The importance of inclusive leadership for your startup

January 28, 2021

This guest blog post was written by Anouk Geene, who recently completed CIL's Global Leadership and Innovation Virtual Program. Anouk is a final year Law student at the University of Warwick, UK. She was born to Dutch parents in Amsterdam and grew up in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. With a creative and innovative mind, she is drawn to the dynamic start-up world and has a keen interest in the intersection of law and technology. 

In recent years, an abundance of articles and reports have revealed how diversity leads to greater company performance (see McKinsey’s Diversity Matters). The case is strong. Each diverse and multi-cultural team member brings their unique perspectives, ideas, values, and skills to the table. But it is a mistake to think that diversity on its own will make a difference. The key lies in leveraging diversity through inclusion, which is easier said than done. Working with diverse team members will inevitably coincide with the difficult emotions and negative friction caused by differences. People from different backgrounds will have different work ethics and behaviors, varying communication styles, a preference for one leadership approach over another, and different personal values. If not understood and bridged, these differences can lead to some of your team members feeling uncomfortable, unable to safely voice their opinions, frustrated, and disconnected. Inclusive and intercultural skills are needed to ensure these differences become assets rather than roadblocks to greater performance. 

Keep reading to find out how can help increase your team’s productivity, ensure your team members are more engaged and make better decisions, and generally become more innovative. 

Develop your own and your team’s self-awareness

Life at a startup is incredibly busy, we know. All you want to do is get down to business, work-through that never-ending list of to-do’s and deal with any major issues, yesterday! Dedicating team meetings to increasing your team’s self-awareness might seem like the last thing you have time for. And yet, understanding your team members’ behaviors and preferences is crucial for bridging to one another’s differences. Before the meeting, have your team members reflect on some of the following: 

  • What communication style do they prefer and why? – direct, indirect, with or without body language

  • Would they rather be assigned clear tasks and work independently on them or always work with others? 

  • How do they feel about deadlines and punctuality? 

  • How do they view power should be balanced?

As a suggestion, have your team members generate a GlobeSmart profile. By answering questions of the kind, the tool will create a work-style profile for you. Then, use your meeting to compare and discuss the profiles. Do you notice any significant preferences in your team? Do they help explain certain behaviors? What strategies can you come up with that will ensure everyone’s preferences are bridged to? 

Leadership style

Besides work-style preferences, people respond differently to various leadership styles. In a following meeting, take some time to reflect on how you yourself prefer to lead and how your team members prefer to be led. Do you favour a visionary style, where the focus is very much on the bigger picture and inspiring your team to meet ambitious, idealistic goals? Or maybe you feel like your team is in need of clear direction at the moment and therefore currently favour a more authoritative style. Perhaps you like to place emphasis on collaboration and look for a general consensus before moving ahead. No one style is better than another. But it is important to recognize which team member requires what approach and to adapt your style accordingly. You can only do that by communicating with each other openly and regularly. 

Conflict management

Despite everyone’s best efforts to understand one another, their preferences, and perhaps culturally influenced reasons for having them, conflict is bound to arise. People disagree and that’s ok. As a leader, your role is not to solve the issue per se, but to manage and de-escalate it as best as possible. This will again require some team discussion and reflection, but hopefully you’re starting to see the value of setting some time aside for this. Understanding and recognizing how each team member reacts in a conflictual situation and what needs to happen for it to de-escalate will ensure everyone feels respected, heard, and included. Ask yourself and your teammates some of the following questions: 

  • Do you prefer to rely on facts and logical, reasoned thinking in an argument? 

  • Do you express your emotions verbally and physically or prefer to restrain them? 

  • Do you address the conflict head-on or prefer to address it indirectly, through metaphors or stories? 

  • Why is that? Can a particular preference be linked to a person’s values of honesty, harmony, respect, or other? Does that explanation help you understand someone better?

Once each person’s conflict style has become clearer, discuss how one could bridge to that style. Would it help to do or not do certain things to avoid antagonizing that person further? Maybe less talking, more listening, or more controlled use of body language and voice pitches. Perhaps stepping away for a moment or bringing in an intermediary can be effective strategies. 

Walk the talk

Finally, inclusive leadership doesn’t end with encouraging this kind of self-reflection and bridging work. It transpires to every aspect of the company that you are building, every day. Think of your company culture. What language and behavioral norms can you set that ensures everyone feels encouraged and comfortable to speak at meetings, to raise concerns, and to take initiative? Think of inclusion nudges. Can you appoint a “process leader” in meetings who might guide speaking time amongst team members or call-out bad behavior? Maybe most importantly, think of how you show up. How transparent are you about your own short-comings and areas for improvement?  Don’t be afraid to invite feedback and to show your team that you are human too.