Inclusive Leadership: Fostering a Sense of Belonging and Wellbeing in Diverse Teams

By Wei Zheng, Richard R. Roscitt Chair in Leadership, Stevens Institute of Technology

Why focus on inclusion (not just diversity)?

Though diversity has the potential to boost creativity and team performance, simply having team members with different personal and cultural backgrounds does not ensure improved workplace relationships and outcomes.

A workplace that prioritizes diversity focuses on the representation of individuals with a broad range of social, cultural, and individual identities within the organization. A workplace that prioritizes inclusion focuses on respecting and valuing the breadth of perspectives that diverse individuals bring to the organization, and encourages the full participation and engagement of all organizational members.

What does an inclusive workplace feel like?

An inclusive workplace is one in which every person feels:

Feeling included in a larger collective is a fundamental human need. When we feel accepted as a valued member of a work group, we are more likely to experience a sense of wellbeing and engagement. When we don’t experience that feeling of belonging, we are more likely to experience stress, anxiety, and isolation.

Inclusive leadership is critical to fostering the kind of environment where every employee can thrive.

How can I be an inclusive leader?

Research on inclusive leadership, including a recent research study of mine, has identified concrete ways that leaders can foster inclusiveness.

Scrutinize Your Practices to Ensure Fairness and Equal Opportunity

Research shows that whether practices are seen as fair influences employees’ perceptions of a leader’s trustworthiness and their sense of how much they are respected by their work group. Before you can make meaningful change, take some time to assess your existing work practices to identify any potential bias in how you make pay and bonus decisions, assign tasks, determine promotions, and engage in interactions with your team members. Even if you do not have control over some personnel decisions, you can control the processes of implementing these decisions in a fair way. Some questions that can guide this preliminary assessment:

Take Action


⚿ Develop awareness about your gut feelings and ask whether they are based on personal familiarity or objective work-related criteria. Increase the transparency of your decisions. ⚿ Regularly seek feedback from team members to stay in tune with their experience of fairness, using informal discussions, formal meetings, climate surveys, or third-party audits.

Know Who You’re Leading

Acknowledging differences helps your team members feel they can bring their authentic selves to work, that work is a safe place for them, and that their authentic experiences and feelings are legitimate and valued. Being curious about your team’s upbringing and key personal developmental experiences can lead to learning about deeply held beliefs, values, and aspirations that can help you identify ways to work effectively together and recognize areas where your organization may need to change established practices.

Take Action

⚿  Learn about and celebrate your team members’ cultural and personal backgrounds and identities. ⚿  Personally invite new members to join you in a group social event, and ensure your workplace celebrates a variety of cultural events. ⚿  When they break in the news, address major incidents of bias and discrimination with your team and encourage discussion. Reaffirm your commitment to equality and inclusion. ⚿ Challenge yourself to become uncomfortable by increasing your interactions with team members you are unfamiliar with and learning their stories. ⚿ Reflect your respect for and awareness of difference by using inclusive language (e.g., “spouse” instead of “husband” or “wife”), following individual preferences for self-identification, and allowing for differences before assuming similarities.

Be Aware of Subgrouping

Subgroups that form along demographic (gender, race, age), functional, or disciplinary lines often occur in a work environment. These subgroups can provide information and support to their members, but they can also pose a challenge to the integration of the whole group.

Take Action

⚿ Make an effort to observe who go out to lunch together, who sit together in meetings, and who belong to the same social groups outside work. ⚿ Put people who belong to different subgroups into the same task forces – this can be a critical step toward building team-level trust and cutting across subgroups. ⚿ Allow subgroups to continue providing support to their members, but balance that with cross-group interactions to foster a larger group identity.

Support Underrepresented Group Members

Do you provide mentoring to team members of underrepresented groups? Have you committed to increasing diversity on your team? Do you provide cross-training to team members of underrepresented groups to bolster their career mobility? Research has long shown a positive spillover effect to diversity initiatives: when organizations put in place structural support for racial/ethnic minorities, women feel supported, and vice versa. It is the commitment and support to put everyone on an equal footing that inspires engagement.

Take Action

⚿ Demonstrate commitment to diversity and inclusion by implementing diversity programs and policies. ⚿ Assess outcomes and make adjustments based on those assessments. ⚿ Form task forces to monitor and improve on these diversity efforts. Assess outcomes and make adjustments based on those assessments.

Share Your Experience of Inclusive Leadership

Through daily action and awareness, an inclusive leader bridges differences and boundaries in order to spark collaboration and creativity.

What are some concrete ways you have found that increase your team members’ feelings of belonging and inclusion?

What are some concrete ways your leader has made you feel like a valuable member of the team?