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Seven Steps to Becoming a More Inclusive Leader

The lack of diversity in tech isn’t just a pipeline problem; it’s a retention problem. Here are a few key steps to becoming a more thoughtful—and inclusive—team leader. 

inclusive leadership

Becoming an inclusive leader isn’t always easy. We hear time and again that diverse teams are happier and more successful, but day-to-day, it’s easy to push aside the difficult questions of inclusive leadership in favor of more urgent tasks. At many companies, taking the time to get this right can be seen as a detriment to the bottom line or a distraction. Neither of these notions could be further from the truth. 

Learning how to be more inclusive as a manager, team lead, and open-source maintainer has been an eye-opening experience for me, and it’s something I’ll be learning about for the rest of my career. For now, I’ve decided to share what I’ve learned about the topic, manager to manager. 

Because so much diversity and inclusion work requires sensitivity to a person's perspective, or context, I want to be very clear about the perspective I bring to this conversation: I'm a white, queer, nonbinary woman in tech. I’m a self-taught developer, I have a college degree, and I've been around programmers all my life. I have a thick skin; I like nerdy things. In a lot of ways, I fit into the tech community just fine, so I’m using that privilege to speak out for others who might not.

What is Inclusive Leadership?

Inclusive leadership is about actively creating an environment in which all members of your team feel empowered to contribute and feel safe to be themselves. While the tactics vary depending on the situation, at a high level, it means demonstrating empathy for team members and customers, advocating for colleagues with less institutional power, increasing your cultural and emotional intelligence, and establishing a culture that values (rather than merely accepts) diverse perspectives.

Lots of articles about inclusive leadership list personality traits of inclusive leaders, but that’s not the approach I take here. I believe anyone can (and everyone should) demonstrate inclusive behavior, so I focus on actions that will help develop your inclusive leadership style.

What Happens When Staff Feel Underrepresented? 

While the repercussions of non-inclusive leadership are felt differently between people and between teams, there are a few red flags and common downfalls to look out for. For the person who isn't feeling included by leadership, these are common experiences:

  • You don’t fit in. While seemingly obvious, this situation leads to a number of knock-on effects, including not getting the information you need to do your job, performing emotional labor (which leads to burnout) and more. In an industry obsessed with culture fit, not fitting in is a serious problem.

  • You experience microaggressions. Microaggressions were defined by Dr. Derald Sue as "the everyday slights, indignities, put downs and insults that people of color, women, LGBT populations or those who are marginalized experiences in their day-to-day interactions with people." While each microaggression is indeed small, the cumulative impact can be immense, leading to anger, lower productivity, and eventually leaving a job. 

  • You bear the burden of representation. If you are the only person on your team from a certain demographic or with a specific need, there can be pressure to perform above expectations. You also face trade-offs (should I educate my boss about my family’s religious holidays, or just grin and bear it?) that your other colleagues do not. 

  • You make less money. In addition to dealing with exclusion, microaggressions, and the burden of representation, pay inequality is a persistent issue. Women, people of color, and other marginalized groups make less money for equal work.  

  • You don’t know if you’ll have backup. The Women in the Workplace 2019 study proved what I’ve seen time and time again: It’s risky to raise an issue at work when you’re already underrepresented, whether it’s a microaggression or something much more serious. 

  • You think about leaving. Remember what I said about emotional labor leading to burnout? All these factors contribute to workplace dissatisfaction, isolation, and turnover. The lack of diversity in tech isn’t just a pipeline problem; it’s a retention problem.

As you work to become a more inclusive leader, keep these experiences in mind. Not every underrepresented person will have these experiences, of course, but they are common and worth remembering as you work on demonstrating more inclusive behaviors.

7 Tips for Becoming a More Inclusive Leader

What can you do to improve your inclusive leadership style? Here are a few places to start:

1. Reflect

I invite you to start paying attention to your own frame of reference.  Consider how your background affects the way you show up at work. Think about the ways your education, race, gender, age, physical or mental health all come into play. How comfortable are you discussing those things at work? How comfortable are your reports doing the same? 

2. Slow Down

In a world where “Move fast, break things” is printed on company walls, it can feel radical to ask someone to slow down. But a few minutes of planning and thought can go a long way. Speed and spontaneity are rarely inclusive—they rely on ingrained habits, not empathy and understanding. Build new, more inclusive habits and you’ll still be able to iterate quickly without asking your underrepresented colleagues to bear the burden. 

3. Ask 

Don’t be afraid to ask questions: How do you pronounce your name? Am I addressing you the way you’d like to be addressed? How am I doing? Is there anything more you’d like to discuss?  You can’t read your employees’ minds, but you can make the space for discussion to happen.  

Tip: Consider anonymous options for collecting feedback, paired with public acknowledgment and commitment to improve—remember, your employees don’t always know if they’ll have backup and may not be willing to share right away.)

4. Practice 

These conversations aren’t easy, but they get easier with practice. Start having awkward 1:1s. Commit to sharing a personal struggle with your reports so they know it’s okay to talk about these things at work. Not comfortable using singular “they”? Try using it in a story where gender isn’t relevant. 

5. Focus on Culture Add, not Culture Fit 

A diverse team is smarter and does better work. So why focus on whether or not someone also likes craft beer and board games? Reframe the conversation so your hiring plans can look for what new and exciting perspective someone brings to your team. As my own manager Drew Gorton puts it, “If you want better results, surround yourself with people who are meaningfully different from you.” 

6. Educate Yourself 

While it’s totally okay to ask questions, be mindful of the burden you put on your employee. It’s not their job to educate you, so do some of your own research. Follow new people on Twitter. Read books. This kind of education is a rewarding journey and you’ll be glad you did it. 

7. Increase Pay Equity and Transparency 

I’ll let you in on a secret: Underrepresented people know we’re getting paid less. If that isn’t true at your company, shout it from the rooftops! But if it is true: Do what you can to make sure every member of your team is being fairly compensated (and that includes benefits). If you notice someone isn’t taking full advantage of your benefits (e.g. time off), see if you can support them in doing so—they may be dealing with the burden of representation.

Helpful Resources on Inclusive Behaviour

The good news is that so many excellent resources are available to help you help your team. I strongly encourage you to check out the following resources: 

Remember, Actions Matter 

Your actions as a leader matter. Maybe you’ve never had formal leadership training—many of us haven’t!  Whether or not you intended to end up as a manager, a team lead, or an open-source maintainer, you now hold the power to materially improve the lives of the people around you. It doesn’t matter if you don’t want this power.  As long as you are in a leadership position, it is yours and you can use it for good. 

As leaders we must remember: our teams are watching our behavior to know what is and is not acceptable. If we turn a blind eye to harassment, harassment will flourish. If we turn a blind eye to microaggressions, microaggressions will flourish.  

On the other hand, if we do a good thing, others will follow our example. If we hold ourselves and others accountable, our team will, too. If we take the time to use the right pronouns, or have an inclusive holiday celebration, our team will know it’s okay to do the same. And that’s a magical thing. 

I welcome and encourage discussion on our community forum—there are so many ways to approach this topic! I also invite all ideas and suggestions of where I could be better. It’s a journey, right? 

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