Inclusion: how leaders affect the mental health of their people

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An inclusive leader can bolster the mental health of their workforce but, for many of us, unconscious bias could be holding us back.

If you’re a leader, like I was for many years, you’ll be knowingly or unknowingly – depending on how self-aware you are – impacting the mental health of your people, either positively or negatively, every single day you go to work.

Whether it’s the decisions you make, the words you say and how you say them, or the non-verbal cues you display, please know that you’ve made one of your team feel a certain way today.

Too often it’s the wrong type of leadership behaviours that cause or exacerbate mental health issues.

In an organisation that champions inclusion, an inclusive leader can bolster the mental health of their workforce.

These are leaders who embrace diversity, create a working environment where there’s a sense of togetherness, allow everyone to contribute, give everyone a voice and enable employees to ‘show up’ as the person they truly are.

Very often as leaders we expect people to flex and bend to suit our own style and behavioural characteristics, without recognising that we can actually mobilise people as the individuals they already are.

Here are two facts for you:

  1. In a Google study of 180 teams, looking at what makes teams effective, psychological safety was key. In other words, employees feeling safe enough to speak up as themselves and be vulnerable in front of each other.
     
  2. A Salesforce report of 1,500 business professionals, proved that employees who feel their voice is heard at work are nearly five times more likely to feel empowered to perform their best work.

Getting your head around inclusion

You’ll often hear the terms ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ used in the same sentence.

For me, the meaning of these is really simple - it’s about feeling and knowing we can all work together on an equal footing and be successful, because of our differences.

It’s about creating a sense of togetherness where we all feel we belong to the group – because we can all contribute to it.

What’s important to recognise is that one influential leader alone can dramatically set the tone for how people behave and how ‘included’ they feel. It can be very easy as leaders to pay attention to the people who we like the most, or who are most like us. We often do it unconsciously.

Only through being intentional about where we spend our time, and recognising that as leaders we have a duty to make everyone feel involved, do we create a culture where people feel valued – and can therefore perform.

The relationship between inclusion and mental health is inextricably linked. Are you failing to make that connection as a leader?

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) define inclusion like this: “diversity recognises that, though people have things in common with each other, they are also different in many ways.

“Inclusion is where those differences are seen as a benefit, and where perspectives and differences are shared, leading to better decisions”.

Being inclusive doesn’t always make things easy for leaders.

Encouraging challenge and inviting a diverse range of ideas can sometimes slow things down - but it does force us to break out of the echo chamber, creating truly inclusive environments where everyone feels heard.

There are two types of diversity I’m referring to here: surface level diversity (i.e. aspects such as age, gender, and sexual orientation), and deep level diversity (i.e. your expertise, knowledge and experience).

Most of us can probably recall stories where somebody has been unfairly treated because of their skin colour or gender - but we must remember that people can also be excluded because of their opinions, or because they’re challenging the status quo.

It’s not about inviting challenge for the sake of it, it’s about recognising the value that a different perspective can bring to creating the best solutions.

Are you missing the link?

It’s proven that things like ‘increased profits’ and ‘better company reputation’ are valuable gains from inclusion policies and practices, but are we forgetting the positive impact inclusion can have on mental health?

The relationship between inclusion and mental health is inextricably linked. Are you failing to make that connection as a leader?

You can tell that you’re creating an inclusive environment for your team that will boost their mental health and wellbeing when your people:

  • Have a voice
  • Can contribute
  • Know they can shape the things that impact them
  • Feel like they belong
  • Can be themselves

You’re hard-wired, but you can change

As a human being, you will have unconscious biases – in other words, thoughts, opinions and feelings that you’re unaware of, and behaviour that’s unintentional.

These biases can sometimes compromise the extent to which you’re able to be inclusive.

As a leader, your unconscious bias will manifest itself at work, in full view of your teams.

For example, you may be put off by someone during the recruitment process because of where they studied, or you may warm to someone over others, because they’re into the same sports as you, or they come from the same area.

Unknowingly, you’ve been swayed into making the wrong decision, which can sometimes be problematic.

Employees want to be treated like adults. The role of the modern leader is to act as a coach, as a business partner, as an enabler – not as a dictator.

While your own judgements and stereotypes are deeply ingrained in you, unconscious bias is a problem you can fix.

We’re all hard-wired to think, speak and act a certain way and we all make judgements in an attempt to keep ourselves safe.

If, however, you’re prepared to go on a journey to better understand and learn about yourself, to challenge your judgements and initial assessments of people, and to understand others and who they really are – you can address your own unconscious bias.

Unconscious bias is not an excuse for a lack of inclusion. If everybody waits for everybody else to change, where would we be?

Effective leaders must take accountability for their own development, and realise there’s always more they can discover and improve about themselves.

Togetherness in the workplace

Everybody needs to feel connected, it’s the most basic of human needs – and inclusion practices help facilitate the need we all have – to belong.

The command-and-control style of leadership goes against this, as Carol Dweck describes, “the big fish…that just needs little helpers to carry out their brilliant ideas…”

It’s widely researched and proven that this way of leading people is not only antiquated, but generates limited results.

The game-changer for you and your organisation is this: get the job done, but go about it in a way that boosts the mental health of your people, not damages it.

Employees want to be treated like adults. The role of the modern leader is to act as a coach, as a business partner, as an enabler – not as a dictator.

Your team are not there to deliver your wants and needs or to prop up your ego, they are there to deliver something that is greater than them. Your role is to bring out the best in them – to take conscious steps to get to know them, what they need, what their experience of work is, and how you can enable them.

Inclusion bolsters mental health

The game-changer for you and your organisation is this: get the job done, but go about it in a way that boosts the mental health of your people, not damages it.

Create an inclusive team where you:

  • Respect each other as human beings.
  • Foster great relationships and deepen bonds.
  • Encourage authenticity.
  • Respond positively to differences in your people and their opinions.
  • Give your team a voice.

Finally, get to know people – so that they feel more comfortable being themselves. After all, 61% of workers feel they keep an aspect of their lives hidden at work. You might just uncover the real person you lead.

As Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, said: "the clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period".

Interested in this topic? Read How to become an inclusive leader who values diversity.

About Natasha Wallace

natasha wallace

Natasha Wallace is founder and chief coach of Conscious Works, an organizational wellbeing company that works with leaders and teams to create healthy, thriving and human workplaces where self awareness and an awareness of others leads to higher levels of performance and wellbeing.

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