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How Authentic Leadership Drives Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace

Diversity. Inclusion. We hear a lot about these concepts but what do they really mean? And how can company leader and managers do their part to create workplaces of acceptance, cohesiveness, and connection?

The meaning and practice of diversity and inclusion in the workplace have significantly evolved. They have progressed beyond just hiring people of different ethnicities, genders, religions, and backgrounds. It's no longer about just being compliant!

And diversity and inclusion have emerged as more than just ideals—they are pillars for success. A new leadership style is required to facilitate this change in workplace dynamics. Enter authentic leadership—an ideal that propels companies toward a culture rich in diverse thoughts and inclusive practices.

Estimated reading: 8 minutes

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Table of Contents
Exploring Authentic Leadership?
Enhancing Diversity and Inclusion: The Role of an Authentic Leader in the Workplace
Effective Strategies Using Authentic Leadership to Drive Diversity and Inclusion
Champion Diverse Talent
Create Safe Spaces for Meaningful Dialogue
Promote Equity and Reduce Bias
Inclusive Behaviors of the Leader Are the Role Model
Practice Authenticity to Build Trust
Tailor Approaches to Individual Needs
Key Benefits of Authentic Leadership
Frequently Asked Questions

Authentic leadership that is rooted in emotional intelligence transcends traditional approaches to diversity. It's about a deep-seated commitment to recognizing and harnessing each team member's unique strengths. Leading authentically inspires fairness and equity. As we’ll discuss, authentic leaders develop certain traits that allow them not just to accommodate differences but to celebrate them, turning diversity and inclusion into valuable assets.

In writing this article, I aim to explore authentic leader traits and show you how to champion diversity and inclusion in the workplace by being authentic. And to be authentic requires courage and leading from within.

Exploring Authentic Leadership

Authentic leadership lies at the heart of championed diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

But what exactly does “authentic” leadership mean, and what does it take to be an authentic leader in today’s diverse workplace? 

Authentic leaders have several key traits:

  • Self-awareness

    Authentic leaders know their strengths and weaknesses and can identify and regulate their emotions to invoke change and make well-balanced decisions. This self-awareness allows them to understand how their behavior impacts others and they constantly seek to grow and learn from those around them.
  • Empathy

    Authentic leaders empathize, understand, and value their team members' feelings and perspectives, fostering an environment of trust and respect.
  • Integrity and Transparency

    Authentic leaders are consistent, honest, and ethical. They lead with their values and are transparent in their decisions and actions.
  • Inclusive Decision-Making

    Great leaders value diverse opinions and encourage all team members to participate, ensuring they make decisions from a broad spectrum of insights.

Authentic leadership isn’t about barking orders from a pedestal. It’s about connecting with your people on a human level. You’re still the boss, but instead of commanding respect, you earn it.

How?

You create a work environment where diversity of thought and inclusion are the norm, not the exception.

Let’s explore ways you can do just that.
A group of multi-cultured specialists working together on a project together.

Enhancing Diversity and Inclusion: The Role of an Authentic Leader in the Workplace

Authentic leadership is pivotal in achieving and enriching workplace culture. This leadership style transforms diversity and inclusion from just being “in compliance” to a vitality fueled by converting these principles into assets for success and growth that are living and breathing within a company.

Let me give you an example. Years ago, I worked with a group of C-Suite leaders from a multi-million dollar company who genuinely espoused diversity and inclusion. However, during our work together, we identified the behaviors and modeling necessary to align with these principles. They were shocked at how far they were from truly leading with a unified message of diversity and inclusion. The majority of their behaviors were contradictory to the principles.

Leaders MUST model through their behaviors, decision-making, and company policies what they want employees to live by.

Ohhhhh.... but walking our talk is SO MUCH more difficult, especially in fast-paced industries and large companies.

We THINK because we commit to a value or believe in a principle or talk about the meaning of inclusion that we are living it—a common misconception.

So, how exactly does authentic leadership influence diversity and inclusion?

Positive change starts at the top. And this change expands and is sustained through the leaders’ actions that are aligned with the company’s values. When there is a disconnect between what the leaders say and what they DO, the best of intentions are greatly diminished.

The leader’s approach initiates the process of change. A leader's influence then permeates the entire organizational structure from the top down.

Effective Strategies Using Authentic Leadership to Drive Diversity and Inclusion

Below, we’ll explore simple (although not necessarily easy) strategies for using effective authentic leadership to drive diversity and inclusion in your workplace. I've also included an idea you can implement for each suggestion.

Champion Diverse Talent

Authentic leaders recognize that a team of varied backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives is crucial for innovative problem-solving and decision-making. They also create opportunities for everyone, ensuring that they nurture and develop talent across different demographics.

The challenge ensues because of our cognitive biases that play out in the workplace. For a leader to hire outside their comfort zone of preconceived ideas of value, their preferences, and what they admire in an employee, etc., requires tremendous self-awareness and intentionality. The suggestion below can help.

  • How to Implement: “Diversity Talent Day” for team members to showcase talents, interests, skills, and perspectives.

A key to diversity and inclusion is creating a safe and open-minded work environment.

Create Safe Spaces for Meaningful Dialogue

An authentic leader creates a nurturing environment where every voice is heard and respected, going beyond just hiring a diverse group. An open-minded environment means establishing forums where team members can share their experiences, ideas, and feelings without fear of judgment or reprisal.

However, this openness demands EQ skills and emotional intelligence training so everyone is capable of responding instead of reacting, open-mindedness to replace bias, and tolerance to explore new possibilities.

  • How to Implement: Create “Diversity Roundtables” where employees from different backgrounds openly discuss their workplace experiences with diversity and inclusion in a safe space. Troubleshoot conflicts and missteps with compassion and develop strategies for handling difficult situations. I’ve found that providing a leader or facilitator to moderate these sessions works best with an agility framework that supports the process.

Promote Equity and Reduce Bias

Authentic leaders, known for their self-awareness and empathy, are better equipped to identify and challenge biases and stereotypes. By being aware of your team’s feelings about inequality, you can manage them more effectively and get better results. In fact, a study by the Harvard Business Review highlights how leaders who actively reduce prejudice and promote equality and inclusivity significantly improve team performance and employee engagement.

  • How to Implement: Form a "Bias Reduction Task Force” with members from all levels and departments to promote equality. The team will identify biases within your company, from recruitment to daily operations, and will propose and collaborate with leaders on possible solutions.

Inclusive Behaviors Are the Role Model

Authentic leadership embodies diversity. These leaders live it in their actions, not just talk about it. They set a powerful example for others by demonstrating inclusivity in their behaviors, conversations, and initiatives. These actions can include acknowledging cultural celebrations, understanding diverse communication styles, and being mindful of unconscious bias. Breaking down the walls of bias and prejudice is critical to cultivating a safe workplace.

  • How to Implement: Leaders can participate in employee resource groups (ERGs) as sponsors and regular members to better understand and support diversity and inclusion in the workplace. (90% of Fortune 500 companies have ERGs).

Practice Authenticity to Build Trust

Authentic leaders build trust. Plain and simple.

Why?

Because there is a coherence to their words, actions, and how they model within a company. Their consistency and alignment cultivate greater trust.  (Words match actions; actions match words.) This trust is the foundation for a more inclusive and diverse workplace because employees feel heard, valued, and respected. They can depend on what they are told because there is incredible follow-through and a quick resolution of conflicts.

Over the past couple of decades of team building in companies, I have heard hundreds of times from employees variations of trust busters below:

  • "Our leaders only mouth diversity and inclusion. I've gone to them directly about disrespect and prejudice. What do they do? Defend and justify the behaviors of my co-worker."
  • "I never listen to what my direct supervisor says because they don't follow through on what they say."
  • "Rarely does my manager resolve conflicts after I've made them aware of a communication problem."
  • "I don't feel heard, and when I do, it's infrequently backed with action."
  • "Leaders just tell you what you want to hear in the moment so they can move on. I stopped bringing issues to their attention."
  • "My boss makes agreements that are broken the very next day. I just put my head down and do my work now."

Broken promises and empty words destroy trust.

Trust is precious!

When it's present, trust leads to transparency, increased engagement, and a desire to support each other. Team members feel more comfortable bringing their whole selves to work along with their unique ideas and perspectives! The better your team feels about coming to work, the more productive they will be.

  • How to Implement: Host a monthly "Open Mic" session where your team can share thoughts and experiences in a supportive environment, with leaders responding genuinely and constructively.

Tailor Approaches to Individual Needs

Different people interpret inclusivity differently, and authentic leaders may need to adapt their approaches to meet the needs of each team member (nobody said this would be simple!). However, a personalized approach tells employees that you value and respect everyone.

  • How to Implement: Develop a “Personalized Check-in Program” where leaders schedule regular one-on-one sessions with team members to discuss their unique workplace needs, preferences, or experiences.

In an authenticity-led organization, inclusivity is not just a goal; it’s a lived experience.

Key Benefits of Authentic Leadership

So let's look at and highlight some of the key benefits of authentic leadership driving diversity and inclusion in the workplace:

  • Authentic leaders create environments rich with diverse perspectives, essential for innovation, and better decision-making.
  • Open dialogue promotes communication, which is key to success in any relationship, including leader-employee relationships.
  • Valuing each individual enhances team cohesion, strengthens team unity, and turns a group of diverse individuals into a cohesive and effective team.
  • Ultimately, the goal is to expand your business, and today, inclusive and diverse workplaces drive organizational growth by fostering a superior company culture that attracts top talent and yields better outcomes.

As leaders or aspiring leaders, we must commit to authenticity in our leadership, ensuring that diversity and inclusion become realities, not just aspirations. We must work together to build a workplace that mirrors our diverse, vibrant, and inclusive world for long-term, lasting success.

Frequently Asked Questions:
Why are diversity and Inclusion important?

Authentic leadership is essential for driving diversity and inclusion in the workplace, which is the new normal for the future. This leadership style, rooted in emotional intelligence, is not just business smarts; it manages the entire team while also uplifting each individual to get the job done better. The true measure of success is for each team member to support their co-workers in being successful, which naturally raises the company.

If you’re inspired to enhance your leadership skills and foster a more inclusive, high-performing team, Heartmanity offers executive coaching, emotional intelligence training, and leadership skill-building programs. These resources will equip you with tools and insights to transform your leadership approach and build a thriving workplace culture.

Click here to learn more.

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Jennifer A. Williams / Heartmanity for BusinessJennifer A. Williams / Heartmanity for Business
Jennifer, the Heartmanity founder, is an Executive Coach and Relationship Strategist. Her decades of expertise in training leaders and teams give her amazing insights. Jennifer's primary focuses are authentic leadership, effective communication, and emotional intelligence in the workplace. Jennifer teaches a holistic approach, specializing in transforming unproductive behaviors into emotionally intelligent actions, which creates thriving work relationships and catapults a company to success.

Posted in Business and Leadership

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