Why Inclusive Workplaces Drive More Innovation and Better Performance

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Good managers want to build high-performing teams but it isn’t always clear how to do so.

According to Catalyst’s global report, "Inclusive Leadership: The View From Six Countries," released today, the answer is simple: Help your employees feel more included at work.

The study included responses from 1,500 employees from Australia, China, Germany, India, Mexico and the United States. It showed that employees who feel included are more likely to go above and beyond the call of duty, suggest new product ideas, innovate new ways of getting work done and be supportive of one another -- something researchers call “team citizenship.”

In all six countries studied, the more included that employees felt, the more innovative they reported being in their jobs. Here are some of the findings:

Related: On Becoming That Truly Inclusive Leader

In Australia, Germany and the United States, employees' perceptions of inclusion accounted for 19 percent to 22 percent of the self-reported innovation and 29 percent to 41 percent of the team citizenship.  

In India, employees' perceptions of inclusion accounted for 62 percent of the self-reported innovation and 43 percent of the team citizenship behavior.

In Mexico and China (just Shanghai was included), the link between inclusion and innovation was the strongest. Chinese and Mexican employees’ perceptions of inclusion accounted for 78 percent and 51 percent, respectively, of the self-reported innovation and 71 percent and 60 percent of the team citizenship. 

Related: Diversity Defines Our Global Economy. Do You Speak the Language?

What can leaders do to increase inclusion in their teams? Catalyst's research found that belongingness and uniqueness are essential elements of inclusion -- meaning that both women and men felt included when they sensed that they belonged yet still felt unique. Employees want to stand out from the crowd and be recognized for what’s special about them but don’t want to stand out so much that they feel alienated. The trick is for managers to cultivate both belongingness and uniqueness simultaneously by focusing on individuals’ diverse talents and experiences without stereotyping them or making them reluctant to share ideas that set them apart.

For example, say a manager is working with a web designer from India. When she’s in town, the manager arranges a team meeting, and in an effort to make her feel welcome, orders her a special boxed lunch with chicken curry, instead of the pizza procured for the rest of the team. Though the gesture is well intentioned, it can make the web designer feel singled out. Instead of feeling part of the group, she feels like an outsider. This can lead to her being reluctant to share ideas. That can lead to groupthink. And groupthink thwarts innovation.

Small moments can have a big impact on innovation, performance and productivity, and leaders must be mindful about what makes employees feel included -- and excluded. Inclusive leaders can create innovative, dynamic workplaces where employees feel connected to and supportive of one another.

The report also identified four key leadership behaviors that predicted whether employees felt included:

Related: Join the League of Extraordinary Bosses: 4 Habits to Cultivate

1. Inclusive leaders empower others. They encourage their team and help them to excel.These bosses communicate effectively and avoid disparaging comments.

2. They create accountability. They believe in their team members and hold them responsible for the performance they can control.

3. Inclusive bosses are courageous. They aren’t afraid to stand up for their team members and uphold their principles -- even if it means taking a personal risk.

4. These leaders are humble. They know when they’ve made a mistake and freely admit to it. They are open to other points of view, as they know that diverse perspectives lead to better work.

This kind of leading can be scary and feel risky, but it’s worthwhile. And it can deliver a hefty payoff in organizational performance. Small moments can have a big impact, and leaders must be mindful of what makes employees feel included or excluded.

Not only did we find that these leadership behaviors were effective in several different countries, but the formula for inclusion is the same for both men and women. Leaders need not worry about adopting a new style for women, people of color or their staff in other countries. Empower the team to excel, create accountability standards, stand up for beliefs and be open to the idea that leaders make mistakes too; the rest will follow.

Want to know how inclusive a leader you are? Take the Catalyst quiz to find out! 

Related: Radical Transparency Can Re-Energize a Company's Culture and Deliver Results 

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