Why Inclusive Leaders Are Good for Organizations, and How the Best Ones Communicate

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I’ve been thinking a lot about inclusive leadership lately.

It’s been a buzzword for years, and years ago we started working with Chief Inclusion Officers to help them improve their narratives and lift their communication platforms, but in recent months, inclusion has evolved from an element of employee and career communications to something that’s front and center for leadership, an imperative for brands, and one of the top training and performance requests from leading organizations.

So what is inclusion? The exact definitions vary, but the guiding principle is consistent: regardless of background, viewpoints, or beliefs, every team member’s contributions (or every customer’s or stakeholder’s) are valued and worthy of respect. We particularly like the way one respondent to Deloitte’s 2016 study on inclusive leadership put it:

“Fundamentally, inclusion is a principle that anybody who is good enough to be employed within the team is capable of becoming a leader and developing to the best of their potential.”

Inclusive Leadership Drives Performance

Inclusiveness isn’t just nice to have. Research shows that it directly enhances performance. Teams with inclusive leaders are 17 percent more likely to report that they are high performing, 20% more likely to say they make high-quality decisions, and 29 percent more likely to report behaving collaboratively. What’s more, researchers found that a 10 percent improvement in perceptions of inclusion increases work attendance by almost one day a year per employee, reducing the cost of absenteeism.

Are current corporate and political leaders inclusive?

Here at Quantified, we know that everything starts with communication. So we used our proprietary communication analytics platform and global benchmarking database to evaluate how leaders demonstrate their commitments to inclusivity through communication.

We invite you to read about all of our findings in this white paper, but for now, I want to focus on our most surprising discovery:

Despite the emphasis on inclusion, very few leaders have actually developed an inclusive communication style.

Given how many of our corporate and political leaders have become activists for inclusion within their spheres of influence, we were optimistic that we’d see tons of inclusive language in our analysis. But no matter how we cut the data, we found the opposite to be true. We looked at trends in communication by CEOs, university presidents, and even TED speakers, and we found that none of these groups—who represent our most important corporate and cultural leaders—are using significantly more inclusive language than the average speaker in our database.

Why is that? Well, we started looking back through all of that research and thought leadership, and we realized that, in all this discussion about inclusion, there’s one key piece that seems to be missing: how to be a more inclusive communicator.

Many leaders today emphasize that they value inclusion, and in many cases, their actions support their claims. However, we also see communication patterns that signal exclusion, even in the midst of discussions about inclusivity.

That doesn’t necessarily mean a leader isn’t committed to inclusivity. Usually, it simply means a leader simply isn’t aware of the extent to which his language, body language, and nonverbal cues send signals of exclusivity: “You don’t belong in this group. We don’t see you. We don’t want to hear from you. You’re not important to us.”

Now that we’ve identified this gap in awareness, we want to help close it, with a brief primer to help leaders and their teams become aware of what inclusive versus exclusive language looks like, and how their communication styles are bolstering or undermining the lip service they pay to inclusivity.

Inclusive Language: An Overview

Research has demonstrated that inclusive language references group cohesiveness. It shows that the people in the room are unified, assuring audience members that the message belongs as much to them as to the people sitting next to them.

To illustrate what that looks like, here are a few phrases you might expect to hear in a presentation. We’ve written them out two different ways—once with inclusive language and once without.

Non-inclusive Inclusive
I am excited to celebrate many great achievements from the last quarter.”We’ve made many great achievements in the last quarter, and we should all be excited to celebrate.”
“The manpower in this organization is just astounding.”“The talent you all bring to this organization is just astounding.”
Some of you will be too young to remember, this, but…”“There was a time when…”

Though none of the phrases in the first column is explicitly exclusive, each alienates certain members of the audience.

  • In the first, the speaker appears to be keeping the credit (and the celebration) for himself.
  • In the second, the use of the common term “manpower” subconsciously excludes women.
  • In the third, the speaker implies that the story won’t be relevant to anyone under a certain age, inviting younger audience members to tune out.

While none of these errors is egregious on its own or feels intentional, each contributes to the audience’s niggling feeling that, “maybe this isn’t really for me.” And, keep piling up small instances of exclusionary language, and they’ll start to feel like more than ignorant phrasing or slips of the tongue. But once a speaker is aware of what to watch out for, small modifications to each phrase make them inclusive of everyone listening—and increase the chances the entire audience will remain engaged with and supportive of the speaker’s message.

Too see this behavior in action, let’s look at the language a couple of our highest-scoring inclusion experts use to talk about…you guessed it: inclusion.

In her talk at the 2018 #movethedial summit, Salesforce’s senior director of global equality programs, Molly Q. Ford, spoke about several best practices for building inclusion. And when she talked about allyship, she gave the audience a very important reminder:

“And let’s be clear: we need men to be our allies. Men are the leaders, they’re the managers; they can help influence this this change, right? This is a journey together. So there’s no man-hating going on here, right? I always tell folks, ‘If you are surrounded by a company of men, go make them your mentors.’”

It may be counterintuitive, but it’s shockingly easy to slip into exclusive language when we start talking about diversity. When we talk about bringing any particular marginalized group to the table, everyone else tunes out, thinking, “that’s not me. I don’t have a role in that.”

But in reminding the audience that women need men as their allies, Ford makes a place for everyone in the conversation about building diversity. She gives a role and a responsibility to every person at the table, including every team member—no matter what “group” they’re part of—in the push for a more representative workplace.

At the same summit, Bo Young Lee, Uber’s chief diversity and inclusion officer, demonstrates another powerful inclusion technique.

“My second lesson is stop calling people from historically underrepresented populations, diverse people. What does that even mean?  I’m sure we’ve all been guilty at some point in time—I know I’ve certainly been guilty—of saying, ‘God we really need to get more diverse people into this pipeline.’So when we say diverse people what we really mean is we need to get a lot more women and brown people. And people from lower socio-economic classes. Right? That’s what we mean. And we kind of all know that that’s the shorthand for what we mean. So you might be asking well Bo, even though that language might be a little bit problematic we all understand what it means. So what, what’s the problem with using it?”

In this piece of her talk, she’s pointing out a common mistake in the way we talk about diversity. And the mistake itself is her point, but the way she discusses it is a great example of inclusive language. It would be so easy to say “You all are making this mistake,” separating herself from her audience and building a divide between her group and theirs. Instead, she groups everyone in the room together in a collective “we.” We’ve allmade this mistake. And she even emphasizes it by admitting that I’vemade this mistake. Rather than set right against wrong, she creates an environment of shared experience that lays the foundation for shared growth.

So next time you’re crafting a message—whether it’s specifically about inclusivity or about anything else—be sure to consider how the most seemingly innocuous phrases and words will hit your audience’s ears. In the many cases where leaders who truly do value inclusivity are speaking in exclusive ways, a little awareness will go a long way. It’s rare to hear this advice in reverse, but when you’re walking the walk, be sure you’re talking the talk, too.

Want to learn more about inclusive language? Download our white paper.