Inclusive Leadership

This is the third post in a series exploring how to move from “The Age of Engagement” to “Inclusive, Transformational Leadership.” The first two posts can be found here:

The Age of Engagement
People Centered Leadership: Leading People vs. Managing Process

Is there a difference between Inclusion and Engagement?

Engagement is easier; it’s the “cop out” version of the more complex, challenging, and messy issues raised when we are courageous enough to really wrangle with Inclusion as human beings, teams, and organizations. Engagement reflects the degree to which I am connected to, interested in, and “busy with” the cultural and mechanistic workings of my organization. Engagement is important. People being “into their work” makes for better results and higher productivity.

Inclusion goes much deeper. When I feel included in my organization, I am engaged at the very least--and I am also more deeply invested in our shared vision because I feel a sense of belonging and importance to our enterprise. My contribution is seen and valued, and I feel a part of our results and success. I have a connection to people--all people--and I am part of shaping a culture that drives our collective performance.  

My skin is in the game. I care deeply about our success, because I am part of it. I know it, and I feel it. That’s inclusion. We know when we are included, and we surely know when we are not.  

Engagement is about me and my company; how “I” feel when I come to work. Inclusion is about all of us and our collective success—every person in a room, a building, and a workforce. What is required for “all of us” to be fully engaged, and as productive and brilliant as “we” can be?

Inclusive leadership demands that leaders grapple with the complex issues of human difference, conflict, and cultural context, and the impact they have on people working together. It takes courage and maturity to lead this way, as it surfaces awkward conversations and asks the leader to understand different positions without bringing judgment or comparison.

We don't start out as inclusive leaders, but we can develop that capability. For many years, I worked with a leader I’ll call “Ted.” He was the top leader at a manufacturing plant that employed close to one thousand people. Ted is a truly brilliant person. His plant consistently met expectations for results and gained a reputation for driving continuous improvement. However, the engagement scores among his workforce were dismal.

“Inclusion … is about all of us—every person in a room, a building, and a workforce. What is required for “all of us” to be fully engaged and as productive and brilliant as “we” can be?”

By Ted’s own admission, he was uninspired by the idea of engaging his people, and, as a result, he was showing up as an uninspiring person. In one of our first meetings, I reminded Ted that he was getting paid a lot of money to lead people—to be the steward of human beings. I walked him over to a window overlooking the floor where at least a hundred people were diligently working. “Your job isn’t to manufacture products—those folks are doing it better than you could. Your job is to inspire and develop the people who manufacture the products. Every single one of them. That’s your job.”

Ted blanched. “That’s a lot of people. How am I supposed to know all of them, much less develop them? I’m not really good with the whole people thing.” In that moment, Ted knew that if he didn’t develop a personal connection with the people in the plant, the engagement scores, the morale, and productivity would never improve. He couldn’t do it alone; she needed to include everyone.

“Inclusive leadership demands that we grapple with complex issues of human difference, conflict, and cultural context.”

“Here’s the good news,” I told him, “Being a great people leader doesn’t mean putting on a show. It means putting your own humanity on display and letting people know that you care. You don’t have to be perfect. In fact, you can be the same open, warm, quirky, awkward, and funny person you are when your guard is down. People trust leaders who have the confidence to be themselves.”

Being an inclusive leader in this way takes courage, grace, humility, and humor. It requires being transparent and willing to make mistakes “out loud.” It asks you to change not based on what you think you should be doing, but according to truths you encounter in the feedback you receive along the way. It’s a more genuine, and more interesting, way to lead. By showing up this way, you can build an unshakable trust with people that helps you recruit them into the mission on a daily basis.

Ted and I talked about what inspired him, and how he could share it with the people he led. After experimenting with what to say, he showed up at his next Town Hall a little differently. He ended his remarks by saying that he cared about what was happening to every single person in the room, and that he was just learning how to show it. He asked for their patience and partnership as he improved. As he reviewed where they were against targets, he reminded them that they were all in it together. And then he stayed around after the Town Hall to answer questions. In this moment, the people saw Ted as a person—and as a leader.

Over the following months, Ted stayed busy getting to know the people at the plant. He made mistakes, and he did his best to correct them. He let people see what inspired him about his work, so he could inspire others. And he practiced listening for the truth in the different types of feedback he got, so he could understand what people truly needed from him. The plant’s engagement scores steadily improved, but Ted didn't pay as much attention to them. He could feel what was going on much more accurately than the scores could measure. What mattered were the people—the human beings for whom Ted was a steward. When he prioritized them over the engagement scores he was trying to improve, the results followed.  

People felt more included, and so did Ted. They felt part of something bigger than just “me + the company.” They felt a new “we” and a shared sense of belonging and excitement about the possibilities. They felt included.

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