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.
Here are four ways leaders can create voice space while elevating the confidence of their team members, derived from the stories shared in our study.
1. Proactively establish team members’ credibility.
Think of a time you joined a new team or started working with a group outside of your usual colleagues. Did you have to go through the wringer to prove yourself, or did the leader signal — to you and others — that you had something important to contribute?
Employees don’t feel included when they must constantly earn credibility with others. In fact, employees expect to be attributed a level of credibility by their leaders and teams that acknowledges their experience, background, and competence. Seeking counsel from individuals on your team can convey that you value their expertise and perspectives. For example, one leader explicitly told a Hispanic female participant in our study, “You’re the leader here.” In doing so, he granted her informal authority and credibility in front of the team — which she said made her feel “on an equal level.” She also described leaders’ trust in her recommendations and counsel as “meaningful to me.”
Attributing credibility is important not only for your direct reports but also for the matrix partners you work with. Overly critical work environments and judgmental interactions are key factors in feeling excluded. One experienced HR professional described joining a team that did not appreciate her previous experience and had a mindset of, “You haven’t really been a business partner if you haven’t done it here.” The effort of proving her own skills and expertise “felt very demeaning at times,” she said.
2. Invite others to the conversation.
Noticing when someone has been trying to speak or hasn’t had the opportunity to contribute is an important element of creating voice space. Inclusive leaders can adeptly read the room and purposefully bring others into the conversation. It is simple but powerful to ask someone who has been trying to speak but keeps getting cut off, “What do you have to say? I see you’ve been trying to share something.” One study participant said they appreciated team or meeting leaders “purposefully giving a voice to the people who might not be chiming in” but distinguished between putting someone on the spot versus asking questions “to pull them into the conversation and allow them to have a voice.”
In today’s hybrid workplace, the importance of bringing people into the conversation — online and in person — is an essential leadership skill. Some teams use hand-raising features on their virtual work platforms to ensure that people can contribute to discussions. As a leader, engaging your team’s voice with purpose can be the difference between a confident team that contributes diverse perspectives or passive participants who hold back their best thinking.
3. Open yourself up to be challenged.
Exclusionary leaders seem to suck all the air out of the room, remain fixated on their ideas, or value their expertise above everyone else, leaving no space for team creativity to emerge. Conversely, inclusive leaders described in our study were vocal about not having the answers. One study participant described a leader who “didn’t create a lot of distance between us and her … and sometimes her ideas were the ones that we could reject,” which deepened the inclusive dynamic.
The ability to speak up, especially in disagreement with someone in authority, is a critical part of your team members’ voice behavior and a key element of an inclusive relationship with leaders. Speaking up is often associated with challenging the actions and opinions of those further up in the hierarchy, but an inclusive culture can benefit from challenging questions. One study participant said of his company’s leadership, “I had only been there for a few weeks, but I interjected a fair bit and tried to help them see inconsistencies in their thinking.” He was glad to find that “they were great about it and received it. I felt my vote was an equal vote.”
Allowing someone with less formal authority to challenge your thinking boosts their sense of confidence in their own thoughts and capabilities. Inclusive leaders know when to amplify others’ voices and how to mitigate their own voices from overpowering others’.
4. Treat others’ ideas with care.
Ideas are a source of personal significance and differentiation for employees, we found. Leaders who recognize, build on, and execute a team member’s ideas reinforce that the employee’s voice matters while also affirming their credibility. Steward ideas and invest in them, but never steal them from their owner. It’s not surprising that when a leader failed to acknowledge the source of an idea or, even worse, claimed it as their own, employees we spoke with had feelings of anger and “being used.”
It’s extremely meaningful to an employee to have their ideas and perspectives acknowledged in the moment. One employee shared a story of spending months creating recommendations before being told his ideas would not be allowed to move forward — until a few months later, when those very same recommendations were implemented by others without recognition of his efforts. Another participant described a cultural norm and reporting structure that prevented more junior employees’ ideas from being acknowledged: Only the manager in charge of sales was charged with talking to clients about new ideas. Analysts and consultants were to bring their ideas to the manager, who was “supposed to bring it up with the client. That rigid way of thinking blocks inclusivity.”
Whether due to hierarchical ways of working, bias, or simple lack of awareness, leaders who carelessly handle others’ ideas can stifle a team’s confidence and sense of inclusion. As you take steps to implement an employee’s recommendation, let others know who contributed.
Creating voice space will be fruitless if leaders don’t actually hear employee voices. There are negative consequences to not genuinely listening or acting on what is shared. A “pseudo voice” is offered by managers with no intention of considering employee input.1 Employees can spot disingenuous attempts at inclusivity, and when they perceive that they aren’t heard, they’re likely to speak up less. Listening to employees does not mean accepting their every comment or idea — but it does require genuine listening.
Leaders can struggle to create voice space due to unconscious bias, reservations about someone’s credibility, or possibly a deeper need to lead in a directive and controlling way. Inclusive leaders, on the other hand, are facilitators, creating space for their employees to contribute and strengthening their confidence.
One study participant characterized “old school” or “more traditional leaders” as “more top-down hierarchical” but described an inclusive, “modern” leadership approach as, “We’re going to figure this out together. As your leader, I’m here to facilitate the process rather than bring all the answers.”
Make your team members feel confident and included by creating voice space in a sincere way: Actively establish team members’ credibility by inviting them into the conversation, accepting that you might not have all the answers, and treating their ideas with respect. Creating voice space requires a leader’s intentionality and care — and can make all the difference in building a high-performing, diverse, and inclusive team.
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.