Inclusive leadership works to make everyone associated with a company feel welcome and empowered to be themselves. Leading inclusively not only makes employees and customers feel accepted, but also boosts company revenue and workplace satisfaction. Most importantly, it amplifies employee voices that otherwise may not be heard.
For example, when Tennessee-based Tori Armendariz chatted with a co-worker about her girlfriend, she noticed not everyone was accepting.
“The manager of that location took me aside and said that I couldn’t speak about things like that,” Armendariz, now a technical people operations generalist at Trainual, said. It was made clear that the manager at Armendariz’s previous employer wasn’t accepting of her girlfriend and the LGBTQ+ community.
Armendariz’s experience, though disheartening, inspired her to create an inclusive workplace during her time at Trainual. She wanted no one else to go through the same treatment she did for just being herself — ultimately becoming an inclusive leader.
What Is Inclusive Leadership?
Inclusive leadership involves leading with an awareness of implicit bias and an openness to diverse perspectives. Being an inclusive leader means to make all types of employees, customers and clients feel welcome by fostering an overall inclusive workplace environment. In practice, this can look like making sure benefits are distributed equitably, providing diversity and inclusion training or establishing safe spaces for employees like ERGs.
Why Is Inclusive Leadership Important?
Inclusive leadership ensures the voice of everyone is truly being heard, applied and protected in the workplace, regardless of personal identity or background. Leading inclusively by example also shows employees important expectations and values to follow and how to best treat colleagues within a company.
The tech industry is intended to be a place that fosters innovative thinking and pioneering ideas, but this same mindset has not been equally reflected when it comes to the industry’s diversity and inclusion.
While white people make up 62 percent of all U.S. tech positions, Asian people make up 20 percent, Hispanic and Latinx people make up 8 percent and Black people make up the lowest-represented racial population at 7 percent. About half of women say they’ve experienced gender discrimination at work, too.
Without inclusive leadership, this can make it hard for those who don’t already fit the mold to acquire necessary career resources and support.
“Many companies have been exposed for paying women less than men, BIPOC less than white people, for the same job and responsibility,” Everett Harper, CEO and co-founder of Truss, said. “Clearly this does not demonstrate an interest in inclusivity and is one of the driving forces for many underrepresented people to leave the industry.”
A Lack of Inclusive Leadership Damages Workplace Culture
A lack of diversity and unfamiliarity with the importance of inclusion can unintentionally lead managers and leaders to create a hostile workplace. Even actions like using gendered, heteronormative language in onboarding packets or hosting all-male panels are contributing to the problem of an unwelcome company environment.
“When the people on your team don’t feel like they actually belong on your team, they’re either going to stop their full selves from showing up at work each day or they’re going to find somewhere else where they are included as a part of their team,” Armendariz said.
A Lack of Inclusive Leadership Weakens Customer Relationships
Having a lack of diversity and inclusion isn’t just a culture issue. It can affect the product and in turn create a poor experience for clients too.
For example, according to WebAIM, almost 97 percent of website homepages didn’t fully meet web content accessibility guidelines in 2022. Another study showed that many healthcare algorithm tools assigned Black patients with health risk scores that inaccurately reflected their actual health conditions. When a design team doesn’t welcome diversity of thought or experience, it’s much easier for biases to be written into their code.
“Products shape people’s lives, and change the way they function,” Armendariz said. “If there is no one like them on the team making the products and bringing a perspective similar to their own into the room, it’s catastrophic.”
What might seem like small changes or interactions can go a very long way in making all parties associated with a company feel like they fit in. It’s on leaders to be vigilant when it comes to inclusivity and to create a company that’s welcoming on the inside and out.
Inclusive Leadership and Diversity Leads to Success
Investing in an inclusive and diverse workplace means employees feel connected and supported to do their best work — and deliver results. In fact, inclusive companies are preferred by a majority of job seekers and workers, and can lead to higher work engagement and revenue.
“A diverse workforce that is fully contributing leads to holistically stronger performance,” Lauren Sato, CEO at Ada Developers Academy, said. “Products are better aligned to consumers, financial results are better, and there are higher rates of innovation and resilience.”
“A diverse workforce that is fully contributing leads to holistically stronger performance.”
As diversity becomes a hot topic in tech, some companies have made plans to rework their workplace language and engineering terms to become more inclusive. This is a great start, but true inclusivity isn’t built by words alone — employees want to see leaders follow through with promises.
Examples of Inclusive Leadership
When companies demonstrate inclusive leadership and build diverse teams that accurately reflect the outside world, everyone benefits. Here’s some examples of how companies can make inclusive leadership a priority.
How to Improve Inclusive Leadership
- Pay attention and listen to employees.
- Refresh recruitment strategies.
- Re-evaluate company policies.
- Create safe spaces for discussion.
Listening to Employees With Mutual Respect
Diversity and inclusivity, while often spoken in the same breath, are two different things. You can have a company that features a diverse staff, but doesn’t make an effort to make sure those employees are included and heard.
“Ask yourself who is listened to in the room,” Harper said. “Do managers unintentionally repeat all the men in the room, and ignore the women? Do men summarize women’s original ideas without giving them credit — and does the manager not recognize that?”
In order to get more honest feedback from employees, managers at Truss made the process more accessible. Rather than asking for feedback in a meeting and hearing from the same people who are comfortable speaking up, the managers and teams use a Google doc. Each team member adds three pieces of feedback and then managers will share them in the meeting.
“According to research on group communication, this tactic enables introverts to contribute, and enables marginalized voices to have an equal platform,” Harper said.
Broadening Recruitment Channels and Candidate Pools
Tech recruiters want to hire top talent and usually look first at graduates of prestigious colleges and bootcamps. With a limited search like that, it could mean a lot of talented candidates are getting overlooked.
“Liberal arts computer science degree programs and software development bootcamps are essentially the only two pathways into tech,” Sato said. “As a society writ large we have made massive investments into these two pathways, both of which, unfortunately, drive down diversity.”
“The benefits of being able to train a new developer can more than offset the investment to do so.”
Be open to candidates who are self-taught or come from unconventional backgrounds. A good first step is encouraging diverse candidates to apply, but direct outreach to passive candidates is necessary too. Remote work has opened up a larger pool of candidates, so now companies can more easily broaden their geographical diversity as well.
It’s also worth looking at the balance of senior and junior employees. While it might make sense to hire more experienced engineers in the short term, not having enough young talent and training opportunities is a disadvantage. Making space for new perspectives and talent of varying experience levels produces a well-rounded team.
Ensuring Equitable Resources and Development Opportunities
Demographics are just one part of developing an inclusive workplace. Be aware of what support is available to employees. Survey compensation rates, benefits packages and DEI funding to see where improvements could be made.
Take stock of your team’s performance: Does anyone seem to be taking more time off than other people? Is anyone participating less in scrums? Instead of criticizing them, question what policies or tools you could implement to help them perform better.
Providing DEI Training, Courses and Resources
Some employees may not already be familiar with workplace inclusivity and may not be able to put it into practice without guidelines to follow. To create a baseline of expectations for how employees should treat each other, proper educational and informational resources may be necessary.
Provide access to training tools that cover topics like DEI, anti-harassment and mutual respect in the workplace, and be open as a leader to answer questions regarding these topics. People learn in all types of ways, so it’s important to educate through any avenue possible, from oral instructions and written policies to videos and activities.
Using Inclusive Language
A little goes a long way, especially with how you address and chat with employees. Inclusive language aims to encompass all employees, and not be exclusive to one characteristic or ability.
Inclusive language can look like using the pronoun “they” to refer to theoretical people instead of “he” or “she”, using plain language instead of idioms or metaphors to communicate or using the terms “you all” or “folks” instead of “guys.”
Creating ERGs and Safe Environments
Above all else, everyone should feel safe at work. A workplace where everyone is respected will put people in a position to do their best work. Cultivate an environment that welcomes all feedback and allows employees to be who they are at work.
“I think the single best thing that they can do is blameless retros,” Harper said. “The key is to focus on learning, not blame, so that everyone on the team can operate at a higher level.” Don’t be afraid to admit when you’ve made a leadership mistake — owning up to mistakes makes your team more confident that you’re willing to learn and grow.
At Ada Developers Academy, inclusivity depends on a constant practice of accountability, according to Sato. Regular self-reflection enables her organization to stay on top of issues — that constant evolution has turned it into a place where tech workers from all backgrounds have a strong voice.