Leading through inclusion: Traits to help us be better leaders

MajaAs we are learning more about during this Skanska Diversity & Inclusion Week, inclusion is essential in top-performing workplaces. The more included employees feel, the more innovative they report being in their jobs, and the more they go beyond the call of duty to help other team members and to meet group objectives. So, what can leaders do to ensure that employees feel included?

“I was the only woman at the project visit. When my colleagues got white hard hats, I was handed a pink one. I am sure the superintendent just wanted to make me feel special, but I ended up feeling awkward and singled out.”

This real-life example shows how difficult this can be. Handing out a pink hard hat to a female employee was no doubt a well-intended act – the giver most probably wanted the receiver to feel special. The effect, though, was not entirely positive, as the receiver was left feeling alienated and stereotyped by being singled out. Why is this?

People tend to have two opposing needs in group settings: the need to belong and the need to be unique. In this example, the employee felt separated from her team. By contrast, focusing too much on the belonging part of inclusion can leave employees reluctant to share views and ideas that might set them apart, increasing the odds of problems like groupthink. Inclusive leadership makes employees feel valued for the unique talents and perspectives they bring —without emphasizing their differences so much that they feel set apart

Inclusive leaders work from the assumption that their primary obligation is to support and assist their direct reports, rather than protecting their own needs and interests. They are humble: they ask for and learn from feedback, admit mistakes and seek contributions from team members. Those of you who have read Jim Collins’ book “Good to Great” will recognize this trait from his description of Level 5 leaders.

Inclusive leaders are empowering leaders. They enable their employees to grow by encouraging them to solve problems and come up with new ideas. They believe in their employees’ abilities, and express this confidence verbally and through other actions. These leaders focus on the result, letting each individual find his or her way forward and holding employees accountable for performance they can control.

The final attribute of inclusive leaders is courage. Inclusive leaders stand up for what they believe is right even when it requires personal risk-taking. A courageous leader would take a stand to openly challenge excluding or derogatory remarks from other team members. This is to build a psychologically safe and supportive atmosphere in which everyone feels enabled to do their best work.

These traits all involve parking egos at the door. This is not always easy to do, as we all want to be seen as good at what we do, to be irreplaceable and to be liked. The trick is to find out when those needs get in the way of good leadership.

How do you lead through inclusion? Join the conversation on social media. Tweet @SkanskaUSA #SeedsOfInclusion.

Maja Egnell

Maja Egnell

vice president of talent development and diversity

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  • Elizabeth Locke

    elizabeth locke October 20, 2015, 9:23 am

    Excellent post! Thank you for all of your hard work!


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