It’s time for leaders to start listening and create an inclusive culture in their organizations

At most large organizations, diversity and inclusion have become interlinked imperatives. While both sides of the coin are important, we shouldn’t necessarily lump them together. Diversity is a payroll issue: it’s about who is in the room during meetings, or who holds leadership positions. It’s about getting the right people into the right roles to bring a broad set of views and perspectives to the organization’s decision-making process.

Inclusion, on the other hand, is a cultural issue: it’s about creating a culture where people feel a sense of belonging to one another and to the organization’s mission. Companies feel pressure to go beyond check-the-box diversity initiatives and invest in inclusion, but to what end? To understand the importance of inclusion, we need to take a broader perspective on the uncertainties and unknowns that companies face every day.

Military inclusion

In my work with the US military, I’ve learned that one of the most common questions keeping army generals up at night is: “Who will our next opponent be?” Without a definitive answer, many then ask themselves: “How do we prepare for an unknown future?” People in corporate leadership positions face similar questions.

The military recognizes that, to prepare for the unknown, it must begin by developing agile leaders – people who not only understand their roles and can execute on tasks, but operate with a high level of flexibility and adaptability in a rapidly changing environment, innovating in the moment and acting improvisationally as situations demand. But can you really train individuals to be agile?

Picture for a moment a manager named Alaine. She is organized, mission-driven, and keeps her team task-oriented. When Alaine worked in insurance in the 1990s and 2000s, she was a consistent high performer and her team set company sales records. But over the past few years, she and her team haven’t been responding well to the shifting market, so Alaine’s boss sends her to a half-day session on agile leadership. Do you think it helps? The obvious answer is no: Alaine’s strengths are in planning and executing, not in thinking on her feet. But what if she’d attended a two-day program? Would that have worked any better? A five-day program? Two weeks? Agility is not easily taught, and it’s certainly not easily acquired.

In fact, rather than addressing Alaine’s agility issue as an individual problem, her boss should think about it as a collective one. Rather than viewing your team or organization merely as a body of people with a collective purpose, think of it as a collection of individuals who belong to a variety of agile networks, both internal and external. Depending on the situation you’re facing, any number of unlikely individuals within the network may have useful perspectives, or even the answer you need.

The leadership problem then becomes how to give people a voice to share their valuable insights. This is where inclusion comes in. How can you help each individual connect their efforts with meaning and purpose, to encourage them to take an active role in the organization’s success? When an individual offers her unique perspective to help solve a problem or achieve a goal, are you able to listen to that message, amplify it throughout the organization, and include the entire network in the process of adapting for growth and change?

Inclusion against infection

Inclusion helps us effectively communicate our message and solve our toughest and most significant challenges. Consider an example from the healthcare field. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, is a virulent pathogen that is immune to most antibiotics, and the best place to pick it up is in hospital. It can live harmlessly on the skin and up to six weeks on environmental surfaces, and is easily transmitted through contact with items like a physician’s tie, white coat, or stethoscope. If the bug enters your body, it can cause debilitating illness, excruciating suffering and even death.

MRSA is among the world’s most alarming public health threats. Despite being preventable by infection-control protocols, it is rampant in healthcare facilities. The medical field has understood for more than 150 years the best way to stop the spread of infectious disease: washing hands. Yet studies of hand hygiene show abysmal compliance rates with hand-washing procedures – just 29-48% – meaning that most encounters between healthcare providers and patients carry a high risk of MRSA transmission.

While MRSA infection rates are soaring across the US, they’re declining sharply at the Department of Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh Healthcare System (VAPHS). Why? Because of inclusion. Cheryl Squier, head infection-control nurse at VAPHS, says “widespread ownership” of the struggle with MRSA gave birth to real culture change. In the past, she says, the typical mindset was, “That’s your department, you take care of it.” Today, “MRSA is viewed as everyone’s problem”, and staff at all levels are stepping up to tackle it. They include one housekeeping staff member who surprised doctors with his knowledge that bleach, not alcohol, is needed to kill Clostridium difficile, another virulent antibiotic-resistant bug: he was later selected to conduct one of the regular MRSA briefings for 15-20 staff members, including leading physicians, where he reported that his unit had zero MRSA infections. A pre-med student holds weekly chats with patients to elicit their ideas on how to fight MRSA: past suggestions include having patients share their stories, giving each patient hand-sanitizer and instructions for use upon admission, and getting patients to share knowledge about hand hygiene when they play bingo, gather in smoking areas, or watch football together. One nurse, wanting to make germs visible, searched online and found Glo Germ, a product that is normally invisible but glows under ultraviolet light. She applied it to the pens people used to sign in to a meeting: later in the day, under ultraviolet light, participants were astounded to see how the powder had spread to their hands, heads, glasses, watches, plates, cups, and clothing. It was dramatic evidence of fast, relentless, silent transmission. And an MRSA coordinator organized floor-wide events designed for casual, non-hierarchical interactions among individuals with diverse functions. Experiences were shared, victories celebrated, disappointments met with resolve, and new ideas generated.

This inclusive approach not only encouraged staff members to identify successful MRSA-prevention practices, it stimulated them to self-organize to share ideas, practices, and results. How can companies build their own culture of inclusion to solve the challenges they face?

The Agility Loop

The Agility Loop is a continuous four-step process for ensuring that leaders at every level maintain a pulse on the implementation and utilization of inclusion practices. It begins with a concept many of us find difficult, but shouldn’t: listening.

Step 1 – Listen

We’ve all had that boss. He bloviates, pontificates, and rarely empowers those around him as they struggle to get on board with his message. He has difficulty opening lines of communication, lets the best ideas go unnoticed, and is never quite able to put together an agile team. Leaders must understand that listening is an art, a skill, and, when done well, can even be a fully functioning system with the power to create a team ethos, build trust within the organization, and deliver individual and collective successes. So how do we listen – not only as individuals, but as teams and organizations?

Opportunities to listen are all around us: from personal interactions to structured and unstructured meetings, walking down office hallways, even in the elevator. The more we seek these opportunities and capitalize on them, the more we nurture the instinct to listen. Leaders can set an example for their teams by making a daily practice of listening, thus both becoming better individual listeners and building a stronger system for listening throughout the organization. Listen in order to learn: some of what you hear can, and should, surprise you. Listen to understand the organization and identify opportunities and vulnerabilities. Listen to make it clear to those who follow that you value their insights, judgments, and advice. Listen because the weakest signals are often the first indicators of success or failure. Discover efficient, realistic ways to listen to people at every level, so that you better understand the problems they are facing; recognize their ideas for potential solutions and give them their own opportunities to lead.

Step 2 – Amplify

Good leaders share credit and accept blame. They don’t simply proclaim an interest in initiative and innovation: they articulate how much risk they are willing to take to enable it. They define expectations, mapping the road they expect their team members to travel. Even more important, good leaders champion, or amplify, successes of all shapes and sizes within the organization.

Amplify the best ideas, best recommendations, and best practices: the positive examples instead of the inevitable failures. Doing so helps establish expectations and reinforces the organization’s mission. Amplify in a manner that encourages teamwork at every level. The best leaders establish a drumbeat of emphasis on values within their organization.

Amplifying does more than just provide a teaching moment about what success looks like. It boosts morale and engagement, while furthering the mission of the team and the organization.

Step 3 – Include

Leaders should emphasize inclusion rather than consolidate power. Those who prioritize inclusion achieve greater success, at both the individual and organizational levels.

Inclusion leads to greater knowledge about the nature of the problems we face and how we might solve them. The more information we harvest from all corners of our organizations, the more inclusion we can generate; the more inclusion we build, the more likely we are to solve our problems. And solutions are far more likely to endure when we support them with inclusion.

So include to empower. Go wide and deep in including members of the team and organization in sharing knowledge, establishing a common understanding of problems, and encouraging ownership of solutions. Include to inspire loyalty: inclusion should not be dismissed as just another ‘feel-good’ movement urging us to share power and control for the sake of fairness. Include to gain competitive advantage. As we work to grow and sustain our success in a hypercompetitive, information-supercharged environment, inclusion is the way of the future.

Step 4 – Observe and adapt

Finally, leaders should constantly make note of the team’s efforts and make incremental changes to continually improve. Agility is, by definition, the ability to adapt quickly and easily over time. That ability is at the heart of why inclusion is an imperative for today’s organizations.

Too many people today feel marginalized and unheard in their lives. Leaders simply can’t afford for people to go unheard in their organizations, because ultimately, inclusion is about winning and losing. Only inclusive organizations have what it takes to win in a fast-changing world: the ability to listen, amplify, include and adapt. Failure to embrace inclusion would be the defining leadership failure of the 21st century.

— Ori Brafman is a New York Times bestselling author specializing in organizational culture and inclusion