Media and Shared Articles ROI of DEI

Your Leadership Shadow is Hurting Your DEI Efforts

Here is How to Fix It

With the rise of DEI awareness and education combined with an increase in the number of studies linking diversity and inclusion efforts to organizations’ bottom line, more and more companies are committing money and resources to DEI. The most successful organizations in this space not only engage with the efforts, but also ensure that DEI has full support from their entire leadership team – even beyond HR. 

Leaders who champion diversity, equity, and inclusion, encourage others’ involvement with the initiative, and actively create safe spaces for all have a significant impact on shaping inclusive organizational culture. It goes without saying that even the most passionate DEI proclamations will do little to foster diversity if these efforts are not authentic. 

When working to create compassionate, inclusive cultures, leaders should consider the entirety of their actions and behaviors, not just their communications.Their leadership shadow – what they do, not just what they say – strongly influences employees’ motivation, sense of belonging, and loyalty to the organization. 

While leaders often spend significant time crafting their company presence through carefully worded communications, pre-rehearsed presentations, and polite-but-distant employee interactions, their leadership shadow extends beyond the daily emails and zoom calls. This “shadow” can have a particularly damaging impact if there is an obvious or perceived disconnect between what a leader says and what they do. 

Is leadership in your organization emphasizing the importance of work-life balance while sending emails on weekends and expecting employees to remain connected outside of business hours? Are managers talking about inclusiveness but ostracize people who disagree with them? 

Your employees are very adept at observing your (seemingly innocuous) habits and picking up on inauthentic behavior. This disconnect leads to loss of trust and a breakdown of internal culture. 

It is the responsibility of a leader to lay the foundation of inclusion with the organization, yet in recent studies, only about 31% of employees said that they believe that their leader is inclusive – meaning that less than a third of employees feel like they have a voice and are fully accepted as a person. 

Building an environment of psychological safety is highly correlated with creating inclusion in the workplace, and executives need to pay close attention to ensuring that their organization embodies this concept. 

Here are some things leaders can do to build this type of environment and get out of their leadership shadow:

  1. Behave authentically. Voicing your support for DEI and encouraging employees to bring their whole selves to work is not enough. You have to walk the walk. As champions of DEI efforts, leaders have to model the behavior they want to see in their employees, such as:
    1. actively engaging in DEI education
    2. welcoming alternative points of view in decision-making process
    3. celebrating different cultures
    4. honoring employees’ time off
    5. promoting cross-cultural knowledge
  2. Embrace empathy. Empathy is often the missing element in today’s corporate cultures. As we put on the armor of perfection, the cost of making mistakes becomes increasingly high – but with it, we lose the opportunity to take risks and venture beyond conformity. By practicing empathy and showing appreciation, leaders can create deeper connections with employees and encourage innovative thinking. 
  3. Praise publicly. Go beyond acknowledging a team’s efforts by recognizing individual employees’ contributions in a way that makes them feel seen and valued. Sincere and proactive appreciation of efforts goes a long way to creating a culture of belonging in the organization. 
  4. Be open and honest. By actively encouraging open communication and promoting transparency in decision-making (especially when times are tough) leaders can build trust and foster the environment of psychological safety.
  5. Encourage diversity of thought. It is often easy to pay the most attention to the HiPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion) in the room, especially in a culture led by charismatic leaders. To encourage cognitive diversity, purposefully look for differing perspectives when making decisions: invite employees from lower levels and different departments to your meetings. Allowing a seat at the table is not enough – don’t just include, but actively engage by asking for their opinions and incorporating their feedback to promote inclusion and innovative thinking. 

True culture change takes time and can be painful or awkward to implement at first. By fully embracing these principles, acknowledging that implementation might not be initially perfect, and giving yourself grace on this journey, you can transform your organization’s culture into a safe, inclusive, and welcoming environment for all. 

What do you personally do as a leader to foster inclusive culture? How can we support your leadership team and avoid the ‘leadership shadow’?

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