Can you relate to being an uncool kid? Being a nerd who was excluded from the in-group was my life growing up.

Years later, the song Last One Picked from the Off-Broadway Show Whoop-Dee-Doo! served as my anthem for my childhood memories. Written by my late college classmate Dick Gallagher and his collaborator Mark Waldrop, the song thoroughly captured my feelings of angst being on the outside looking in.

Social pain has an upside though for leaders. Experiencing social pain and still remembering it today gives you a head start to be an inclusive leader, based on research conducted by Deloitte Consulting and Catalyst.

Leaders with strong personal values combined with a deep-rooted sense of fairness embedded in their personal experiences tend to be more strongly committed to practicing inclusive leadership.

What defines an inclusive leader?  

As explained in its report, The six signature traits of inclusive leadership, Deloitte has identified these behaviors: curiosity, courage, cultural intelligence, collaboration, commitment, and cognizance. (In this setting, cognizance is the awareness and recognition that because of the way our brain is hardwired, we can only reduce our biases, not eliminate them. Check out Bless your biased brain for more about this.)

What does inclusion feel like from an individual’s perspective?

When you feel included, rather than excluded, you believe you are:

  • Treated fairly and with respect.
  • Valued as a member of the group; you have a strong sense of belonging.
  • Comfortable being your authentic self at work.
  • Safe to speak up and out without fear of embarrassment or retribution.
  • Empowered to grow and do your best work.

Feeling included is not just a warm, fuzzy sensation.

Based on Deloitte Australia’s analysis of inclusion measures in a survey of 4,100 respondents in four organizations, a sense of inclusion translates into meaningful on-the-job improvements. Individuals who felt more included had a 17% increase in perceived team performance; 20% better decision-making quality; and 29% improvement in collaboration.

By contrast, when you feel excluded, you not only feel pain, but your performance also can decline. For more about this, read Why social pain hurts your workplace performance (and how to avoid it).

You’d think that inclusive leaders would also have an advantage at pursuing the triple bottom line — economic, environmental, and social — for their organizations and sustaining a level of success.

However, this third metric — social sustainability — gets short changed even when leaders believe in and practice inclusion.

Last year Mercedes Martin, CEO and Founder of Mercedes Martin & Company and I partnered to conduct a series of interviews on sustainable leadership in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world. Mercedes has an extensive background in diversity, inclusion and business transformation. I brought the applied neuroscience perspective, which covers inclusion, bias, and other related issues.

Through our research, corroborated with others, we found that leaders often say they feel uncertain, uneasy and unskilled to address challenges and leverage opportunities related to social issues.

For example, almost all of the leaders we talked with said they felt confused, intimidated, and overwhelmed with how to address human needs. They feared offending listeners, and worried that their brand messaging could easily conflict with social concerns. As a result, the leaders weren’t involving their stakeholders — primarily employees, suppliers, customers and community members – despite their desire to provide more inclusive experiences and a more inclusive culture.

Moreover, the leaders felt they didn’t have a map to follow. The tools, training, and leadership frameworks these and other leaders have counted on in the past haven’t yet been updated yet for today’s more diverse VUCA world. (Our report, Seen, Heard & Connected by Mercedes, Miloney Thakrar, and me, will be available soon.)

In response, Mercedes, with support from Milony and me, has developed interactive tools to help leaders humanize social sustainability. As a result, leaders will be better equipped to start turning social pains into sustainable gains to improve and sustain their triple bottom line.

At the MEECO Conference next week, Mercedes and I will conduct a lab with participants, primarily executive coaches and learning and development professionals, to share our learnings and ideas and work with them to consider social sustainability in new ways.

For leaders, the first step is reflection, getting greater clarity, courage and commitment about your own personal identity, beliefs and purpose.

Once you’ve examined your mindset and defined your purpose, you’re better prepared to start to design and then build — that is co-create — an inclusive culture.

Being inclusive is good for everyone. It’s a more humane way to work and live.

Let me know if you want to know more.

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