Amid the Great Resignation, leaders are clamoring to retain and attract a diverse workforce while many managers are struggling with how to lead inclusively. In McKinsey’s research on that topic — what it refers to as the Great Attrition — employees reported that not feeling valued and lacking a sense of belonging were important factors affecting their decision to leave their previous job. Unfortunately, practical leadership approaches to address these challenges are hard to come by. Research-based frameworks such as social identity theory and optimal distinctiveness theory give us a foundational understanding of inclusion, but they do not address enhancing inclusion at an actionable level within the workplace.
What does inclusion actually feel like at work? How do leaders shape the feeling of inclusion? In our study, we wanted to see how employees described and experienced inclusion at a level of depth that surveys could not reveal. After interviewing a purposeful sample of employees, we analyzed over 15 hours of stories of inclusion and exclusion. Our participants came from four different industries across eight job types and were diverse in terms of gender, race, and career level.
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“Belonging” has been a central theme for workplace inclusion for quite some time. However, 80% of the participants in our study told us they feel more confident about their capabilities when interacting with inclusive leaders, beyond just a general sense of belonging or being valued. They feel the opposite with exclusive leaders, who often evoke feelings of doubt and insecurity. In other words, the more confident employees felt around leaders and teams they interacted with, the more they perceived they were included. Confidence is an important but overlooked feeling connected with workplace inclusion that leaders can directly influence.
Several inclusive leadership practices, like coaching and building open and vulnerable relationships, can generate employee confidence. Our study highlighted in particular how inclusive leaders are great at creating voice space. In fact, 100% of our participants shared how having a voice was important to feeling confident and included. Employee voice can be defined as the voluntary communication of ideas, recommendations, concerns, or other work-related opinions. However, for employees to feel that they have a voice, leaders need to intentionally create space for individuals to contribute. In doing so, inclusive leaders raise the employee’s level of informal authority and credibility, resulting in heightened feelings of confidence.
1. G. de Vries, K.A. Jehn, and B.W. Terwel, “When Employees Stop Talking and Start Fighting: The Detrimental Effects of Pseudo Voice in Organizations,” Journal of Business Ethics 105, no. 2 (January 2012): 221-230.