Driving Innovation and Organization Growth Through Inclusive Leadership

By: Binnu Palta Hill 

The following article by Binnu Palta Hill was originally published in the Wisconsin Society of Association Executives’ VantagePoint Fall 2021 issue.  

Organizations today must distinguish themselves from their competition to survive and grow. Differentiation is a direct result of innovation, which in turn occurs from a diversity of ideas and perspectives. Research shows that diverse teams require an inclusive culture to innovate, drive growth, and perform at their best. Without inclusion, diversity is often a source of conflict where individuals feel pressured to assimilate or leave the organization. The latter does not enable an organization to reap the benefits of its diverse workforce.  

In order to fully realize the benefits of diversity for both the organization and the individuals working there, it is imperative that leaders embody an inclusive mindset and exhibit inclusive behaviors. Studies have shown that inclusive leaders are able to motivate individuals to perform to their full potential, build strong collaboration among team members, and help their organizations innovate and grow.  

Becoming an inclusive leader is like developing any other talent. It requires an understanding of the principles and daily practice. It is about treating others fairly, understanding the unique talents of each individual on your team, ensuring they feel valued and respected, and finally, it is about making better decisions by using varying perspectives.  

One of my favorite frameworks for developing inclusive leadership skills is Deloitte’s Six Signature Traits of Inclusive Leadership. This framework highlights the mindset and behaviors that leaders can practice and develop over time to master the six traits linked to inclusive leadership.  

1. Commitment  

The leader must understand the business case for diversity. Research shows diverse teams working in an inclusive environment far outperform their homogeneous counterparts. More importantly, the leader’s main motivation must come from within in their personal belief in a sense of fairness. This includes equitable policies and practices with regard to gender parity, racial inequality, and disparities related to other dimensions of difference.  

Catalyst, a U.S.-based think tank, “identified ‘a strong sense of fair play’ as the most significant predictor that men would champion gender initiatives in the workplace…an individual’s commitment to fairness ideals was rooted in very personal experiences.” (Deloitte Insights

Some of the behaviors leaders can practice to develop their competence in this attribute are: 

  • Take the time to get to know each person on their team as an individual; 
  • Ensure each person feels like an integral part of the team and essential to its success; 
  • Allocate resources to enhance recruitment and retention of diverse employees. 

2. Courage 

Courage is a two-sided attribute: the leader must exhibit both humility and bravery. Humility requires an awareness of oneself and an acknowledgement of personal limitations. Leaders can practice this by actively seeking out perspectives of their team members to illustrate the importance of cognitive diversity. Other behaviors related to humility are admitting mistakes when they occur, signaling to others that a culture of learning is encouraged.  

The second element, bravery, is related to the leader’s ability to speak up and be a voice for change when appropriate. A leader can exhibit bravery by challenging their organization’s policies that are inequitable or restrict access to opportunities for some members. In addition to holding the organization accountable for inclusive practices, a leader can practice bravery by holding themselves and their team accountable for inclusive behaviors.  

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3. Cognizance of bias  

An awareness of one’s own biases and blind spots is critical to becoming an inclusive leader. Leaders must acknowledge that organizational policies and procedures often reflect the biases of those in senior leadership roles. Identifying policies that are contradictory to merit-based methods requires a leader to accept and recognize their own blind spots, and to actively seek input from others on the impact of those policies on employees at all levels of the organization. 

4. Curiosity  

A core concept linked to developing inclusive leadership skills is engaging in curiosity. A leader can expand their mind and worldview through a genuine desire to know and understand others’ experiences. Curiosity is the embodiment of a learner mindset, which sets the tone for an inclusive culture.  

Asking questions to understand each of their team members helps the leader appreciate them as individuals, and it also boosts morale and sense of belonging. As human beings, we want others to acknowledge and understand us. Leaders can also actively seek feedback from their team members. Creating cultural norms such as giving and receiving feedback, and getting to know each member builds a trusting team culture leading to better retention rates, higher employee satisfaction, and enhanced team performance. 

5. Cultural Intelligence  

Inclusive leadership requires leaders to recognize and accept that there are multiple worldviews, and one has to shift their mindset and behavior based on the cultural setting. A leader has to understand how their own upbringing, socialization, and surroundings influence their own personal worldview and how that may be different for others. To develop cultural intelligence, leaders can be intentional about learning from others with different experiences and cultures than their own. They can learn about the differences in cultural and social norms to understand the other cultural perspective. Rather than judgment, leaders can again lean into curiosity to further grow their understanding of others’ views.  

6. Collaborative  

Inclusive leaders inspire their teams to work collectively toward a mutual goal. They do this by empowering their team members to make decisions and by role modeling respect and accountability. They demonstrate their own commitment to authentic relationships by not shying away from conflict, rather, using it as an opportunity to learn and grow. Leaders can use vulnerability to connect with their team members, and create a safe work culture.  

According to Brené Brown, a researcher and author, vulnerability is the most scientific measure of courage. An example of practicing vulnerability is to admit a mistake or that one doesn’t know something. This models authenticity and inclusive behavior for the whole team.  

Inclusive leadership skills enable a leader to lead with sincerity and authenticity. In addition to being able to bring their whole selves to their workplace, an inclusive leader signals to their team members that they also can be authentic in the workplace. Through inclusive leadership, a leader can positively influence employee satisfaction, absenteeism, retention, and employee engagement. For the organization, this leads to having diverse employees being able to contribute to their full potential, giving the organization the gift of greater innovation and growth.  

If you’d like to meet with one of our experts, set up a Discovery Session and one of our Solutions Advisors will work with you to identify the resources needed to make sure your leaders are employing inclusive leadership. 

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Binnu Palta Hill has spent the last 24 years in the UW System teaching, consulting, and designing programs to enhance inclusion by leveraging organizational cultural dexterity. Since 2008, she has led WSB’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion where she works closely with the dean to develop and guide a diversity, equity, and inclusion strategy. Binnu also serves as the program director for CPED’s Professional Certificate in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. A distinguishing factor in her approach is the combination of academic research and lived experience to dissect diversity issues. Binnu has received the University of Wisconsin-Madison Outstanding Woman of Color award, the Wisconsin Innovation Award, and the Wisconsin Alumni Association Leadership Award.