This Should Be Your #1 Return on Leadership Investment

August 16, 2019 Joe Gerstandt

4-minute read

Inclusion has rapidly become one of the most popular ideas relative to the workplace. In spite of its popularity, inclusion remains a vague, ambiguous idea in most organizations. Approach ten random leaders in your organization, ask them what inclusion is, why it is valuable, and how we capture that value – you are likely to get near ten different answers, most of which will not make a lot of sense.

Vague, ambiguous targets are hard to hit, and this lack of foundational clarity leads most organizations to direct their efforts in the wrong direction.

Properly understood, inclusion is experiential in nature, the experience of being fully included without consequence for real or perceived identity. It is, in fact, an experiential outcome. It is a result, a product.

In the name of D&I, organizations frequently craft poetic statements of commitment, develop diversity councils and employee resource groups, try to reduce bias in recruitment and selection, sponsor events and organizations, and sometimes pursue policy change. All of these efforts can add value, though none of them do much to influence the day-to-day employee experience.

There is simply no bigger lever for changing how employees experience the workplace than the behaviors and practices of those with formal power.

Said another way, the experiential outcome of inclusion is first and foremost the product of a certain kind of leadership. And this is where the biggest investment of effort and resources should be focused.

In addition to a much more effective and direct impact on employee experience, this is how we solve the accountability problem. Having identified the behaviors and practices needed of leaders to deliver a more consistently inclusive employee experience, we can plug them into job descriptions, performance evaluations, development plans, and promotion decisions.

Organizations vary greatly. Cultures, histories, and contexts vary. How value is created varies. What constitutes inclusive behaviors and practices can vary.  

Let these competencies and commitments serve as a fundamental framework – a place to begin, and to build from.

Authenticity and self-awareness

Sincere and sustained inclusive behavior is rooted in self-awareness. Inclusive leaders understand their own identity and have explored the advantages and disadvantages their identity invites. They also have a “personal case” for diversity and inclusion and can speak to how this work connects to and is aligned with their own values, beliefs, and priorities. Lastly, they understand that they, like all humans, have cognitive limitations and that they must proactively work to reduce the impact of bias that shows up in their decision-making and interactions with others.

  • Have you identified your core values?


Inclusive leaders have a positive, forward-leaning orientation toward difference. They see diversity as a source of value rather than a barrier, obstacle, or something to be overcome or tolerated. They are comfortable and confident working with diverse teams and in conversations about difference. Inclusive leaders make others feel comfortable in their own skin. They are proactive about bringing greater diversity into their network of relationships and learning from the perspectives and experiences of others. They realize the value of disagreement done well and have an intentional approach toward collaborative decision-making.

  • What do you do to increase your comfort level with talking about issues of difference?


Inclusive leaders understand that in order to fully aggregate and deploy the ability, talent, and potential they have access to, individual contributors must be willing to continue thinking for themselves and telling the truth to each other. They pay close attention to group dynamics, minimize in-group and out-group tendencies, promote psychological safety, and establish guiding principles – especially for such taxing tasks as decision-making and disagreement.

  • What do you do to make sure that every member of your team feels welcome and safe making their unique contribution?


Inclusive leaders know their own case for diversity and inclusion as well as the formal business case. They take ownership for this work, making clear, specific, and public commitments. They advocate publicly and privately, and they hold others accountable. They speak out when they encounter non-inclusive behaviors and they hold high standards for their direct reports regarding diversity and inclusion.

  • How do you take personal responsibility for inclusion?

The workforce and the marketplace are increasingly diverse. If inclusion is not one of the first products of your leadership, then your leadership has a decreasing return on investment and at some point will become a liability.


The why behind D&I: how diversity and inclusion initiatives benefit business

Diversity and inclusion are very much works in progress

The ROI of inclusion and belonging

About the Author

Joe Gerstandt

Joe Gerstandt is a speaker, advisor, and author bringing greater clarity and impact to organizational diversity and inclusion work

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