Inclusive Leadership – Part 2 of 4

Where to Start: Let’s Start with YOU!

“Inclusive leadership starts with self-awareness, being introspective, knowing your blind spots and processing the ability to listen and learn.” –Dr. Robini Anand (Sodexo, USA)

I recently spoke with a woman who said that, in the seven years she had worked for her company, she had never been promoted.  I found the conversation interesting and yet concerning about why she was being held back within her organization. She shared the results from her annual review and her 360˚ survey. Everyone who responded to the survey, with the exception of the Sr. Vice President, rated her high. That SVP had never worked with her directly but has a bias toward her style of leadership. Ironically, the Vice President of Global Leadership Development from her company contacted me weeks ago to mentor and coach this “high potential” female leader.

The starting point for any company wishing to incorporate inclusive leadership is to first ask senior leaders to look at themselves. Years of research shows us that our decisions are prone to bias. These bias, both conscious and unconscious, affect our ability to make fair and objective decisions. If we are mindful of how biases can influence perceptions, judgements and leadership behaviors, we have the opportunity to change that pattern.  If our biases are understood and we are open to allowing diverse points of view, individuals and organizations become more inclusive.

The objective is to open our field of vision and be more aware of our own individual biases. We tend to connect and work with those who look and talk like us. Their views are similar or their experiences are familiar to ours. It is important to consider the mental buckets we create to help us categorize information or situations that then become assumptions. Think about the last time you met someone for the first time.  You quickly judged them or put them into one of your mental buckets. Those buckets are filled with stereotypes, perceptions, or images that allow you to make a connection or disconnection.

Participating in succession planning over the years, I often heard men make the assumption that a woman couldn’t possibly handle a promotion because she was ‘a mother with children at home.’  Those of us female leaders in the room had to remind them that we too were mothers with children at home . We had been promoted and were capable as female leaders. It’s an incredibly challenging  and difficult bias for men to overcome. However, they need to remember that biases like  that cannot be allowed.  Men making career decisions for women should never discuss the fact they are mothers. Fair and objective decisions need to be made based on merit, capabilities and competencies.

There are some great tools companies to provide to their leadership teams to increase self-knowledge about biases. The Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT) is a tool that helps leaders to identify the unconscious learned patterns associated related to: weight, race, age, gender and political beliefs. Leaders may go to great lengths to say they are fair and objective. However, when men are asked about family, they think about women and when asked about their careers, they think of men. Research also shows that when women are asked about power, they think of influence and when men are asked, they think of rank or promotion.

It’s a meaningful challenge for leaders to consider how to change their traditional biases. Our habits and old ways of thinking developed over the years, it’s not something we can change overnight. However, if  we consciously think about making changes, and intentionally put it in to  action daily, we will positively affect the culture and become inclusive leaders. The power of inclusive leadership positively  improves organizational performance.

Catalyst and McKinsey both published numerous research publications showing significant financial reward for companies with inclusive leadership. Deloitte recently published Inclusive leadership:Will a Hug Do? March 2012, which is sited in this blog.