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Corporate Talent & Inclusion

The multiplier effect: Using great leadership skills to further the diversity & inclusion mindset

The characteristics and skills that make a great leader can also contribute to creating a work environment that fosters diversity and inclusion

For any leader or manager in 2021, balancing business commitments — such as ensuring the team is meeting or exceeding business goals, staying abreast of the fast-paced head and tail winds within the business environment, and managing people across a multigenerational workforce — can be steep challenges, especially doing so in a hybrid work environment.

Leading people well can make these requirements easier and more enjoyable; yet, all too often, managers assume — fueled by an outdated human resources (HR) paradigm — that the skills needed to lead individuals from underrepresented backgrounds are different from those it takes to lead anyone well. Indeed, when diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives programs started to gain traction many decades ago, they were set up to be a separate function among other HR departments alongside recruiting, benefits, and employee relations.

As an unintended consequence, this practice created silos within the HR function when in fact, D&I spanned most functions. For example, there is a need to recruit talent from diverse backgrounds and D&I remains a critical topic for training of new managers. On top of this, this practice promoted the erroneous idea that D&I is something for which HR is solely responsible, and basic assumptions that D&I goals are not the people managers’ responsibility.

With the accompanying paradigm shift, the D&I mindset has expanded into a critical skill set for people managers and leaders to cultivate, particularly when managing team members in a hybrid work environment. Add the “growth” approach to D&I, which is the belief that individuals’ most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work, and it becomes clear that the skills necessary for a D&I growth mindset are the same as of those of people managers.

In a survey of 195 leaders from more than 30 organizations in 15 countries in 2016, the following competencies were identified as the some of the most important leadership skills:

      • cultivating a safe and trusting environment with a commitment to fairness and respect;
      • fostering a sense of connection and belonging; and
      • nurturing individual growth.

At the core of these competencies are micro-skills that will only grow in importance as organizations try to move beyond the pandemic:

      1. demonstrating self-awareness
      2. listening with empathy
      3. acting with curiosity
      4. asking open-ended questions
      5. being aware of group dynamics (social awareness)
      6. staying humble
      7. driving accountability
      8. bringing everyone in when operating within a hybrid environment (this is a new one brought on by the pandemic)

Establishing trust & fairness

Cultivating a safe and trusting environment with a commitment to fairness and respect is demonstrated over and over again through inclusive leadership behaviors, which include building an awareness of your impact (self-awareness) especially during high stakes situations when a failure has occurred. Acknowledging fear with empathy when a project has gone wrong requires acting with curiosity by asking “What happened?” without placing blame. This also involves asking open-minded questions, listening, and demonstrating social awareness in assessing the energy in the room.

In addition, establishing team norms that each team has committed to and then holding one another accountable without negative outcomes is another key component in the creation of a safe environment. Indeed, the biggest opportunity to lead by example is remaining humble when you, as the leader, might have violated a team norm.

Moreover, operating with an inclusive lens requires understanding the current environment around equity, both internally and externally, within the organization. For white managers leading diverse teams, it’s important to employ listening and social awareness with the ability to address fear empathically and consistently to maintain a cohesive feeling of team trust and safety.

Fostering a sense of connection and belonging to the team and among individual team members employs the discipline of acting with curiosity and self and social awareness, especially during one-on-one team member check-in meetings and group settings. Indeed, seeing everyone in room whether the team is there in-person or online is a critical skill to display consistently to achieve this competency. A great tactic is to prioritize seeking input from those who are not in the physical room first.

Finally, nurturing growth for yourself, individual team members, and the group as a whole, demands all eight of these micro-skills. As a people manager, sharing with your team about what situations taught you about your own unconscious biases, especially those that involved shame and defensiveness initially, can encourage others on the team to explore their own feelings and biases.

At the same time, the team’s commitment to growing together can have a multiplier effect on fostering a sense of connection and cultivating a safe and trusting environment. For example, many people of color experience “white centering,’ which is a pervasive concept within most organizations that involves the centering of white people and their values, norms, and feelings over those of everyone else. It is often an invisible paradigm of which people of color are aware, but most white people are not. On suggestion to combat this is to establish a team norm by which the team actively asks itself if this bias is at play in its assumptions, beliefs, and solutions.

These eight micro-skills may seem simple, but they are not easy. As people leaders and managers become more committed to their own individual development of a D&I growth mindset, they should consciously practice these micro-skills, learn from their hiccups, and ultimately earn the reputation of being great people leaders.