with this, and find it difficult to give direct feedback when someone is not delivering what was agreed. Inclusive leaders first and foremost have to make sure that expectations are set – and mutually agreed – and that the team member is fully equipped to carry out the task. Secondly, they have to provide clear and regular feedback on performance as a way to support and coach the team member. It becomes much easier to hold someone accountable without the need to show aggression or become overly controlling, when outcomes and deliverables have been mutually agreed.
We also shouldn’t forget, that in order to lead effectively, leaders have to hold themselves to account as role models and as champions for work-life effectiveness. Team members must be able to rely on their manager and feel that they’re human and that they sometimes need to take time off as well. When the manager leaves work early on occasion, it sends a message to the team that work-life effectiveness is an accepted part of the culture, and that both work and life matter. The key message is that we focus on the results that individuals produce rather than the time they spend in the office.
Courage is the ability to put personal interests aside to achieve what needs to be done. That means acting based on convictions and principles, even when it requires personal risk-taking. There are many different ways for leaders to show courage, for instance questioning the status quo, advocating for new ways to get the work done, and standing up for what they believe is right. They can also show courage by standing up for the team and fighting against a mentality that emphasizes hitting deadlines at the expense of everything else. Courage is also related to trusting that team members will get the work done based on the support they are receiving, and giving honest and fair feedback when required. Everyone needs feedback, but not all managers take the time, or have the guts to do it.
Humility is the capacity to admit mistakes, to accept and learn from others and to ask for help in order to overcome limitations. Leaders aren’t perfect beings who always have the answers and who never make mistakes. In fact, if we try to project that kind of image it most likely means that we’re not a very good leader. When we can ask for help and admit that we don’t know everything, we show that we’re human and create the space for others to step up and grow. What’s important isn’t what we know personally, but what the team knows. This sends a clear signal that the entire team is needed, as the leader doesn’t have all the answers on their own.
We can also demonstrate humility by taking on board criticism, double-checking our assumptions, admitting that our own way isn’t the only way, and by giving the team the credit for successful results.
Inclusive leadership has the power to make an enormous difference to the level of collaboration, innovation, and performance of a team. When applied correctly inclusive leadership can provide the tools, behaviours and mind-set for team members to be more effective, not only at work but also in their personal lives. Inclusion happens when leaders value the differences as well as the commonalities of others. By actively demonstrating the four leadership attributes of Empowerment, Accountability, Courage, and Humility, leaders can create a safe environment where team members can thrive and be their best.
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