Today's increasingly diverse and global workforce values an inclusive environment. Companies that demonstrate their ability to evolve and provide an inclusive, trustworthy work environment will see the positive effects through recruitment and retainment of top talent, and higher levels of employee satisfaction and engagement. This will boost creativity and innovation, and keep up with changing markets and technologies.
For this work to succeed, it first requires an organizational commitment to promote an inclusive culture, which is predicated by a climate of trust. Employees need to trust their organizations and managers will do what’s right, act in their best interests, and dedicate the required resources. As agents of organizational change, managers should lead by example and model inclusive behaviors to create a trusting environment where all employees can succeed.
Adopt an inclusive leadership style that promotes trust
As a recent Gallup perspective paper explains, “Diversity is about whom you hire. Inclusion refers to the extent to which diverse employees are valued, respected, accepted, and encouraged to fully participate in the organization.” Thus, inclusiveness should be viewed as the “necessary activating ingredient” to produce a trusting and supportive environment that enables a diverse workforce to reach their full potential.
Employees reflect this sentiment. In a Deloitte survey of more than 1,300 US employees across industries, the majority of respondents indicated inclusion as a top consideration when choosing an employer; plus, a preference for one where leadership demonstrates consistent inclusive behaviors.
Additionally, the Deloitte study found employees highly value the experience of inclusion; thus, organizations need to focus on what an inclusive workplace “feels” like, rather than just what it “looks” like.
What does inclusion feel like? According to a Catalyst survey, an inclusive atmosphere results in employees feeling “valued, trusted, authentic, and psychologically safe at work.” Thus, one key characteristic of inclusion is trust. When employees feel trusted, they become influencers and contribute meaningful feedback to decision-making processes within the organization.
While organizations have an obligation to set the expectations for an inclusive workplace culture, managers should not underestimate the influence they have on fostering this inclusion and building trust. In fact, the Catalyst study found nearly half of the respondents’ inclusion experiences were attributable to having managers who exhibited inclusive leadership behaviors. Managers can adopt an inclusive leadership style that promotes trust through their actions, such as making fair workplace decisions, fostering open communication, and amplifying the voices of team members.
It’s also critical to evaluate how your management style impacts team dynamics and promotes fairness and mutual respect. Specifically, an autocratic management style—characterized by micromanaging and policing tone and behavior—signals a lack of trust in team members. An inclusive culture is built upon autonomy and self-directed teams. Thus, managers are responsible for setting the vision and strategy, connecting people to resources, and reinforcing accountability. Then, it’s up to the team to take ownership and make the tactical decisions. This autonomy also enables flexibility in work-life balance because employees are trusted to get their work done on their own schedules.
Make fair workplace decisions
We all make assumptions about people of other group identities based on our own cultures and life experiences. Implicit (or unconscious) bias is even more ominous because it occurs automatically and can be harder to mitigate.
For example, social psychology research indicates we make judgements about who to trust within milliseconds based on facial structure, and these split-second decisions can have lasting repercussions (e.g., who we hire). Thus, building trust in work relationships starts during the first interactions with employees.
Managers can take proactive steps to interrupt biased behaviors and increase trust by implementing fair policies and effective organizational structures. Deloitte says one key area to focus on is employment decisions—hiring, pay, work assignments—because perceived biases in these processes will inevitably destroy trust and demoralize employees. Both The Avarna Group and the National Institutes of Health’s Scientific Workforce Diversity Office have developed toolkits on reducing bias in recruitment and hiring.
Foster open communication
An inclusive culture also requires open communication and transparency to develop trusting relationships. With increasing use of virtual communications, we all may feel more socially awkward now, so practicing interpersonal skills (e.g., active listening, role playing) is a worthwhile investment. Adopting an open-door policy also lets employees know they can candidly approach you with both personal and professional challenges, while setting clear boundaries (e.g., what is and isn’t appropriate to share) as necessary.
Additionally, direct reports may confide in you about difficult workplace relationships. It’s important to ask questions, learn more about the situation, and guide employees in finding solutions to resolve any conflict, instead of taking premature actions that could breach trust or worsen the situation. However, issues related to toxic and harmful behaviors (harassment) need to be addressed immediately to ensure employee safety and trust in the organization to take such complaints seriously.
Also, navigating the difficult conversations around diversity issues requires careful attention to individual sensitivities, while accepting a certain level of discomfort. Gallup emphasizes managers can create trust by facilitating these conversations with compassion and transparency. One useful tool is a community agreement, which develops group consensus on a set of guidelines and acceptable boundaries when engaging in challenging discussions. Such agreements can ensure more productive conversations overall because employees feel more comfortable speaking in a safe and trusting space.
Amplify the voices of team members
The Gallup paper points out there is a certain level of uncertainty and vulnerability that comes from differences, and trust is key for employees to feel empowered to fully participate. It takes much courage for employees from marginalized groups to be their authentic self at work and risk being judged or stereotyped negatively. Managers can thus model inclusive behavior by striving for authenticity, which includes admitting mistakes, being open to feedback, and always learning. By showing your vulnerabilities and a willingness to improve, employees will be more trusting that their differences will be accepted and appreciated.
Another strategy is to amplify the voices of those typically underrepresented in your organization. It’s important for employees to be heard and acknowledged to positively reinforce the message that they are valued, respected, and trusted members of your team. Gallup says, “We all have a voice. Encouraging your employees to use theirs will help you create an environment of respect and trust—one full of belongingness, strengths, and engagement.” As examples, you can pay attention to who is not being heard from or present at meetings, then actively invite them into the conversation, and track who contributed which ideas to give proper credit.
An additional way to give employees a voice is to create open channels for them to provide continuous and real-time feedback on their perceptions of fairness and trust within the workplace. This approach can also reveal disconnects in perceived trust between managers and their employees to identify further areas of improvement. There are also other institutional assessments, like the Global Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Benchmarks, that can be conducted to give insight on promoting an inclusive culture.
Overall, by modeling inclusive behaviors and simultaneously building trust, managers can have a lasting impact on diversity and inclusion outcomes within their organizations.