5 Steps to Inclusive Leadership that Unlock the Power of DEI

Corporate fads come and go. Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) is different. Unlike the open-office craze of the mid-2000s, COVID-19 further proved DEI’s universal and enduring worth as a barrier-breaking, collaborative workplace solution.

DEI is more than a moral imperative; it’s business critical.

Recognizing, embracing, and spreading this truth is the key to being exceptional in your management role. Whether you’re a leader in finance, technology, or other area, inclusive leadership is an absolute difference maker for you, your team, and your organization.

Understanding DEI

Being an inclusive leader begins with understanding the elements of DEI and how they fit together.

SHRM describes workplace diversity as “the collective mixture of differences and similarities that include individual and organizational characteristics, values, beliefs, experiences, preferences and behaviors.” Notably, diversity isn’t limited to visible characteristics, such as race, gender, and age. Invisible diversity includes things you typically can’t know about someone unless they reveal it: religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, native language, geographic origin, and socioeconomic background.

Equity is a principle of fairness that recognizes unequal starting points. It ensures everyone has what they need to succeed according to their circumstances. Where equality ensures the same access, equity focuses on leveling the playing field. In the workplace, this may translate to removing barriers and/or creating fair access to jobs, promotions, sponsorships, and other professional opportunities for members of underrepresented groups.

With inclusion, everyone feels valued and respected for who they are and what they bring to the organization. It creates an environment where people can comfortably be themselves at work.

Realizing the Benefits of DEI

The above definitions support the idea of DEI and inclusive leadership as moral imperatives, whereas multiple studies and statistics prove its tangible business benefits, including these recent findings:

  • Talent acquisition and retention: In a Glassdoor survey, 76% of job seekers and employees indicated that diversity is “an important factor when evaluating companies and job offers,” and 32% don’t want to apply where it’s lacking.
  • Innovation: Inclusive organizations are also six times more likely to be innovative and agile, according to Deloitte. Similarly, per Grant Thornton’s Women in Business 2021, “The more included employees feel, the more innovative they are in their jobs, and the more engaged they are individually with the company’s purpose.”
  • Productivity: A Workhuman report determined that companies that engender a sense of belonging “are able to build reserves of goodwill required for productivity when work demands and stress levels go up.”
  • Profitability: As for the bottom line, McKinsey has repeatedly shown that diversity wins. In 2019, “companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25 percent more likely to have above-average profitability than those in the fourth quartile,” a 10-point increase from 2014 and four-point increase from 2017. Measured the same way, the effect of ethnic diversity was even more pronounced at 36% in 2019, up from 33% in 2017.

Becoming an Inclusive Leader

In McKinsey’s Study on Race in the Workplace, black employees reported a lot of company talk about DEI but a lack of execution. As Deloitte explains, “The challenge lies in translating a nod of the head to the value of diversity and inclusion into impactful actions.”

As a company leader, you can take these definitive steps to turn DEI talk into reality.

  1. Acknowledge and challenge inherent bias.

Creating mental social categories is a natural tendency, but problems arise when we use them to form generalizations and/or stereotypes that influence our decisions.

During performance reviews and in hiring, challenge yourself to mitigate bias by adopting a consistent set of evaluation criteria. By measuring all individuals against the same standards, you will enable confident and evidence-based decision making.

  1. Replace judgment with curiosity.

Limited experience with or knowledge of people from diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, or other identifiers allows our inherent biases to persist. To fight this tendency, try to understand other people’s perspectives, especially when you disagree. Instead of shutting down their way of doing something or acquiescing to avoid conflict, actively listen to their point of view. And ask follow-up questions like I noticed you did X. Tell me how you got to that point?

  1. Invite Representation

It’s common to rely on the same group of individuals when you need help solving a problem because it’s comfortable and expedient. For the next project or meeting, consider who else you could include. Aside from making them feel valued, you’ll start leveraging more differences as a true resource.

  1. Lean into the uncomfortable.

In moments of self-doubt, be selectively vulnerable. That isn’t suggesting that you share everything you think and feel—doing that can hinder your credibility and confidence. But having the courage to admit when you’re wrong is humanizing and builds trust. It also encourages others to take risks with less fear of failure.

Start by putting a few more cards on the table when the stakes are low. As you do so, maintain your self-confidence while showing you are open to continuous improvement. This will project a kind of magnetic authenticity everyone can respect.

  1. Prioritize relationships

Take a few minutes before a one-on-one to ask about a team member’s life outside of work, such as their hobbies. This lets you see them through a different lens and strengthens the relationship by building trust. It also provides psychological safety, which makes team members more likely to come to you honestly and openly.

Learn more about Vaco’s DEI Mission to embrace differences and level the playing field for all.

By Farah Salam-Hottle, Senior Director, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at Vaco

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