Empowering diverse teams: six characteristics of inclusive leaders

Inclusive leadership empowers leaders to navigate diversity by emphasising six key factors for better team performance, says UNSW Business School’s Juliet Bourke

Inclusive leadership is a dynamic and holistic style of leadership that values diversity, seeks different viewpoints, empowers everyone to contribute, and fosters innovation and equity in a collaborative environment. 

It has gained significant momentum in recent years because it equips leaders to navigate diverse challenges to bring about meaningful positive change. However, in an increasingly digital world crowded with information and differing opinions, grasping the core concepts and importance of inclusive leadership can be difficult for leaders to apply in practice.  

According to research by Dr Juliet Bourke, Professor of Practice in the School of Management & Governance at UNSW Business School, teams with inclusive leaders are 17 per cent more likely to report that they are high-performing, 20 per cent more likely to say they make high-quality decisions, and 29 per cent more likely to report behaving collaboratively. In a recent interview, UNSW Business School’s Dr Kelsey Burton, lecturer in the School of Management & Governance, sat down with Dr Bourke to explore what sets inclusive leaders apart.  

The six ‘Cs’ of inclusive leadership 

Dr Bourke’s studies offer valuable insights for leaders and teams seeking to thrive in today's diverse and digital world. Her research examines how successful leaders have responded to more complex challenges about diversity and inclusion in the workplace.  

“We started interviewing leaders from all around the world, with whom we had been working with and particularly those people who seemed to be more adapted or successful working in a diverse context. We wondered why they were more effective dealing with diverse clients, diverse employees or working in a diverse market when compared to other leaders,” said Dr Bourke, who also serves as a board member, independent workplace consultant, and was a former partner at Deloitte. 

Specifically, what emerged from her collaborative research were six key characteristics (all conveniently starting with the letter 'C') that successful leaders shared: commitment, courage, cognisance of bias, curiosity, cultural intelligence, and collaboration.  

1. Commitment to diversity and inclusion 

According to Dr Bourke, the leaders who successfully delivered positive organisational outcomes shared a genuine commitment to diversity. They understood the importance of diversity on both a personal and business level; that it is not about following a trend or adopting inclusive leadership because it is expected, but genuinely caring about the diverse perspectives that individuals bring to the table. 

“These leaders believed that diversity was important to them as a human being as well as their business. So, there was the care factor that they had. They weren't talking about being an inclusive leader because someone had told them to, it came from within,” she said.  

2. Courage embracing vulnerability and humility 

The second characteristic successful inclusive leaders demonstrate is courage. Specifically, in contrast to traditional leadership models that emphasise charisma and confidence, Dr Bourke explained that inclusive leaders display a remarkable courage to be humble and vulnerable. 

Showing courage as a leader means admitting mistakes, asking questions for clarification, and creating an environment where others feel comfortable doing the same. This authenticity fosters trust and connection within the team. “The courage to say, I've made a mistake, or I don't know – this was important in these leaders’ behaviours,” she said. 

3. Cognisance of bias: acknowledging and addressing biases 

Dr Bourke also explained that inclusive leaders recognise and confront their own biases. Rather than assuming they are immune to biases, they accept that biases influence their decisions and actions. This self-awareness leads to continuous self-assessment and the willingness to change behaviours in response to newfound insights, promoting fair treatment and equitable opportunities for their teams. 

“They accept that there are biases in their behaviours because most people believe everyone else has more biases than they do. This is called ‘blind spot bias’: the bias to believe that everyone else has more bias than you,” she said, “and without acknowledgement, leaders don’t take accountability for their biases and actions to mitigate them”.  

Read more: Juliet Bourke on harnessing the power of diversity for innovation

4. Curiosity: embracing diverse perspectives 

Curiosity is another hallmark of inclusive leaders. Curious leaders actively seek out and engage with diverse viewpoints, fostering an environment where multiple perspectives are valued. This open-mindedness allows them to better understand others' experiences and motivations, which ultimately leads to more innovative solutions, and well as seeing risks around corners. 

"These leaders were very open to different people's perspectives. They didn't have a sort of closed or fixed mindset. They were very explorative and also very empathetic. When they heard someone's different point of view, they really tried to understand it from their perspective, not just from their own,” she said. 

5. Cultural intelligence: adapting to diverse contexts 

Cultural intelligence involves recognising that one's own perspective is not the only valid one. In a globalised world, inclusive leaders understand that there are many ways of doing things and are willing to adapt their approach to diverse cultural contexts. So they hold their own cultural background lightly and demonstrate a deep respect for others' ways of working and thinking. 

"We didn't expect that to come up as a capability around inclusive leadership. But these leaders, often global leaders, were prepared to say their understanding of the world was just one understanding of the world. There are many ways of doing things that are right in different contexts. So, they held their own culture lightly,” she said.  

Read more: How demonstrating vulnerability can improve diversity & inclusion 

6. Collaboration: fostering psychological safety 

The final characteristic is collaboration, and in the context of inclusive leadership, this extends beyond just ‘good teamwork’, explained Dr Bourke. Inclusive leaders are skilled at managing conflict within diverse teams, creating an environment of psychological safety where individuals feel empowered to share their ideas and concerns. This collaborative approach allows each team member to contribute their best work and facilitates the team's overall success. 

“The leaders we interviewed were very good at managing conflict within a diverse team so that it was a collaborative team. They were great at creating psychological safety within that team, great at empowering people to do their best work.” 

As part of this, Dr Bourke also highlighted the significance of four dimensions of diversity: markets, customers, ideas, and employees. Managing these diverse dimensions requires embracing the above inclusive leadership traits, allowing leaders to excel in various scenarios and contexts. “So, to enable yourself to have a broader set of capabilities means that you need to take a disciplined approach to being a person who's open to that diversity. And these are the characteristics that these leaders used, and they were highly successful in doing that,” she said. 

Thriving together: three behaviours of inclusive teams 

In addition to inclusive leadership, Dr Bourke has researched how employees can also play an active role in creating a more inclusive workplace. Her research on co-workers shows that anyone can take ownership of inclusion by consciously practising the ABCs of inclusion by focussing on the behaviours of instrumental Assistance, building emotional Bonds, and paying attention to embodied Connections. Assistance refers to, for example, helping with work tasks, Bond refers to socialising and emotional relationships and Connections the way we use our physical bodies such as through non-verbal cues. When reciprocated, these behaviours create a positive feedback loop that enhances individual and team performance. 

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“When you include someone else, it helps to uplift your own individual performance. Because you give someone a piece of advice, they are likely to give you a piece of advice.  So, it's actually good for you as an individual, and therefore, it's good for the team because you're building the human capital within the team. It has multiple positive impacts beyond just making you feel good,” she said. 

Importantly, individuals don’t necessarily have to wait to be invited to contribute and can take action with their own participation. “I remember this one woman she described herself as female, black, young, and she said, ‘I'm not waiting for someone else to include me, I'm going to make it happen because I'm going to use one of these behaviours.’ I think that's what's really powerful about this concept of interpersonal inclusion, is that you can take much more control of your environment than we've been led to believe,” she concluded. 


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