The Inclusive Leader: The Key Leadership Behaviors to Develop Cultural Competence

Written by Nic Dampier

Disabled Male Manager Sitting With His Colleagues At Workplace

It’s Friday night, and you’re home alone with no plans. You scroll through your social media and suddenly see a picture of your manager and teammates having a great time together at dinner – without you.

Some may shrug it off, but for most of us, being left out hurts. Put yourself in those shoes – how would you feel if you’ve been left out of an event, meeting, or even a conversation, especially by your manager?

And if you’re the manager – then how many times have you left others out when it comes to critical processes such as decision-making or providing opportunities?

Whether mindfully or unintentionally, excluding your employees leaves them feeling devalued, dismissed, or ignored. Studies have shown that frequent exclusion harms the employees’ well-being even more than harassment or bullying. On the other hand, employees who experience a sense of belonging and inclusion in the workplace are up to 3.5 times more likely to outperform their peers, showcasing increased engagement, job satisfaction, and higher retention rates.

In other words, when your employees experience an inclusive workplace where they feel safe, accepted, and valued, they’re able to share their ideas, collaborate with their colleagues, and take calculated risks without fear of judgment. This type of culture does more than celebrate a diverse mix of people – it empowers individuals to welcome and appreciate each other’s differences. In today’s workforce, where more and more employees are seeking purpose, value in their work, and a sense of belonging over monetary incentives, inclusive leaders offer an environment that not only retains talent but inspires contributions.

Now, a truly inclusive work culture can never be created without the efforts of every individual within an organization. Much like parts of a living cell, each person has a key role to play when building an inclusive work culture. However, your role as a leader is critical – being inclusive is not only a responsibility, but a way of life that extends beyond professional boundaries.

The Journey to Becoming an Inclusive Leader

The path toward inclusive leadership requires an ongoing commitment that doesn’t end with your workday. It requires a fundamental shift in mindset, one that spills over into your personal life and transforms the way you view and appreciate your interconnectedness with others. One concept that best explains this is the ancient African philosophy of ‘Ubuntu’, which, in simple terms, means: ‘You can’t be human all by yourself, but can only be human through others.’

This encourages a profound realization that we’re all intricately linked to the collective well-being of those around us. It prompts us to value each other as human beings, and to recognize that our wellbeing also depends on others’.

Becoming an inclusive leader thus requires adopting the Ubuntu mindset. It calls for a leadership style that recognizes the opportunity for diversity and creates an environment that allows a sense of community, compassion, and mutual support to flourish.

Moreover, to cultivate inclusive leadership, it’s essential to reflect on the following:

  1. Diversity: An Issue or an Opportunity?

Often, discussions surrounding Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) frame these aspects as issues to be solved. Rather than viewing them as a challenge, embrace them as opportunities that can redefine team dynamics and propel the organization to new heights of attraction, retention, and strategic advantage.

Stepping out of your comfort zone to make DEIB the norm enables the magic of inclusivity to happen, fostering authentic, holistic growth.

  1. Welcoming/Belonging: Is There a Difference?

Imagine your manager and colleagues now inviting you to dinner but ignoring you the whole time you’re there. There’s a notable contrast between merely welcoming and making you feel as if you truly belong – and this difference lies in tolerance versus valuing. Tolerance tends to be more formal, where people behave the way they’re expected to for fear of repercussions. Valuing, on the other hand, is genuinely appreciating the individual and their contributions, even in the face of differing perspectives.

Creating a belonging workplace environment involves encouraging continuous engagement with the employees. It’s not just about welcoming them to your organization for a short visit – it’s about making them feel comfortable enough to want to stay with you for the long term. This engagement goes beyond surface-level niceties, as employees now expect more authenticity and commitment from organizations. They seek to be part of the collective ‘we’ within the organization, where the essence lies in mutual recognition – not just in ‘I see you’, but ‘you also see me.’

When organizations achieve a belonging environment, it creates a space where every voice is not only welcomed but genuinely included, leading to greater talent attraction, recruitment, and retention.

  1. Your Cultural Competence as a Leader

Being a leader today often requires fostering collaboration with a variety of people and cultures, necessitating the development of cultural competence. In simple terms, cultural competence is the ability to understand, communicate with, and effectively interact with people across cultures. It acknowledges that there’s no one-size-fits-all leadership style and recognizes that what motivates one employee may not motivate the other.

To become culturally competent, leaders need to be perceptive of their own worldview and scrutinize how their biases could impact their interactions with others. They need to embrace continuous learning about other cultural practices and perspectives so that they can appreciate differences without imposing barriers. A culturally competent leader can thus create a space where all voices are heard and valued equally.


Qualities of the Culturally Competent Leader

A culturally competent leader has certain qualities that collectively contribute to creating a workplace where diversity is celebrated, challenges are proactively managed, and employees are empowered to express themselves freely. These qualities include:

  1. Self-awareness

Culturally competent leadership begins with being aware of your own sensitivities and stress triggers. What sets you off? How do you react when something threatens you? Do you shut down, face it head-on, or get defensive? Take the time to assess your reactions when confronted with stressors, as this understanding allows you to become better equipped to manage your reactions and communicate effectively when dealing with others. 

  1. Initiative

Proactively look for opportunities to connect with your employees. Whether it’s spending time with them outside of work, asking about their families, or having lunch together, culturally competent leaders create moments of connection to learn more about others, identify challenges that inspire them to action and results, and encourage collaboration and innovation.

  1. Decision-making

Innovation thrives when you’re open to suggestions and willing to try new approaches. Being a culturally competent leader comes with the understanding that you don’t have all the answers but are not afraid to ask for input from your employees. Ask for alternate opinions, review the pros and cons, and then relate them to your objectives to see if they’ll work. By doing this, you ensure a thorough decision-making process, minimizing the risk of overlooking valuable insights.

  1. Empathy

When you encounter challenges, be authentic and acknowledge difficulties with sincerity. Express empathy with phrases like ‘I’m sorry that happened’ or ‘I understand that’s difficult’, and then actively explore compromise options. Most importantly, circle back to the affected party and check on the healing process after the incident. Demonstrating empathy, particularly during times of difficulty, can do wonders in building trust with your employees.

  1. Communication skills

Effective communication, especially in a cultural context, is crucial. Different cultures have unique communication styles, and some may be more direct or subtle than what you’re used to. Actively listen and be present during the conversation – don’t guess, interrupt, or assume everything you hear! Pay close attention to non-verbal language and repeat or paraphrase to verify the message is received as intended.

  1. Influence

Let’s say you argue with your spouse one morning. You’re stressed, and you walk into the office and unintentionally direct that frustration to your team. How would this affect them? How would that set the tone for the rest of their day? As a culturally competent leader, be aware that your attitude acts as the soil for your team’s growth. Just like tending a plant, their well-being depends on the care you provide.

  1. Adaptability

Culturally competent leaders are flexible when faced with challenges beyond their control. Reflect on how you manage surprises and challenges – do they drag you down, or can you quickly pivot and identify opportunities within adversity? The ability to seek and analyze solutions for each problem or situation, no matter how daunting, showcases your resilience and capability for nurturing diverse perspectives and approaches to problem-solving.

  1. Self-management

As mentioned before, the culturally competent leader sets the tone of the workplace. If your first reaction is to panic whenever there’s an obstacle, chances are, your employees aren’t going to put their trust in you. The culturally competent leader demonstrates calmness even during moments of crisis. By managing your emotions thoughtfully, you set a standard for emotional intelligence, resilience, and composure within the team.


Become an Inclusive Leader with Frontline

Being an inclusive and culturally competent leader isn’t complicated; it simply involves taking mindful and practical steps to improve yourself and the way you interact with others. Adopt the role of a lifelong learner and broaden your understanding of people different from you through ways such as reading relevant literature, participating in dialogue circles, or making friends from various cultures. Above all, move from stating ‘I know how to be an inclusive leader’ to ‘I AM an inclusive leader’ by committing to putting what you’ve learned into practice and having the courage to speak up against stereotypes, negative conversations, or derogatory jokes.

If you’d like to learn more about how to become an inclusive leader, be sure to explore our free webinar, where Skot Welch, the Principal/Founder of Global Bridgebuilders, shares valuable insights on how inclusivity, belonging, and cultural competence help leaders create a culture that celebrates differences and promotes equality.

For tailored solutions that suit your specific needs, connect with us at Frontline. We specialize in helping organizations inspire and drive their teams, enabling them to reach their full potential so that you become and stay an Employer of Choice.

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About the Author

Nic Dampier

Nic Dampier is the Creative Director at Frontline Training Solutions as well as the Grand Rapids, Michigan locations of Express Employment Professionals and Specialized Recruiting Group. With his degree in Strategic Communication Management, and over a decade in creative leadership, Nic developed the C.R.I.C.K.E.T. framework for effective brand messaging and excels in storytelling and brand identity. A U.S. Navy veteran and former Creative Arts Pastor, he has a rich background in cross-cultural communication and large-scale production. Nic is also an accomplished filmmaker, recognized at the 2021 ArtPrize International Art Competition for his impactful storytelling.