Inclusive Leadership: Building a Culture of Belonging

By Jason Patent – Chief Operations Officer and Director, Robertson Center for Intercultural Leadership

Recently CIL delivered its first-ever workshop on Building Trust Across Cultures. Designing the workshop allowed us to pull together research and methods from disparate realms within the intercultural world into one overarching framework. What we discovered in the process is that two concepts closely related to diversity — inclusion and belonging — are intimately connected to each other, and also to trust.

Diversity by itself just is. For example, we know from extensive research that diverse teams sometimes perform better than homogenous teams, sometimes the same, and sometimes worse. The most decisive factor in team performance is not diversity itself, but inclusion: are “othered” voices welcome at the table? Are they listened to and honored, on equal footing with all voices? Are people encouraged to bring their full selves and perspectives, and when they do are they treated with respect?

Another way of putting this: Do team members feel they truly belong?

“Trust” is what we find when people belong. If I belong fully with you and your group, that means I am confident that you and other group members are going to be looking out for my well-being. I, in turn, will look out for the group members’ well-being. This sense of “having each other’s backs” is the essence of trust.

Leaders have a special role to play in building trust. Our organizational authority, and often our societal and organizational position of advantage, pulls us strongly to take the easy path of ignoring or dismissing voices we are not accustomed to hearing. To counter this we have to ground ourselves firmly in the “certainty of uncertainty”: the only thing we can be certain of is that it’s wise to remain uncertain. This goes directly counter to what most of us have been taught to think of as “leadership,” which we often equate with certainty and decisiveness. The problem is that the human brain can mislead us: it is conditioned to make us trust our own perceptions, interpretations and decisions above those of others. Combined with authority and privilege, this means we end up moving our organizations in line with our own, possibly narrow, agendas, whether we’re aware of it or not — and in the process excluding voices and viewpoints that could otherwise contribute to more optimal organizational and individual outcomes.

So, how best to welcome less-heard voices and build trust? While building trust through inclusion is clearly much more than a list of do’s and don’t’s, there are some practices you should avoid:

  1. Avoid putting the onus on othered populations to represent “their people.” Doing so unfairly burdens them and is likely to decrease trust.
  2. In meetings and in conversations with supervisees, don’t be attached to a specific outcome. Leaders often push their own agendas without realizing they’re doing it. Instead, return to the certainty of uncertainty. Listen for strengths in each perspective and envision how things might play out if you incorporate their ideas.
  3. Don’t ask leading questions. Your supervisees will want to please you, and if it’s clear to them that you’ve already made up your mind, they might end up silencing themselves, rather than risk offering an opinion they think is contrary to yours.

Building trust through inclusion is rarely easy, and we will stumble as we go. There is no final destination; it’s a never-ending journey. But as leaders, if we want to build trust, it’s on us to let go a little (or maybe a lot), open up our ears and our hearts, risk a little discomfort, and see what magic happens.

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