Innovation is non-negotiable in today’s global, fast-moving economy. To spark innovation, you need diverse perspectives and an inclusive culture that allows ideas to flourish. Today’s leaders understand why inclusive leadership is essential to innovation and how to unlock their team’s best thinking.
According to Korn Ferry research, less than 5% of global leaders today are inclusive leaders. What are those 5% doing differently? We would point to Whole Brain® Thinking’s four-quadrant approach, which emphasizes the benefits to having employees with different thinking preferences within teams. Inclusive leadership helps people across all four quadrants to be heard and seen. And when your people feel heard, they bring their whole selves to work, including their new and unique ideas.
Learn more about what inclusive leadership is, how to implement it within your organization using Whole Brain® Thinking and how it drives inclusive innovation.
What Is Inclusive Leadership?
Inclusive leadership occurs when leaders successfully understand what makes each team member unique and support them in being their best selves at work. Inclusive leaders promote diverse thinking and ensure people are respected, managed, heard and applied. They make space for people from a variety of backgrounds to collaborate while avoiding stereotypes, assumptions, bias and discrimination.
Building the kind of genuine relationships and trust that underpin inclusive leadership takes time, but it’s worth the effort. BetterUp research found that professionals who don’t feel included within their team are less productive, more likely to quit and less likely to commit to team goals.
4 Traits of Inclusive Leaders
Common leadership behaviors include being selfless, honest and decisive. Traditional strong leaders offer clear goals to their people, along with guidance and encouragement. Inclusive leaders go further by getting deeper into the humanity of their teams and are intentional about diversity in personnel, ideas and opportunities.
Learn more about four traits that separate inclusive leaders from the pack.
They Commit to DEI at Work
Inclusive leaders do more than make a statement about the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). They seek out the root causes of these issues, including the processes, policies and historical structures impeding equal opportunity. These leaders are intentional about aligning their words, deeds and hiring with the values of inclusivity.
They Embrace Vulnerability
Inclusive leaders understand the importance of humility, especially for people who have enjoyed success. No matter how hard you’ve worked or what you’ve accomplished, there’s still much you don’t know and even more to learn. Inclusive leaders admit mistakes, ask for help and understand their strengths and weaknesses.
Most importantly, they know how to share space to allow others to be vulnerable, such as contributing ideas or raising awareness of problems.
They Are Aware of Their Bias
Everyone has bias. We can’t avoid it. But admitting to that bias doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. The key is acknowledging and confronting these biases, especially as they affect our mindset, assumptions and actions. Unaddressed bias creates adverse effects, including those you can’t see, like employees who don’t speak up because they’re afraid their ideas and opinions will be ignored or ridiculed.
Inclusive leaders recognize their biases, the structural biases of their organization, industry and society, and work to create equitable spaces inside their teams. By setting this example, you can encourage everyone on your team to explore their bias and have difficult but necessary conversations.
They Encourage Collaboration And Diverse Thinking
A diverse team comprises people with different thinking processes. This can be a powerful advantage, but you must cultivate these diverse thinkers to get the best results. Inclusive leaders know that understanding diverse thinking requires data and scientific insight, not assumptions, guesses or bias.
These leaders embrace cognitive diversity by utilizing tools like the Whole Brain® Thinking framework and HBDI® assessment. They use such tools to understand how their teams approach the work and how they can combine their perspectives while still being seen and heard.
What Is Inclusive Innovation?
Innovation requires stepping out of your comfort zone and into the unknown. Inside organizations, you’ll need a combination of collaboration, creativity and vulnerability, and a high tolerance for uncertainty. Innovation is most successful when leaders create an inclusive culture that includes all voices, allows risk-taking, and rewards learning from mistakes.
To put it simply, teams innovate better when they improve their thinking. That’s what Whole Brain® Thinking does by encouraging people to share their ideas and thought processes without consequences or rejection. This is especially important when disrupting long-held thinking within your team.
For example, Microsoft Game Studios (now known as XBox Game Studios) was designing a game intended to display a new product’s game-changing appeal. The traditional approach to gaming wasn’t sufficient.
“We really wanted to break the process apart from the beginning and get away from thinking about game design in a traditional way. Part of doing that was making sure all of the thinkers on the team had a voice,” said Shannon Loftis, Good Science Studio Head at Microsoft Game Studios.
The Whole Brain® Thinking framework and HBDI® Assessment helped the team better understand their individual thinking preferences and how to capitalize on their thinking and that of their teammates. This approach also elevated voices previously ignored during the development process.
Don’t limit your team to just one quadrant or thinking preference. All four thinking preferences, working together, can unlock ideas and solutions your team would have otherwise never realized.
5 Actions That Promote Inclusion and Innovation
Engineer Intentional Opportunities for Innovation
Inclusive leaders understand the value of data, such as information about the diversity of thinking preferences. They combine that information with personal relationships — making a clear case for the opportunities while meeting the emotional needs of employees who are concerned about the team’s strategy.
One way to set up your team for success is to tap into the yellow, or experimental, quadrant by sharing the “why” behind what the team is doing to add value to the business. Frameworks, guidelines or toolkits can also explain the “why” by demonstrating how your team benefits from a diversity of ideas.
Give Voice to All Thinkers on the Team
Cognitive diversity is a tremendous asset, but you’ll only realize its potential if every thinker gets a voice. Inclusive leaders are crucial for minimizing unproductive conflict, encouraging productive and constructive exploration of different perspectives and ensuring all contributions are respected and heard.
For example, the Microsoft Game Studio team learned how to “give voice” to all the thinkers on the team, combining “wild creativity” with discipline, structure and science — while still surpassing benchmarks for development.
Encourage People to Embrace Change
Inclusive leaders recognize that people’s intuitive reactions can be inadvertent barriers to change. Meanwhile, not everyone has the same definition of “change,” depending on their personal thinking preference. For example, an employee who leans more into the analytical, or blue, quadrant of the Whole Brain® model can see your team’s proposed transformation as practical. But employees who fall into the feeling, or red, quadrant might see that same overhaul as impractical.
Be inclusive by recognizing and respecting these differences, proactively addressing key questions and concerns, and providing context. Employees who understand why change occurs are less likely to be confused or upset. They still might disagree with the change, but they’ll trust your decision and support the team’s pursuit.
Execute on Diverse Thinking
It’s great to say, “there are no bad ideas.” But employees will quickly notice if their ideas are acknowledged but then ignored. This means you’re missing out on potentially valuable solutions and demoralizing employees who contributed in the belief that their opinions were truly valued.
Inclusive leaders and diverse teams follow through with great ideas and give context to their decision-making, even when it means an idea isn’t implemented. To ensure successful execution, these leaders bring in the right mix of thinkers, tools and training to help the team move from idea to implementation and business impact.
Create, Manage and Empower High-Performing Teams
One of the core attributes of cognitive diversity is team effectiveness. When your team members are more aware of their own thinking and bias, they can bring greater self-awareness and clarity to their interactions. This fuels more effective communication, decision-making and problem-solving because they can collaborate more easily with co-workers. And when you have smarter, more thoughtful and more aligned team members, you have a more effective team that thinks better and executes more efficiently.
Innovation and Inclusion Together Unlock Growth
You can help create a future of work where inclusive leadership is the norm and people are celebrated for their range of thinking and contributions.
Why does inclusive leadership lead to innovation? The answer is simple — inclusive teams bring the best out of each individual and lead to culture, ideas and communication. Your best people want to stay with your company, so they see through long-term efforts and bring ideas from concept to completion. In short, inclusive leadership cultivates space for cognitive diversity and creativity to thrive.
When your leaders understand why inclusive leadership is essential to innovation, they’ll recognize the importance of a diverse, collaborative, empathetic workforce to the business’s overall success.