Develop and maintain an inclusive leadership style

by | May 27, 2024

Managers’ main role is to lead employees and teams to perform well. One effective leadership style that is gaining in popularity for its proven benefits is inclusive leadership. Inclusive leaders bring “a 17% increase in team performance … 29% increase in team collaboration … cut down employee attrition risk by 76%,” according to HBR. The people benefits impact the bottom line, too, as organizations with inclusive leadership report higher innovation revenue, 2.3 times the cash flow, and are 70% more likely to capture a new market.

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  • Inclusive leadership benefits: This leadership style significantly boosts team performance (17%) and collaboration (29%) and reduces employee attrition risk (76%). Financially, it leads to higher innovation revenue, increased cash flow, and better market capture.
  • Definition and importance: Inclusive leadership involves valuing and incorporating diverse opinions and contributions, creating a sense of belonging. It’s increasingly expected by new generations and is crucial for high-performing, engaged teams.
  • Neuroscience insights: Inclusive environments counteract the brain’s negativity bias, fostering creativity, engagement, and motivation. Psychological safety derived from a sense of belonging is essential for team performance and innovation.
  • Key traits: Inclusive leaders exhibit curiosity, courage, accountability, humility, authenticity, and empathy. These traits enable leaders to create an environment where employees feel valued, understood, and willing to contribute.
  • Implementation steps: To foster inclusive leadership, organizations should:
    • Build on existing strengths and remove barriers.
    • Train managers with clear examples of inclusive behaviors.
    • Regularly measure and discuss leadership growth.
    • Encourage continuous feedback and improvement through support groups.

What is inclusive leadership?

Inclusive leadership is a style in which leaders and managers include and appreciate everyone for who they are, encouraging and accepting differing opinions, views, and input. This approach creates an atmosphere where employees feel a sense of belonging and uniqueness, knowing that their contributions are valued.

Inclusive leadership is becoming increasingly expected as organizations adapt to the changing demands of new generations. This leadership style is centered around creating an environment where everyone feels seen, listened to, and valued. Organizations that prioritize fostering a culture of inclusive leadership gain an edge in creating high-performing and engaged teams.

Inclusive leadership means working with high levels of openness, honesty, and controlled risk-taking. Making mistakes must be allowed to a certain level, as it is “the route to shaping the nervous system so that it continuously performs better and better,” according to Andrew Huberman, Professor and Neuroscientist at Stanford University.

“The route to shaping the nervous system so that it continuously performs better and better.”

The neuroscience of inclusive leadership

Neuroscientists suggest that the feeling of inclusion and responses to feelings of rejection are perhaps most important to performance and engagement. Organizations that utilize neuroscientific-based frameworks in developing their employees will leverage human drivers for commitment, motivation, and engagement.

How does inclusion impact our behaviors?

One of the brain’s main principles is avoiding danger by alerting brain regions whenever there is a negative event or stimuli. Negative stimuli receive more attention quicker compared to positive experiences. This is called negativity bias, which means humans tend to focus on negative events more than positive ones. Negative information gets more attention, and we are influenced more by negative emotions. Simply put, to the brain, bad is stronger than good. By creating an environment where positive emotions can override negative stimuli, the brain unlocks opportunities for creativity, engagement, and motivation, and inclusive leadership provides this environment.

A second priority the brain seeks is feeling part of the group. Neuroscience refers to belonging as relatedness, and studies show that relatedness is a strong driver for feeling psychological safety. “Without psychological safety, diverse teams that otherwise excel in innovation underperform,” according to HBR. Organizations with an inclusive leadership culture can maintain a high sense of relatedness enable employees to perform higher-quality work, unleash their creativity, and adopt an innovation mindset. In a psychologically safe environment, people dare to contribute and share their views. It is also a key to high engagement.

“Without psychological safety, diverse teams that otherwise excel in innovation underperform.”

Inclusive leadership in practice

Inclusive leadership means managers speak, act, and engage using a language (verbal and non-verbal) that opens up for questions, input, and employee engagement. These leaders demonstrate authenticity and empathy. When you are surrounded by inclusive leaders, people speak more freely about their thoughts, ideas, and feelings. They are willing to share differing opinions. There is respect amongst teams and their individual differences. Collaboration and initiative-taking are also stronger than in environments without inclusive leadership.

5 traits of an inclusive leader

Curiosity, courage, accountability, humility, authenticity, and empathy are the most important traits of an inclusive leader. These mean:

  1. Curiosity: Demonstrating an open mindset and perspective, willingness to consider different ideas and experiences, showing deep curiosity about others, listening without judgment, and showing empathy to understand those around them.
  2. Courage: Putting personal interests aside to achieve what needs to be done. Acting on convictions and principles even when it requires personal risk-taking.
  3. Accountability: Demonstrating confidence in employees and teams by holding them responsible for performance and taking action.
  4. Humility: Admitting mistakes and learning from criticism and different points of view; acknowledging and seeking contributions of others to overcome one’s limitations.
  5. Authenticity and empathy: Ability to understand others and take different perspectives than their own. Demonstrate authenticity in everyday interaction, allowing for trust and sincerity.

Managers who master inclusive leadership let employees feel understood, appreciated, treated fairly, and accepted for who they are. Inclusive leaders show authenticity and create an environment where employees have greater input into teamwork.

Creating a culture of inclusive leadership

Developing inclusive leadership is an ongoing process. Similar to developing a brand, it takes time to build the needed trust, but it is quick and easy to ruin. Inclusive leadership must be woven into the corporate and leadership values and a central part of the leadership culture.

Set the foundation for inclusive leadership

When developing the foundation for inclusive leadership, start building on what works well today to increase the likelihood of people living the new way forward. Also, learn what does not work today and remove the necessary barriers.

Inclusive leadership is a central tool for teaching managers how to lead. Managers need to learn examples of what great inclusive leadership looks like and what not to do.

Step 1 – Prepare the organization’s process and systems for inclusive leadership

How can organizations and managers set the foundation for making inclusive leadership traits easy to apply? Begin by including the inclusive leadership traits in the leadership performance measurement, often called a Leadership Growth Survey. Gather the input for what works well and what might be hindering leaders from leading inclusively and use it in Step 2.

A best practice is also to create a feedback support group of 2-3 people that the manager trusts. Group members can be peers, direct reports, or someone else in the organization. Each group member shares feedback on the manager’s ability to lead with inclusive traits in the moment, helping the manager learn how they are perceived.


In Populum, you can easily set up your Leadership Growth surveys by adding additional questions to your pulse survey and choosing from a neuroscience-validated question library.

Tip! Ask for input using question statements such as “In our organization, diverse perspectives are included in the decision-making,” “In our organization, leaders actively seek new ideas from the employees,” “In our team, we dare to try new ideas that can benefit the organization,” “My manager seeks my input and views by asking questions that expand solution thinking,” and “My manager is curious, open for new suggestions and show an authentic interest in listening to my input.”

Step 2 – Build inclusive leadership into your organization

Once you know what works well and what might be in the way of inclusive leadership, you can build the foundation for what inclusive leadership looks like for the leaders in your organization. For example, focus on developing or updating:

  • A leadership profile: From the results of your deep dive into your organization’s current inclusive leadership perception, single out what works well and what does not. Use this to formulate the expectations of inclusive leadership and the behaviors and actions that great managers do. Also, explain what non-inclusive managers do so the distinction is clear. Add this to your leadership profile.
  • Values: Formulate inclusion in your corporate values. Explain what they mean to each person in the organization, both from internal and external perspectives. Ensure these perspectives align and work to strengthen the brand.
  • Ongoing growth conversations: Develop an approach to performance management that aligns with inclusive leadership. Instead of yearly reviews, design frequent development performance conversations using feedback to provide growth opportunities.
  • Culture: Create frameworks and practical tools to drive a culture of inclusion. For example, inclusion is the responsibility of the entire organization, not only managers and HR but a commitment to act and behave inclusively in every conversation. Ensure consistency in internal and external communication. Measure your culture in your pulse survey to ensure everyone lives up to the expectations.
  • Development program: Create a program for leaders to learn how to lead using the inclusive leadership style. Provide them with a chance to learn what it means and hands-on practice how they are supposed to act, behave, and lead their teams. A key is to learn how they should ask different colleagues for feedback.


Expand inclusive leadership to cover cultural values and principles by teaming up with your communications department. Ensure your inclusive leadership and culture strategy aligns with the internal and external communication strategy for a consistent message about your inclusive culture.

Step 3 – Maintain inclusive leadership

Run a slightly more in-depth Leadership Growth Survey every two months and keep two or three inclusive leadership questions in your monthly pulse survey. After each survey, incorporate the measurement results into team meetings, discuss the measurement outcome, and plan the improvement actions together. To ensure inclusive leadership traits, the manager must listen to what is said and act on the results of how they portray an inclusive leadership style.

The manager feedback support group provides relevant instant feedback after a meeting, for example. By providing instant feedback, the manager can reflect on and act on it immediately.


For managers in the feedback support group, using a brain friendly-feedback framework will impact the effect of the feedback. Learning how the brain responds and reacts to feedback is key.

A modern high-performing organization

Inclusive leadership is part of the foundation for a modern, high-performing organization. It requires a human-centered culture where leaders’ communication and actions are key to developing and maintaining the right environment. While inclusive leadership takes deliberate focus and can be ruined in an instant, getting it right pays off for employees, leaders, and the bottom line. The best foundation for high-performing organizations is when people have a habit of working in alignment with how the brain works. While change happens at a fast pace in our society and organizations, our brains still have much of the same structure and instincts as 40,000 years ago.


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