“Every part of you is welcome and needed in your leadership.”
If you have seen this declaration in my email footer, you know that I’m passionate about enabling people to show up as themselves at work. In teams where individual differences are valued and each person feels invited to contribute authentically, engagement increases and big problems get solved. There are many ways to foster inclusion at work and we often focus on shifting cultures at the group level. That's why so many leaders are surprised when I ask them whether they are including and welcoming themselves in the same way. Quite often, they tell their team they value authenticity but send a different message through their behavior toward themselves.
When I think about this common challenge of speaking to one set of values and modeling something contradictory, my daughters come to mind. At ages seven and four, they are excellent at detecting incongruity (or B.S.). If I say it's important to keep their rooms clean and they see my office is a cluttered mess, they call me on it. If I suggest ways they can be more patient at the grocery store and then become irritated when they won't put on their shoes faster, they call me on it. Adults have that same innate intelligence when words and actions aren't aligned but may not speak up (for various reasons). Many managers and leaders don't realize the ways they give their teams permission to be unique or brilliant or imperfect but don't extend that same permission to themselves. It is by modeling the authenticity and vulnerability that they hope to support in their teams that leaders can create the psychological safety necessary for true inclusion. Here are some thoughts on how to do that.
Safe to Shine - Create a healthy bragging culture
“Brag” is a word that turns a lot of people off. We often associate bragging with someone boasting in an obnoxious way. If, instead, we create a culture where team members can express pride about a unique contribution they made or a way they expanded beyond their comfort zone, we start to recognize the gifts of our teammates. It also enables peers to support each other's development and share the accomplishments of their group with others. This practice can be as simple as asking everyone in a team meeting to share one accomplishment or capability they're proud of and taking time, as the manager, to share as well.
As a manager and project lead, this is something I could have done more. I received feedback that the people reporting to me knew what I did for them directly but wanted to know more about the political influencing and side projects where I spent my time. My story was that by keeping these details to myself, I buffered them from a level of complexity and stress they didn’t need. This was my misinterpretation of what a good “servant leader” does. In reality, by not sharing the wins I created on behalf of our team, I prevented them from learning from my experience and sent an unconscious message that I was uncomfortable claiming what I did well. If I was uncomfortable bragging, was it really okay for them to celebrate?
Safe to Fail - Embrace Your Humanity
Every leader I know who has gone through significant growth did it in response to mistakes and challenges. Because they were able to see these circumstances as learning opportunities, their leadership capabilities expanded. Unfortunately, many of us have also had the experience of working in a space where it doesn’t feel safe to make mistakes. I had a manager who photocopied and mass-emailed documentation errors to the whole department in a way that made it very clear who was responsible. When people feel isolated and punished for the mistakes that are an inevitable part of work, they are less likely to take risks or attempt things outside of their comfort zone.
Notice if you have a belief that it’s okay for your staff to make mistakes but not you. Maybe your inner critic tells you that if your team knew you failed, they would feel differently about you as a leader. When you share these lessons learned, do you use self-critical language or do you use humor and self-compassion? Imperfection is inevitable. We're all human. Teach your team how to be gentle and accepting of their own challenges by being vulnerable enough to reflect on yours in the same way.
Safe to Stand Out - Celebrate Your Differences
Some of us have stories about what a “good leader” looks like, sounds like, and acts like. If you brainstormed a quick list of attributes you admire in leaders, I imagine you could split them into three categories: those you embody now, those you are developing, and those that will never fit you. Knowing how you lead best and taking a stand for what makes you different takes courage. It's easier for your team members to do the same if you set the example. Get curious if you hear yourself apologizing for what makes you stand out. Notice if you compare yourself unfavorably to other leaders in front of the team. Instead, highlight how you and a colleague work well together because your unique strengths complement one another's.
I once participated in a group activity where we created a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) of our functional group. The facilitator asked the optimists to raise their hands and assigned them to brainstorm the opportunities. He asked the pessimists to identify themselves and assigned them to think of threats. It is an experience that I will remember for a long time because I had received so much negative feedback for focusing on risks in the past and now my perspective was valued. Sitting in a group with other people who saw the world the way I did helped validate my perspective and appreciate that it was necessary for creating a great output.
Including and welcoming all of yourself at work is an important step towards creating a space where your team can show up as themselves. By modeling these behaviors, you will empower your team and engage their support in your own personal development.