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Q&A on the Book How to Be an Inclusive Leader

Key Takeaways

  • Inclusion includes everyone; anyone has the power and obligation to become an inclusive leader, and everyone can start somewhere
  • Inclusive leaders embrace discomfort, whether in learning new information, putting themselves at risk for the greater good, or pushing themselves to do more and do better
  • Inclusive leadership is a daily practice, not a destination
  • We need to put aside our good intentions and take action in catalyzing change, as staying silent is a luxury we can no longer collectively afford.
  • Younger generations are increasingly prioritizing corporate social responsibility, and as such, inclusion is an investment in our future as much as it is our present

The book How to Be an Inclusive Leader by Jennifer Brown provides a step-by-step guide to becoming an advocate for inclusion. It explains what leaders can do to increase inclusiveness in the workplace.

InfoQ readers can download an extract of How to Be an Inclusive Leader.

InfoQ interviewed Jennifer Brown about the characteristics of inclusive leaders, why inclusion matters, how people cover, and the inclusive leader continuum.

InfoQ: What made you decide to write this book?

Jennifer Brown: In the years leading up to the book’s release in 2019, there was an incredible acceleration in our conversations around inclusion at work, inspired by countless paradigm-shifting stories in the news. The Black Lives Matter movement burst onto the fore of the world’s consciousness, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality, the 2016 presidential election intensified our polarized political landscape, the Women’s March defied all expectations, the #MeToo movement radically reshaped workplace hierarchies, and the list goes on. It simply became impossible to leave our identities outside the office. It seemed as if the divisiveness that took our country by storm awakened us to our differences and brought to light the very reasons why these social movements were necessary, but left us poorly educated on exactly how to bridge those gaps and recenter solidarity among a diverse workforce.

Focusing on that critical part of “how” inspired me to write this book. Ample literature focuses on the “why”—why inclusion is important, why it matters, and why leaders everywhere should cultivate cultures where people feel welcomed and supported. But for those I know who are poised and attuned to the work that needs to be done, I couldn’t point to a clearly articulated, step-by-step guide that honestly laid out the phases of the personal, professional, and emotional journey we undertake when we commit ourselves to becoming more inclusive.

InfoQ: For whom is this book intended?

Brown: The beautiful thing about inclusion is right in its definition: the power of inclusion literally includes everyone. When I say “leader” in the book, I mean it in a much more general sense than those who manage people; it can and needs to include the person who is modeling inclusivity to those around them on the base level. The strategies laid out in the book apply to anyone looking to make a difference, as anyone can—and should—be an inclusive leader.

Within that general audience, I’d especially recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand how to break the cycle of dialogue deadlock, sensitivity to inclusion issues, and fear of interacting on the topic of diversity and inclusion, toward a more positive outcome. My reader is anyone from the stay-at-home parent organizing a local community board to global workplace leaders. This book is especially relevant for HR practitioners, chief diversity officers, and managers who are concerned about retaining talent. In short, this book will meet you where you are and provide a universal roadmap to creating equitable workplaces.

InfoQ: What characteristics do inclusive leaders have?

Brown: Embodying inclusive leadership looks different for everyone, especially considering the nuances of personal experiences and specific work environments. Some common characteristics include a commitment to deep self-reflection about how their experience does not square with others’ world reality, a willingness to make mistakes and learn from those moments, a capacity to listen to and center the stories of those they’re trying to advocate for, and an aptitude for challenging the status quo even if it means sacrificing personal social capital. In addition, inclusive leaders are ready and eager to be uncomfortable as often as necessary, with the discipline to continue learning, the resilience to withstand resistance, and the stamina to continue to analyze old problems in new ways.

If there’s one message I hope readers are left with after reading this book, it’s that inclusive leaders do something.Good intentions are no longer sufficient; change is about action. And if you aren’t taking action, your silence is a passive acceptance of the status quo, which further perpetuates the problem.

InfoQ: Why does inclusion matter?

Brown: Often the first question that springs to leaders’ minds in regards to inclusion is related to the bottom line. Why does inclusion matter to the viability of the business or organization? How many dollars are on the line if we don’t get this right? There is a vast and growing body of research that validates the business case for inclusion, and its verified connection to increased employee engagement, productivity, and retention. When we’re able to bring our full selves to work because we feel valued and respected for who we are, it has an overwhelmingly positive impact on our work. It allows us to access a state of flow and a sense of purpose and alignment. When this happens in a larger group, that’s when personal and business magic happens.

Beyond this, the importance of cultivating an inclusive environment will only increase as the world’s workforce demographics evolve. It is projected that by 2025, more than 75% of the global workforce will be Millennials, and Generation Z is close behind. Simply put, these upcoming generations have little patience (as both consumers and employees) for organizations that don’t value diversity. In this sense, a commitment to inclusion is an investment in our future as much as it is our present.

InfoQ: What makes people downplay their identity and how do people cover?

Brown: Covering is a concept popularized by New York University School of Law professor Kenji Yoshino and former managing principal of the Deloitte University Leadership Center for Inclusion, Christie Smith. We all have both visible and invisible aspects of diversity (i.e. “diversity dimensions”), and these parts of our identity make us who we are. Many of us do not feel totally comfortable sharing all these parts of ourselves at work, especially if one of our diversity dimensions is stigmatized in society, so we downplay who we are in order to belong. People downplay one or more identities at work for a myriad of reasons; perhaps they come from a background that is less represented in their field, or they are worried about being judged, negatively stereotyped, and discriminated against, or they have internalized messages of exclusion. Covering can also take many forms for different individuals; maybe they avoid discussing their home life with colleagues, maybe they present themselves differently at work than they do at home, or maybe they actively suppress a foreign accent for example.

In each case, covering takes significant effort, and this valuable energy could be leaking away from employees’ productivity. When we cover, we are barred from reaching the point where we feel comfortable being our whole self at work, and thus unlock our full potential. When a significant number of people in an organization are not reaching their full potential because they don’t feel like they belong, everyone is affected.

InfoQ: How does the inclusive leader continuum look?

Brown: The Inclusive Leader Continuum is a four-step journey that codifies a set of easy-to-remember developmental stages, which illustrates how anyone can begin to shift their thinking and use their voice to enact meaningful change toward cultures of belonging.

The first stage, Unaware, may describe you if you don't understand that certain demographic groups have a harder time thriving at work, or if you are totally disengaged from the conversation around diversity and inclusion. The second stage is Aware, at which point you realize the playing field is not level in the workplace, and that you have been blind in some ways when it comes to inclusion. This stage is about beginning to understand other people’s perspectives and working through your own biases. From there you move into Active, where you are proactively working toward equity and supporting those with marginalized identities and experiences. This stage is about pushing outside of your comfort zone and finding your voice as your inclusive actions become more visible. The fourth stage is Advocate, and it may apply to you if you are capable of transforming biased systems and sparking meaningful and scalable lasting change. This stage is hallmarked by brave public actions that challenge beliefs, and taking calculated risks to shift others’ behavior.

There are two important caveats with the Inclusive Leader Continuum: 1) we should focus on making progress rather than judging ourselves and others based on where we are on the Continuum. And 2) it is crucial to remember that inclusive leadership is not a destination, but a practice. It’s possible to move forward and backward, and to be at different stages depending on which identities are under consideration. We revisit each of these stages over and over again as we discover new information.

InfoQ: What can we do to increase our awareness of inclusion?

Brown: First and foremost, we have to do work internally (on ourselves) before we can hope to do work externally (on others or our workplace). Start with becoming sensitized to your own biases, your own blindspots, your own role in inclusion. To increase your self-awareness, seek feedback from others on how you are perceived. The easiest thing might be to tell a few of your colleagues that you’ve read this book, and one of the exercises is to gather feedback on your inclusiveness. Ask these team members if they think you prioritize inclusion in the workplace. Urge them to give you honest answers and examples. You may be delightfully surprised or devastated by their answers. Either way, it’s important to know where you stand so you can better plan how to move forward, and embrace these reviews with humility.

InfoQ: How can we remain vigilant for biases?

Brown: Modifying your frame of mind to consistently be aware of biases is a lifelong process. Even as someone who has worked in diversity and inclusion for decades, I still regularly expose myself to new ideas, new voices, and new strategies, and closely monitor my own reactions for internalized forms of bias.

The reality is that biases have permeated just about every aspect of the professional world, from decades (if not centuries) of pattern build-up. I can only suggest we remain extra critical of traditions, institutions, systems, and practices, and we continue asking inconvenient questions that interrogate norms from a plurality of perspectives. As we do this, we need to absorb new information and keep our own belief systems flexible and fluid. Though confronting biases can lead to surprise or shock, those feelings can ultimately lead to a shift, a new insight, and new behaviors.

InfoQ: What's your advice for leaders when they reach the active stage? What are some of the first things that they can do?

Brown: The first thing I would say is the way you activate will be unique to you, and will center itself around your personal comfort zones. When you first reach the active stage, you might find it easier to follow someone else’s lead, and work within an existing structure. You can commit to learning as much as you can in your company’s Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) or Business Resource Groups (BRGs), if they exist, about where your voice or your hands are needed most. You can hold senior management accountable for diverse recruitment and retention, call out colleagues who abuse their privilege, or mentor or sponsor a junior employee with the intention of advancing underrepresented talent. Sometimes, being active can mean being intentionally passive and sharing your social capital: in your next meeting, try yielding your time to someone who normally isn’t granted ample space and time to contribute.

I would also advise those in the Active stage to be patient rather than let themselves get discouraged. It may be tempting to surrender to feelings of powerlessness when you realize the sheer magnitude of effort required to move the needle, but gestures don’t always need to be grand to make a difference. It’s easy to underestimate the power of small commitments enacted by individuals when it comes to challenging systems. The very fact that you are choosing a new road and leaving behind unproductive, problematic behavior indicates that you are headed in the right direction.

InfoQ: What does it take for leaders to move from the active stage to the advocate stage?

Brown: Moving from the Active stage to the Advocate stage requires perseverance, bravery, willpower, and humility. Much of being an Advocate simply entails taking those same strategies you learned in the Active stage and scaling them up to the institutional level, and using them to challenge the very systems that necessitated their implementation. As you transition, you will constantly need to learn new information, tell new stories, seek feedback, recalibrate your approach, and support different communities. Advocates are not only active in supporting others, they also interrogate norms and ask inconvenient questions, all with the goal of leveling the playing field at work and in life in general. I find it helpful to consistently ask myself the following questions: who am I giving support to as I activate? How might I support others who need my voice? Can I activate for a different community or identity in need of allies?

InfoQ: What challenges come with being an advocate for inclusion and how can leaders deal with them?

Brown: As advocates work to affect change on the larger institutional level, they often run into the exasperating belief that these systems are basically unfixable because of the entrenched reality of bias. But advocates should keep in mind the whole picture, accept the challenge regardless, and above all, affect what they can. I suggest tackling systemic change by taking it one piece at a time; try examining how bias affects meetings, sourcing talent, the interview process, onboarding, performance reviews, promotion processes, succession management, etc.

This sustained process may feel like you’re fighting an uphill battle, which can affect your emotional health in turn. Ensure that you leave time to tend to your own self-care to avoid burnout. Treat yourself with the same compassion you’d expect from a truly supportive friend rather than with self-criticizing behavior. Resist the urge to ruminate on failures, and learn from them and quickly move on instead. Before you can advocate for others, you may have to learn to advocate for yourself.

InfoQ: How can leaders prepare themselves to travel the inclusive leader continuum?

Brown: As leaders ready themselves to travel the stages of the Inclusive Leader Continuum, it might be helpful to first activate in private settings. Gather new knowledge, apply new behaviors, and find your voice in safe places where you can experiment and give yourself the grace to make mistakes and say the wrong things. It’s imperative for every leader hoping to advocate for others to take time to collect feedback, calibrate, and ready themselves for a bigger role in the conversation, and perhaps in more public conversations. It might be helpful to think of this practice as the training before the big match. As you move forward, maintain this same mentality of continual growth, learning, and adapting.

About the Book Author

Jennifer Brown is an award-winning entrepreneur, speaker, diversity, equity and inclusion consultant, and author. She is the founder, president, and CEO of Jennifer Brown Consulting and the host of The Will to Change podcast, which uncovers true stories of diversity and inclusion. 

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