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Small Acts of Inclusive Leadership

A diverse team of people posing for a group photo.

Leaders and managers are critical agents in promoting an inclusive culture in the workplace. Managers’ behavior and communication, including those that happen unintentionally, tacitly convey and sustain organizational values and norms. Leaders’ inclusive behavior have powerful effects on office culture.

Many organizational structures are hierarchical. However, the same hierarchy should not be applied to the importance of any individual's, tasks, responsibilities, and expertise. Yet, we have seen such applications all too often. Some individuals are “deemed” more important than others because of their positions; some tasks and responsibilities are thought to be more “important” than others; and some specialties are more valued and favored. The differential valuation of people, tasks, responsibilities, and expertise drives an invisible wedge among people of different groups. The hierarchical mindset becomes a fertile ground for potential perceived discrimination and differential treatment, as social group membership (e.g., Protected bases under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 such as gender, race/ethnicity, disabilities) intersects with occupations, professions, and grade levels.

What can managers do? A lot! I have started to compile practices that I called "small acts of inclusive leadership."

  1. Talk about common goals and objectives frequently. When people work together towards a common goal, people are less likely to see each other as "us" vs. "them." Leaders and managers who frequently remind others of their common objectives and link employees’ tasks to the common goals help break down unnecessary divides and differential valuation of some functions over others. You are sending a message that everyone is in this together.
  2. Making management decisions based on impacts and objectives. Sometimes managers/supervisors could lose sight of organizational impacts and goals when focusing on a specific project. For example, when deciding on a due date for an employee’s task, managers/supervisors should ask themselves, "does the timeline serve the stakeholders, the team, or myself?" Too often, managers/supervisors set timelines that serve themselves (e.g., wanting to get everything done before vacation) rather than the employee’s needs and project objectives. Everyone’s needs should be considered.
  3. Minimizing the hierarchy of tasks and responsibilities. Leaders and managers/supervisors often experience time famine (the feeling of having too much to do but not enough time to deal with those demands) and they need help to accomplish their daily work. However, it doesn't mean that supportive responsibilities and tasks are less important for the organization's overall objectives and operations. Occasionally, leaders may consider doing "less glorious tasks" such as note-taking for a meeting, scheduling a group meeting, making copies, or cleaning up after an office party. Joan C. Williams, an author of What Works for Women at Work, calls these tasks office housework. When leaders and managers don’t participate in "office-keeping," it signals to the office that these tasks are unimportant and unvalued. Thanking employees is nice but your actions could mean a thousand words. Everyone and everyone’s work is valued.

Holding ourselves accountable as managers and leaders is no easy task. I know that there will be days when I fail to live up to these expectations. The question then is -- will my peers and direct reports feel safe to remind me of them? I hope so.

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