How To Be A More Inclusive Leader: Improve Your Communication

Want to be a more inclusive leader? You need to communicate in an inclusive way.

Inclusive communication indicates that you value and respect every person’s background, viewpoints, beliefs and contributions, whether they’re employees, customers or other stakeholders — which is a basic definition of an inclusive leader. And, in doing so, you’ll set yourself apart.

That’s because even with all the emphasis on how leaders need to be more inclusive, very few leaders talk the walk. Yes, you read that right. Even though many leaders say they want to be more inclusive, their actions — including the language they use — tell a different story.

Back in 2018, I worked for the firm Quantified Communications as a communication coach. While reviewing video clips of several leaders extolling the virtues of inclusion, I heard language that sounded much more exclusionary than inclusionary. Two concrete examples of exclusionary language were leaders saying “I” instead of the more encompassing “we” and referring to “mankind,” which left out half the workforce.

Sure enough, when I asked Quantified staff to apply its proprietary computational linguistics, vocal mapping and facial micro-expression analysis to these videos to examine inclusion, they found a gap between what leaders said and what they intended.

In 2020, Quantified did another study on how leaders use their speech to signal their commitment to inclusion. This time the firm expanded its focus to determine what behaviors leaders used during their formal talks (or at least talks that were videoed, which the firm could analyze) to make people feel included. Their findings, published in the Harvard Business Review article “What Inclusive Leaders Sound Like,” revealed that leaders signaled their commitment to inclusion through three behaviors.

First, the speech of inclusive leaders showed more “audience-centered language,” including their word choice, vocal patterns and non-verbal cues. The other two behaviors were demonstrating more subject-matter expertise and more authenticity, especially when compared with other leaders in Quantified’s database.

Interestingly, Quantified’s 2020 findings also revealed that still very few leaders had actually developed an inclusive communication style, even though interest in inclusion has soared in the business community over the past two years, as confirmed by Google Trends.

If you want to challenge this trend, what can you do to adopt an inclusive communication style for both formal presentations and informal daily interactions?

Start by using more inclusive language such as first-person pronouns (“we” and “us”) and other words, terms and phrases that unify more than separate, such as “all,” “together” and “collaborate.” Also, follow the advice gleaned from Quantified’s research: Be your authentic self by being relaxed and genuine. And show you know what you’re talking about. Share examples and quote other experts too.

Based on my expertise in inclusion and communication, I would also advise you to:

• Engage individuals in conversation rather than talk at them. Listen deeply and ask questions. Also foster an environment of openness, trust and psychological safety so individuals feel they belong and can speak up and contribute.

• Watch your slang, jargon and idioms to make sure individuals understand what you’re saying. Certain words and phrases can be specific to a region, age group or areas of interest. For instance, sports references can make those who don’t follow the sport feel left out of your conversation as well as puzzled about your meaning.

• Be cautious with abbreviations too. As the CEO of a professional consulting firm frequently said — tongue in cheek — “We like to use ‘TLAs’ around here even when nobody knows what they are. We think they make us look smart, but instead we’re probably annoying and confusing our clients.” (“TLAs” are “three-letter acronyms.”)

• Choose appropriate examples to fit the situation and your colleagues. For instance, take the term “lemon squeeze.” It can refer to a safe space to talk about a “sour” topic such as conflicts or issues. It also can refer to maximizing ROI in an acquired company before it’s sold again.

• When you use images in a presentation, especially pictures of people, show a diverse group.

• When someone joins an ongoing conversation, whether it’s a video-conference call, in-person or an online chat, take a moment to acknowledge the newcomer. Then either bring them up to speed about what you’re discussing so they can join the conversation, or finish or at least defer your current chat.

By adjusting your words and other behavior, you’ll communicate in an inclusive way. And by doing so, you will show yourself and others that you’re doing more than talking about inclusion; you’re practicing inclusion.

By Liz Guthridge Forbes Councils Member, first published at Mar 22, 2021