Are Your Leaders Inclusive? Here’s How to Be Sure
Are your leaders inclusive image

Are Your Leaders Inclusive? Here’s How to Be Sure

Businesses across sectors have made increasing efforts to identify and court diverse talent and leadership as part of greater emphasis on DEI agendas.

93% of executives we surveyed across multiple countries said that DEI matters more to their companies now than in 2020. Multiple EU countries have mandated 40% female representation on boards, and France now requires transparency on gender gaps among senior managers and 40% female representation by 2026, with large financial penalties to come in future years for those failing to reach the goal. That said, it’s not just about representation. Inclusiveness matters, and research suggests diverse teams generate higher performance on dimensions including trust and decision-making, up to 4x improvement over less inclusive groups.

We are known primarily as a premier executive search firm and like all of our clients, we expect you place great importance on diversity in your hiring, but what about the people already on your leadership team? How inclusive are they?

The reality is, even if you successfully recruit great, diverse talent, retention and full engagement will be challenged if the team in place lacks inclusiveness and fails to create an environment and culture of belonging. Inclusive leaders promote performance, retention, and organizational reputation. To promote diversity, inclusivity must be a business imperative, embraced and role-modeled by your leaders. Indeed, leaders who want to get the most out of everyone on their team need to recognize that inclusion is a critical part of achieving that.

Organizations are expanding their definition of diversity. Beyond key established categories like race or ethnicity, gender, and LGBTQ+ status, there are many situations in which companies bring on people who are differently abled, are neuro-diverse, and/or where they represent a first—your first non-native-English-speaker on a team; your first chief data science officer; more introverts into a team of extroverts; younger people into a team run by older colleagues, and so on.

The bottom line is, to foster and leverage diversity you must have an inclusive culture. In driving an inclusive culture, the place to start is understanding, one of the first things you need to know is what leader behaviors contribute to this and where your current leaders and managers fall on the maturity curve of inclusive leadership. In short, diversity and inclusiveness start at the top.

While that idea seems simple enough, executing on it isn’t. That’s because many businesses don’t assess for inclusiveness in any form. For example, some organizations have created an “Inclusion Index” to gauge managers on this critical dimension; but such measures tend to be based on self-reporting and relatively superficial questions (“Do you consider yourself inclusive as a leader?”) and/or from surveys designed long ago that may not get at inclusiveness in depth in a modern context.

We offer a more effective way forward, based on our research on leadership attributes that promote or derail inclusivity. In this article we’ll share what we’ve learned to help you understand whether your current leaders truly demonstrate inclusiveness and how you can leverage assessment to unlock what you need to know.

Assess for inclusiveness

As noted earlier, most companies have good intentions around inclusiveness, but simply don’t know how to measure it.

To address this widespread challenge, our internal and external experts—including organizational psychologists with expertise on culture and inclusiveness—have looked at how we use our cornerstone Leadership Accelerator Questionnaire (LAQ) to bring insights to individuals and organizations on the ways they promote and hinder inclusion. Our LAQ, delivered as a 360-degree assessment including peers, managers, and team members of the focal leader, covers key variables and mindsets related to leadership.

Importantly, our inclusive measure forces people to consider other leadership mandates one might have that compete with inclusive behavior. In other words, our inclusion model is embedded within the business context, not separated from it, which we believe makes it more realistic and actionable than a pure inclusion measurement.

As far as demonstrating inclusiveness, we have found that you can get many positive attributes right, but any derailers you may demonstrate can have a “double bad” impact on your overall inclusiveness. For example, you can be great at engaging your employees, valuing them as individuals, and incorporating their input into your decision-making, but if you then micro-manage their activity, you have negated all the positives and significantly limited your inclusiveness.

Our expertise and work with clients around the globe and across all market sectors suggest that the traits most closely correlated to inclusiveness include valuing individuality (such as fostering individual strengths), creating a sense of belonging (like encouraging others to speak up), and building deep purpose and meaning (such as helping teammates find meaning in their individual work).

Principles of inclusive assessment
By assessing thousands of leaders across these dimensions, we’ve identified the principles below for effective assessment of inclusiveness:
The 360-degree assessment is critical:

It’s not a surprise that self-report measures lead to less-than-honest answers, or at least overly subjective ones more focused on intent over impact. The 360-degree measure addresses that by assessing both intent and impact, and whether these align. In this way, it gets at whether leaders treat people not as the leaders would want to be treated (The Golden Rule) but as the people themselves would want to be treated (The Platinum Rule), by asking respondents about the leader’s impact on them. We have compared the results between self-only assessments using our LAQ and self-ratings when leaders knew others would be providing feedback and see at least a 20% degree of rater inflation with the former. Further, Laszlo Bock, former Google SVP of People Operations, wrote that when his company performed 360-degree assessment of a large group of leaders, those with performance in the top quartile didn’t realize how good they were; those in the second and third quartiles expressed interest in improvement; those in the bottom quartile didn’t even open the email with their results! So an effective 360-degree assessment can help you identify those critical second and third quartiles of leaders willing to improve their inclusiveness.

Stakeholder responses will vary—meaning impact varies:

Different groups will likely deliver different ratings of leaders on key inclusiveness measures. For example, some leaders will get a 10 (high) from some respondents/groups (generally from those who are similarly wired), and a 2 (low) from others. We have long valued situational leadership because the reality is that one leadership style may work for some but generally does not work for all. Our data highlights how an ostensibly high score can be a false positive: if 83% of respondents think a leader is effectively inclusive it may sound reasonable, but if the other 17% think they’re terrible, that’s a problem. A 360-degree assessment like the LAQ gets at this important potential variation in responses.

Think in gaps, spreads, and trends:

Continuing the logic from the previous point, it isn’t sufficient to understand the mean or average ratings of inclusiveness; instead, examine the variation within and across the multiple dimensions. It is important to measure and reflect on the spreads in scores between groups, such as how peers rate a manager versus how their direct reports do. There may also be high alignment in average scores across groups but a wide range of perspectives within a stakeholder group. We see this often when a leader is great at engaging and inspiring their “A” players but struggles to get the most out of their “B” players. You need to look at the potential gaps between a leader’s self-ratings and how others see them, especially when others have a less positive view. Finally, it is important to understand whether a score is moving up or down over time.

Create a plan:

The goal is to not just assess but address. Use insights from the LAQ and/or other measures to raise awareness of what is and isn’t working for a leader, then ensure they identify targeted actions to reduce gaps. Actions can include things like emphasizing how they work toward creating a sense of purpose for their team, spending more time coaching and mentoring all members of their teams, and demonstrating a willingness to act on ideas from those they may not have historically listened to. One leader we have coached, for example, makes a point of taking a team member to lunch once a quarter who he knows is on the opposite end of the political scale to him. His intent is to be curious and explore their perspectives and why they feel the way they do about things. Beyond the initial assessment, it is critical that leaders actively seek regular feedback from all their critical stakeholders to calibrate whether the shifts they are making are having the desired impact. Generally, to promote fast, large change across a group of leaders who may be less inclusive, it may make sense to bring in someone from outside who has experience driving inclusion-focused cultural shift, framing it as a means to develop everyone on the key dimension of inclusiveness.

Case Study: Inclusiveness Assessment in Action

Here’s an example of a 360-degree inclusion assessment in action based on a composite of real-life assessments.

As part of his employer’s effort to foster greater DEI, “Tim,” an upper-middle manager at a large Bay Area technology business, participated in an LAQ 360 along with multiple leaders at his level. The assessment revealed multiple key areas where Tim could improve inclusiveness.

First, the assessment identified meaningful blind-spots where Tim rated himself higher than other respondents did on things like creating an environment that encourages experimentation, actively listening, and empowering others through clear delegation of tasks/decision-making. While Tim saw himself as proactively inviting others to help drive change, his team felt he was often intimidating and dismissive of others and their ideas.

Compounding his issues were derailers that emerged from teammates’  assessment of Tim: he was seen as creating relationships that were largely task- and transaction-focused, emphasizing how others could help him achieve rather than how he might support them, and relying primarily on authority and positional power to influence others. Thus, even if Tim was successful in promoting inclusiveness on other dimensions, these derailers likely diminished or even negated his positive impacts.

Importantly, the assessment indicated spreads in perceptions among and within different groups. Tim’s manager, for example, had a more positive perception of him than others did on the items “values individuality” and “creates sense of belonging,”—critical to inclusivity; but his teammates rated him over 20 percentage points lower on these and other items. Even within a given group, the range of ratings on inclusiveness items was significant (as low as 2 and as high as 10 on a given item like “engages stakeholders in difficult conversations.”) Not surprisingly, we have observed that actions most directly impacting a given respondent group tend to have a wider spread; but any variance in ratings suggests the need to probe further.

Finally, missing information in Tim’s 360 was also meaningful. For a few key inclusiveness behaviors, Tim’s peers and team members said “Cannot say.” While we can’t know their exact motivations, such gaps are important to note, as leaders may assume they are having positive impact—as Tim did—because no one will tell them otherwise, even in a purportedly anonymous survey.

Based on these findings, we helped develop a customized plan to help Tim improve on key dimensions of inclusiveness—including working with an executive coach—and the organization implemented it with good results.

The bottom line is that none of us can work on what we don’t know.  A solid assessment can give the insights we need to start. It’s about progress over perfection. Assessments also help leaders and organizations capture baselines and track their progress, offering areas to consider for critical course corrections.

We hope this article triggers curiosity for you on where you or your organization may be having unintended impacts on your efforts to drive a more diverse, equitable and inclusive work environment.  We are happy to help with any step of your inclusiveness assessment effort.