Inclusive leadership drives organizations to honor the diversity and creativity of its employees while also creating more enriching and equitable workplaces for all staff — particularly those with marginalized identities and experiences. To better support staff and foster a culture of belonging, it is critical for leaders — in state Medicaid agencies as well as other health care organizations — to strengthen their inclusion skills and promote environments where staff are valued, supported, and inspired at work. These are all key ingredients for employee engagement, retention, and satisfaction.
What Is Inclusive Leadership?
Inclusive leadership focuses on building meaningful relationships across differences — such as race, ethnicity, age, disability, gender and sexual identities, religion, and lived experiences, among others. It creates safe and brave spaces where colleagues can take risks, offer input, and feel a sense of belonging within the organization based on who they are, not only what they do. A culture of equity becomes possible when these intentional efforts for inclusion are embedded throughout the organization.
When staff at Medicaid agencies and other health care organizations reflect the diverse identities they serve, they can better understand the needs and strengths of their members. But prioritizing the diversity of staff in organizations is not enough. Often, organizations hire staff with different identities, but are not intentional in engaging these individuals in necessary conversations and key decisions. It is imperative that employees, particularly those with marginalized and minoritized identities, are included —meaning they are understood, acknowledged, and empowered at work. Inclusion is critical, and it requires true effort and skill-building to be effective.
How to Become a More Inclusive Leader
Inclusive leaders are committed to lifelong learning. They are dedicated to unlearning biased assumptions because they recognize bias as a barrier to connection — and ultimately creating an equitable environment. They are curious and develop their staff to commit to this journey as well. Below are three recommendations to support individuals in becoming more inclusive leaders:
- Increase self-awareness. To be self-aware is to have a deep understanding of oneself and how one relates to others’ experiences. A person’s various identities impact the perspectives they hold and therefore how they lead in teams and organizations. Inclusive leaders take the necessary steps to better understand themselves in the contexts of identity, culture, privilege, power, and oppression to foster mutual relationships with colleagues throughout the organization. As Dana Flannery, formerly with Arizona Medicaid and a past participant in the Medicaid Pathways Program explained, “The more understanding you have of yourself and your team, the stronger the ability for deep and meaningful collaboration. This requires courage and curiosity to always ask the tough questions of ourselves and others.” Six traits of inclusive leadership identified by Deloitte — commitment, courage, cognizance of bias, curiosity, cultural intelligence, and collaboration — offer a helpful way for leaders to begin their introspection. How much does your current leadership style reflect these six traits? Where might you have room for growth and expansion? People who focus on self-development and recognize their limitations in understanding social differences are better positioned to identify and eliminate interpersonal barriers to belonging.
- Assess employee satisfaction. Some organizations implement anonymous surveys that disaggregate data to better understand employees’ identity-based experiences in the workplace. This type of feedback is important for organizations to better understand their strengths and areas of growth, especially as it relates to employee morale. One Medicaid agency administered a survey that revealed low staff satisfaction and helped explain recent attrition, particularly because staff felt that leadership did not value their contributions. Rather than dismiss or hide the problems at the agency, leaders leaned into them by listening to staff’s suggestions and advice for better engagement. Executive leaders developed charters to detail action steps for improvement, and the Medicaid director provided weekly updates to staff. The consistent dialogue and feedback loop improved their organizational culture and led to higher staff satisfaction and lower attrition rates. In this way, inclusive leadership led to gaining input from specific populations that could help inform more inclusive practices and ultimately lead to more equitable outcomes for staff.
- Create opportunities for connection. Inclusion and belonging are built through authentic connections. While every individual has their own preferences for how much they want to connect in a professional setting, inclusive leaders create optional spaces (i.e., events, informal gatherings, social time) that are intentional and humanizing. Ideally, as an organization’s culture shifts to be more inclusive, more people will opt into these organic connections. It can be as extensive as agency-wide cultural and educational events hosted by internal employee groups to increase opportunities for cross-cultural learning. It can also be as simple as celebrating or acknowledging various cultural holidays in small ways that reflect the identities of the individuals on a team. One Medicaid leader from Indiana, Jami Sayeed, shared, “As the wave of Christmas holiday activities in the office began, I wanted to create opportunities for our staff to feel seen and valued and to celebrate their diverse identities. Our team meeting involved staff sharing reflections about special times with loved ones, including bringing in mementos, pictures, and cultural foods. In April, our team members celebrated Eid al Fitr by sharing traditional holiday foods and stories. We invited colleagues to join as they passed by, building excitement for similar activities to occur with the entire organization in the future.” Authentic belonging is a cumulative result of committing to consistent positive interactions where staff are valued, celebrated, and empowered to contribute in personally meaningful ways.
Inclusive leadership can catalyze and motivate organizations to better collaborate internally and understand the communities they serve externally. Becoming an inclusive leader — and fostering an inclusive culture — is an ongoing iterative process for any individual or organization. It is not always linear either. Mistakes may be made along the way, but they serve as opportunities to practice accountability, unlearn behaviors that inhibit connection, and reflect on the learning process. An inclusive, equitable, and engaged workplace where all employees can thrive creates a well-equipped Medicaid agency that can better meet the evolving needs of its diverse members.