How To Be an Inclusive Leader

Anyone can learn how to be an inclusive leader. But success requires more than recognizing someone’s contributions during a weekly standup meeting.

Inclusive leaders create an environment where every team member feels appreciated, fairly treated, respected, and understood. Plus the leaders build a culture of psychological safety so that no matter how diverse the workforce, everyone feels comfortable sharing their ideas and perspectives. And members feel what they share is valued and heard without bias.

Sounds like someone you would want to work for, right? Here’s how you can begin honing your skills:

  1. Recognize your own biases
  2. Address weak points
  3. Be curious about others
  4. Commit to actionable goals
  5. Keep communication open
  6. Be an active listener
  7. Fill trust gaps
  8. Know the work is never done

1. Recognize your own biases

Becoming an inclusive leader starts with self-reflection. Because everyone views situations through a lens that’s distorted by preconceptions, prejudices, and stereotypes.

Many times, these biases are unconscious. But left unaddressed, they create blind spots, reduce adaptability, and cloud decision-making. Ways these impairments may show up are when leaders:

  • Rate more highly people who look, act, or think more like themselves
  • Hold on to failing strategies instead of looking for new solutions
  • Give preferential treatment to people working within their vicinity—for remote workers, out of sight means out of mind
  • Lean toward information that confirms their pre-existing beliefs
  • Long for practices that reflect “the way it used to be”
  • Judge women, men, and people of color differently in performance reviews, promotions, and pay increases

2. Address weak points

As a leader, you’re well-positioned to identify exclusionary behaviors such as someone asking a younger colleague if this is their first “real job.” When you identify exclusionary behaviors, it’s critical to address them as they happen.

Note that change may require assistance from other functions. For example, you may ask HR to train managers in providing equitable performance reviews for a diverse workforce. Or contract an independent HR specialist to update your onboarding process so that remote workers and marginalized groups feel part of the team from the beginning.

3. Be curious about others

An inclusive leader listens without judgment and uses empathy to understand the other person’s point of view. To do that effectively, you must get to know each team member beyond their role at work.

Because when you’re curious enough to learn about the whole person, you can give each person the support they require to do their best work. Being curious may lead you to understand why they may be concerned about a work situation that others may brush off. Or when an event dominating the news may be affecting their focus. Or how their diverse perspectives may help the organization create more impactful customer experiences.

As important, when workers feel you really want to get to know them as an individual, they feel more appreciated and seen. You’re creating an inclusive culture where people from different backgrounds don’t have to pay the cost of code switching in exchange for acceptance.

Check out Chandra Arthur’s Tedx talk, The Cost of Code Switching.

Consider learning about the cultural differences within your diverse workforce. Your effort may help them feel included and also avoid misunderstanding. For example, a Muslim woman may greet a man by putting her hand to her heart instead of shaking hands. She’s avoiding touch not to offend, but to adhere to her faith.

4. Commit to inclusion with actionable goals

Talk openly to your team about your inclusion goals. Make them measurable when possible, so team members can track progress. These might include:

  • Training courses on inclusivity
  • Recognizing or even celebrating cultural holidays that are important to the team
  • Ensuring that hiring practices are equitable across diverse backgrounds

Ask your team to hold you accountable for modeling an inclusive leadership style. Regularly ask team members for feedback on where you can improve. And encourage them to respectfully let you know when you make an exclusionary remark or take an exclusionary action.

5. Keep communication open

Encourage reporting and feedback by laying out, step-by-step, how the organization handles concerns and complaints. Be sure to stress how the process maintains their confidentiality, so they feel safe sharing concerns.

Jeremie Brecheisen, Partner and Managing Director of The Gallup CHRO Roundtable, also suggests that leaders, “Hold managers accountable for translating how much you care about employees’ well-being. Teach them to discuss well-being consistently through the everyday conversations they should already be having with their team.”

6. Be an active listener

“It's one thing to ask a question. But if you were asking the question just so you can talk over it right after, then we're not really doing the work,” said Dr. Jaclynn Robinson, Senior Workplace Consultant and Executive Coach at Gallup.

Remember, you’re listening to learn. “And so outside of asking that question, the next most-powerful piece is to listen to what's being said, which might drive you to a follow-up question that's entirely different than where you thought the conversation was going as well,” said Robinson.

7. Fill trust gaps

In the beginning, your inclusive leadership efforts will build a scaffolding of trust between colleagues, direct reports, and leadership. In between the scaffolding are trust gaps that must be filled.

Brecheisen suggests one way to start filling trust gaps is to, “Identify where employees have the lowest levels of confidence in their workplace doing the right thing if they raise a concern about ethics. Share examples of appropriate ways to speak out and make it clear you will do the right thing.”

8. Continually work at creating an inclusive environment

Inclusion is an ongoing, intentional practice. People, circumstances, and organizations change over time, and especially as the rise in remote work continues to increase the diversity within project teams.

You should regularly check in with workers about their experiences. Then make necessary adjustments to ensure that all workers, whether independent talent, consultants, or employees, feel respected and that their contributions are valued.

Why being an inclusive leader is important

Many leaders wait to become more inclusive until the company’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives dictate it. In time, people realize being an inclusive leader is both the right thing to do, and also provides several unexpected benefits.

“The biggest advantage of inclusive leadership,” according to researchers, “is that inclusive leaders know how to unleash individual potential and create an environment where all talent can thrive and grow.”

In addition to being the ethical and moral way to lead, numerous studies also make a clear business case for being an inclusive leader. A Harvard Business Review study (HBR) showed teams with inclusive leaders are:

  • 17% more likely to report that they are high performing
  • 20% more likely to say they make high-quality decisions
  • 29% more likely to report behaving collaboratively

Employees prioritize inclusion so much that when they felt just 10% more included, absenteeism dropped almost by an entire day a year per employee.


Researchers found that customers benefit from companies committed to an inclusive environment, too. Inclusive companies attract top people from previously underrepresented talent pools—pools that may also reflect their underrepresented customer groups. “This can also help shed light on problems that more homogenous teams have been stuck on and unable to resolve.”

6 qualities of an inclusive leader

Not surprisingly, the qualities of an inclusive leader are similar to the key traits of an empathetic leader. For instance, inclusive leaders are collaborative and transparent, value diversity in teams, and create a psychologically safe environment that encourages feedback and sharing.


Respect is such a fundamental human desire that how respected people feel at work is reflected in their engagement levels. A Gallup survey showed that when employees feel respected, they’re 50% less likely to feel burned out.

You could be a nice person and generally adhere to social norms of respect. But respect is subjective and sometimes subtle. For instance, a worker may feel disrespected when:

  • They feel overlooked for more challenging projects
  • Leaders change decisions without explaining why
  • A manager appears to give more attention to certain direct reports than others
  • They’re interrupted during meetings

If you think you’re respectful enough, consider this: 60% of HR leaders say employees are respected at work, but only 44% of employees agree.



A humble leader admits to making mistakes and doesn’t claim to always have the answers. A humble leader remains open to new information, listens to others fully, and assumes the other person has something valuable to offer. Humility puts people at ease, which encourages them to share ideas and provide honest feedback.


Empathy is another DEI must-have. Being empathetic means you can suspend personal judgment long enough to understand a situation from the other person’s point of view. And when you show you can feel what the other person’s feeling, they believe they’re seen and heard.

If this level of emotion makes you uncomfortable, think of empathy as just another way of gathering data. The reasoning, as explained in the article Empathy in Leadership: Key Traits of Effective Leaders, is that:

“When you’re empathetic, you see situations from the other person’s point of view. Having all those different perspectives enables you to communicate with greater clarity, achieve better connections, and better determine the next best course of action.”


Speak openly about your commitment to supporting DEI initiatives and how you’ll hold yourself accountable to being an inclusive leader. You may start by determining your strengths and where you need support.

If some of your direct reports work remotely, it takes a slightly different approach to ensure they feel included. You can save time figuring it all out yourself by going to the Resource Center at Upwork. The site is packed with articles providing helpful tips like these:


The idea of inclusiveness is demonstrated in collaboration. Instead of leading by control and dictating a course of action, you bring people together and solicit their insights and opinions. You purposefully seek out differences and help people feel comfortable speaking up. Then you let the group decide which solution to run with, so people feel heard and valued.

Research shows that when leaders encourage collaboration and value different ideas, they’re 2.5 times more likely to have effective employees on their teams.



Workers feel included when they believe they’re treated fairly. But research shows most employees still feel left out. Only 28% of white employees feel they receive similar amounts of recognition as colleagues with similar performance levels. The numbers are lower for Black and Hispanic employees, at 19% and 21% respectively.

Worse, the study from Gallup shows that when Black and Hispanic employees receive recognition, 75% of them “do not strongly agree” it’s authentic.

You can lead more fairly by becoming aware of your personal biases, what HBR researchers refer to as your “inclusive-leadership shadow.” They suggest uncovering development areas and strengths by:

  • Seeking feedback on whether you are perceived as inclusive, especially from people who are different from you
  • Scheduling regular check-ins with members of your team to ask how you can make them feel more included

Actionable tips to be a more inclusive leader

Being an inclusive leader takes ongoing and deliberate action. “I think it’s always a work in progress,” said Jim Collison, CliftonStrengths Community Manager at Gallup, “You'll never get this perfect. We just always have to be thinking about it. We're never going to get it 100% right, but we’ve got to be striving towards it.”

“We're never going to get it 100% right, but we’ve got to be striving towards it.”
— Jim Collison, CliftonStrengths Community Manager at Gallup

Mind your language

You demonstrate inclusivity by how you act and in how you communicate. At the most fundamental level are the words you use. You may say “talent” instead of “manpower” and greet people with a “hello all” instead of “hi guys.”  

Then inclusive communication gets a little more involved. The key is to communicate as you lead: with self-awareness, humility, transparency, and respect. The following example is from the article What Inclusive Leaders Sound Like. The authors refer to exclusive communicators as “novice” and inclusive communicators as “expert.”

mind your language

Make time for connection

Make time to regularly engage with every team member. According to Dr. Robinson, with Gallup, you don’t have to spend a lot of time. “Quick Connects, 5- to 10-minute conversations, can amplify engagement and wellbeing,” she said. “It sparks inclusiveness as well, because we would deem meaningful as frequent, timely and individualized. So you're really seeing that person for who they are. And you're asking a question with intention, as opposed to just saying, ‘Hey, how are you?’ and then walking away.”

Build trust

You can’t unleash the potential of every team member unless everyone feels they can trust you and each other. Without trust, workers are concerned about survival. So they focus on protecting themselves and competing against team members.

With trust, they’re concerned about doing what’s best for the team, and perhaps the customer and organization. So they share information openly, seek fair ways to resolve challenges, and are as concerned about helping others succeed as much as themselves.

Read more: 6 Tips for Building Trust within Your Team

Check your impact

Leadership development takes work, and over time you’ll need to verify whether your efforts are making a positive impact. Regularly check in by:

  • Sending out confidential employee surveys and compare responses over time
  • Asking a trusted team member for unfiltered feedback
  • Looking for signals such as whether a more diverse group of people are sharing ideas with you

Be the transformation

“I truly believe if you have an inclusive culture and a diverse group of employees, you can get anything done,” said Dallas Mavericks CEO Cynt Marshall. “I’ve lived it. There’s a bottom line impact to having diversity, and having equity in your organization, and an inclusive culture.”

But you can’t begin to liberate the potential of others without understanding where and how to improve as an inclusive leader. Upwork provides a marketplace full of independent coaches and HR professionals ready to help you hone your inclusive leadership competencies. Through Upwork, you can contract an independent professional to coach you on critical skills from building your personal empathy muscles to training your team on inclusive communication practices.

You’re in a unique position to model the inclusive behavior you want to see in your team. And with Upwork, you can start transforming today.

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Author Spotlight

How To Be an Inclusive Leader
Brenda Do

Brenda Do is a direct-response copywriter who loves to create content that helps businesses engage their target audience—whether that’s through enticing packaging copy to a painstakingly researched thought leadership piece. Brenda is the author of "It's Okay Not to Know"—a book helping kids grow up confident and compassionate.

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