How to be an inclusive leader

Have you ever noticed how some teams just click while others get mired in dysfunctional dynamics? What’s the difference? Some fresh insights on this issue come from Google’s quest over the past five years to build the perfect team. What they discovered through their research sheds new light on why the issue of inclusion needs to be central to leaders, and what companies need to do to start moving in the direction of true inclusive leadership.

Being fully inclusive is hard. It's just not how our brains are hardwired. Our unconscious thought processes tell that it feels safer, easier if we stay within our comfort zone. In the workplace that probably means we will gravitate towards the people we feel most connected to which in all probability will be the people who are most like you.

So what does that comfort zone look like on a day-to-day basis in the workplace? Perhaps delegating a certain type of work or project to the same person (because you 'know' they are a safe pair of hands); being quicker to agree with some people; spending more time with certain people without really thinking about it; having a closer relationship and investing more time in a particular individual; approaching the same person to ask for ideas or to bounce idea off, and so on. The 'comfort zone' can look like may different things and 99% of the time we won't even notice we are doing it.

But the impact can be significant. How does it feel for the person you don't delegate work to as often, who you might disagree more readily with, who you don't approach for ideas and who you never invite out for a drink after work? As an employment lawyer, I have seen this unconscious process feed into more serious workplace problems time and time again. If an individual is feeling isolated and excluded not only is it unlikely that you will be getting the best out of them but they may also question why they are seemingly being treated less favourably.

I come back to my original point. Inclusive leadership is hard. It requires a very conscious thought process. It also requires leaders to be honest about whether they have preferences towards certain people and why that might be the case. At its core, this is all about building trust by creating good relationships with everyone. That is not to say you need to be best friends with everyone in your team, but it is essential to invest time in each and every person so that you understand them better. It's important to regularly take stock, to look at your team, to challenge yourself and ask whether you need to something differently. It will also require you to step outside of your comfort zone, which is never an easy thing to do, but as the recent Google research has shown, by doing that in order to move to a fully inclusive environment can reap huge benefits for you and your team. So next time you have that big project to allocate, don't go to your go-to person, allocate it to someone different- you might be pleasantly surprised by the result!

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