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How to Build an Inclusive Culture That Permeates All Levels of the Organization Why the fundamental characteristics of an inclusive organization must be implemented at both leadership and managerial levels — and how to ensure they are.

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I recently discussed how lack of inclusivity can create a toxic culture. However, research suggests that only 36% of companies are actively working to build an inclusive culture.

Considering this prioritization lag, I'd like to discuss why the fundamental characteristics of an inclusive organization are important and must be implemented at both leadership and managerial levels.

What does an inclusive culture look like?

From the individual perspective, it isn't difficult to envision an inclusive culture. If I were to ask, "Would you like to work at an organization where you're recognized not just for accomplishing the work you were hired to do, but for the way you carry it out and the value you bring?" what would you say? I have yet to encounter someone who, when asked that question, says, "I prefer an environment that's indifferent to the unique things I bring to the organization." For individuals, an inclusive workplace involves feeling recognized beyond our tasks. We all want that kind of workplace.

It's also not difficult to envision a non-inclusive culture. I often ask staff and leaders, what would be the effect for you, personally, if the things you like to be recognized and appreciated for were not valued or recognized by your leader? In working with thousands of individuals, the typical response I hear is that they would feel deflated, demotivated, frustrated, disheartened, disillusioned and disengaged.

And it's no wonder. Individuals who work for managers/leaders who are not committed to inclusion report being far less likely to feel a sense of belonging — research shows they are twice as likely to feel excluded at work and three times more likely to want to quit. Teams plagued with inclusion-rooted challenges often suffer from siloed communication and lack of trust. This bridges into a lack of openness, which may devolve into its extreme form: information hoarding, unhealthy competition and negative work environments.

Related: How to Create a More Inclusive Workplace

The critical role of leadership in an inclusive culture

Leaders are central to an inclusive culture. Research shows that the relationship between leaders and employees can impact employee sentiment and well-being. Additionally, strong relationships between leaders and employees can promote a sense of inclusion where different perspectives, experiences and personality types can thrive.

In my consulting, I've found that leaders generally want to create inclusive environments and grow in their ability to lead inclusively. When I walk them through the business benefits of inclusion — how it moves the needle on things every leader wants — they're even more convinced. But even when they fully appreciate its value, they encounter so many barriers that there's often a chasm between their desire and their ability to operationalize inclusion within their organizations. At that point, they're saying, "Help me make this happen."

Top-down vs. bottom-up inclusion

If the C-suite is committed to inclusion, it may be tempting to say "OK, we're good." However, there's an organizational perspective on inclusion, which is typically addressed by the C-suite, and then there's the operational piece that lives or dies at the managerial level.

Most employees' ability to feel included doesn't come from a mission statement or the C-suite's verbalized commitment to inclusivity. It comes from the relationship with their direct manager, who, according to MIT Sloan, plays a key role in either reinforcing or undermining the culture promoted by leadership.

Indeed, the people managers to whom most employees report are key to operationalizing any C-Suite initiative to create an inclusive culture. The challenge is that while frontline people managers influence 80% of a company's workforce, they often receive just 20-30% of the organization's training. This imbalance in leader development means we often see notable investments in C-Suite and top leadership, but a disproportionately lower investment in those frontline leaders, who, according to research, can make or break the organization's commitments.

Ample research shows that we want our direct manager to recognize our unique strengths and motivators. Even when the C-suite commits to inclusion, if it doesn't make its way down to the everyday employee experience, via management, an inclusive culture can't emerge. How can both leaders and managers take concrete steps to develop a culture of inclusion that permeates the entire organization?

Related: We Need Inclusive Leaders Right Now More Than Ever

Creating an environment of psychological safety

One critical step leaders and managers can take is developing a culture of psychological safety, where everyone feels they can offer ideas that deviate from the status quo or majority opinion. They can do it without fearing it'll turn into a strike against them and with confidence their idea will be heard and considered with fairness, even if it ultimately does not prevail.

It's not enough for only some to feel psychologically safe. To truly harness a team's diversity of thought, all members must have a sense of this safety and confidence that their colleagues and manager will invite their voices into the conversation whenever possible. When this sense is absent for anyone on the team, I see other effects, including siloed meetings, people being left out of important meetings, decisions being made in smaller huddles versus in team meetings, etc. When these effects prevail, the team is not realizing the benefits of its diversity.

Conversely, teams that harness the diversity of the thoughts and backgrounds of their members can wrestle more effectively with big challenges. I find these teams often create such compelling cultures and work environments that they retain their employees longer and see greater levels of both employee satisfaction and employee engagement.

These teams welcome the healthy conflict that comes from divergent points of view because they're founded on a sense of trust and respect. Consequently, they reap the benefits of enhanced collaboration and smarter decisions.

The rise of company culture as a differentiator

As company culture has hit an all-time high in terms of emphasis from employees, we've seen tremendous movement in the workforce. People are weighing culture more heavily in job searches than even salary. Considering that inclusive company culture drives countless critical factors in a successful business, such as employee engagement, innovation and employee retention, companies must ask, "Can we afford to not focus on inclusion?"

By implementing a strategy that promotes inclusion at both the leadership and managerial levels, companies can build a compelling work culture in which employees feel heard and recognized not only for the tasks they complete but also for their contributions, talents, abilities and approaches to work.

Related: How Does Inclusive Culture Boost Company Performance?

Rachel Cubas-Wilkinson

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

Head of U.S. Consultancy

Dr. Rachel Cubas-Wilkinson designs programs for Fortune 100, education, and government organizations. She holds a PhD in Transformative Leadership, an MS in Organizational Leadership, and was a founding board member for Peter F. Drucker Global Society of Management and Leadership, S. Fl. chapter.

Want to be an Entrepreneur Leadership Network contributor? Apply now to join.

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