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Dive into Inclusion & Diversity Vol. 4 “Creating a team where individual personalities shine through inclusive leadership!”

Event Report

Date and time: April 19 & May 26, 2022; 12:05-13:15
Seminar format: Online

Dive into Inclusion & Diversity is an in-house online seminar held every few months to update knowledge on inclusion and diversity. This time, it was held on the theme of “Inclusive Leadership” and Yu Shinagawa, CEO of An-Nahal Inc., who is also a graduate of the NEC Social Entrepreneurship Academy, was invited as guest.

Teams comprised of members with diverse backgrounds and values generate innovation more easily, and can be expected to achieve significant business growth. However, it can be difficult to improve organizational performance solely through diversity, which is why those who put inclusive leadership into practice are indispensable.

At this seminar, which was broken up into two parts, Ms. Shinagawa talked about six traits and specific actions for demonstrating inclusive leadership based on the elements of inclusive leadership introduced in Juliet Bourke’s book, Which Two Heads Are Better Than One? In this article, we will summarize the key points from this seminar.

What is an Inclusive Leader?

An inclusive leader is a person who embraces the diversity of the organization and respects the individuality of others, translating this diversity into business achievements. Various data have clearly shown that teams that combine diversity with inclusion will increase their profitability, generate more innovation, and hasten their decision-making process.

Trait 1
Commitment: Making declarations and taking action toward the promotion of inclusion

“Commitment” is the most important requirement of inclusive leadership. Everything should begin with the declaration that “Diversity and inclusion is a priority.” After making this declaration, a leader should ask themselves and those around them whether the current situation is ideal, exercising accountability to others. In addition to making this declaration, one should also clearly stipulate action plans and evaluate those plans. Consistency of speech and conduct is extremely important.

Trait 2
Courage: Self-disclosure, seeking feedback from those around you, and making room for improvement

An inclusive leader should be humble about their abilities. One should acknowledge any mistakes that are made and be willing to steer the team towards a better direction. When the leader manifests this kind of attitude, the team members will not only be encouraged to express their own opinions but also be confident in making their own contributions.

By exhibiting change in their own behavior, the leader can muster up the courage to ask team members to make improvements. When making those requests for improvement, the leader's own ability to comply with the requests will be questioned. If they themselves cannot comply with them, then they should admit to this before the team members. Admitting one's shortcomings and weaknesses to others is called vulnerability. When the leader shows vulnerability, team members will also find it easier to discuss their own concerns and weaknesses.

Trait 3
Cognizance: Creating a system that recognizes the existence of bias and is not influenced by decision-making and evaluations

A leader should acknowledge that individuals have blind spots and that the system has defects (i.e., Bias is the product of many experiences and thoughts. It is also the result of learning and can never be eliminated.). Recognizing this, the leader should consider how they can prevent bias from affecting their own decisions and evaluations and avoid partiality.

It is also important to ensure “fairness” by making use of available systems and mechanisms. Consider how to make improvements in every action you take, such as in evaluating team members, assigning jobs, and conducting interviews.

If you are unsure about what to say or how to decide what actions to take, consider first whether or not you can explain your criteria for making decisions to those around you. There are also several ways to be aware of your own biases.

  • Seek feedback from those around you.
  • Determine whether your decisions are based on facts or assumptions.
  • Ask the other person.

Trait 4
Curiosity: Delighting in listening to and learning from others

To effectively demonstrate curiosity, one must not only be open-minded and willing to understand the world and values of those around them but also have a tolerance for uncertainties and uncertainty about the future.

To maintain this state of mind, it is first vital to be both mentally and physically stable. The following are integral to putting this into practice.

  • Active listening: Listen to the words of others, especially those who have different views, perspectives and backgrounds from your own.
  • Questioning: Put yourself in the other person's shoes. Be respectful.
  • Empathy: Be curious and ask questions.
  • Flexibility: Understand that change is inevitable and be willing to adapt.

Trait 5
Cultural Intelligence: Anyone is capable of learning. It is important, however, not to generalize or be biased.

It is important to respect different cultures and to adapt as necessary. Since it is impossible to adapt to all cultures, the ability to make split-second decisions about what to do given the team's current situation is also crucial. In addition, it is essential to focus on individual performance in terms of behavior, knowledge, and adaptability, rather than evaluating individuals based on cultural differences.

Below are actions that will promote cross-cultural understanding.

  • Confirm that your understanding is correct (ask the other person if s/he has a differing opinion)
  • Do not impose the Japanese or NEC way (leave room for new members to draw on their respective backgrounds) 
  • Maintain a desire to learn about cultures (clearly communicate your willingness to learn from and collaborate with others)

Trait 6
Collaboration: Rather than simply creating a diverse team, ensure that diverse perspectives are reflected in decision-making.

Rather than having a leader intervene every time, the key to collaboration is granting individual members with a certain extent of decision-making authority and autonomy. And instead of assigning targets that individual members are unable to fully undertake on their own, members should be asked to take responsibility and gain experience to the extent that the leader is able to support them. In conjunction with this, it is necessary to have a mechanism/process to confirm that all members are participating in discussions, and to create an environment that guarantees safety and security as well as encourages members to speak up. The criterion for determining whether or not collaboration is successful is whether diversity is reflected in the decision-making process.

The following are the six roles played by a leader in collaboration

  • Environmental development: The design of processes that enable anyone to voice their opinion and ensure they are reflected in the decision-making process.
  • Elimination of collective bias: The creation of measures to prevent peer pressure and opinion bias.
  • Psychological safety: The guarantee of psychological safety to allow team members to freely express their opinions without causing conflict or jeopardizing relationships within the team.
  • Education: The education of peers and subordinates through training and dialogue.
  • Respect: The creation of relationships in which all team members respect one another.
  • Understanding of members: The understanding of the traits of individual team members, direct factors (e.g., education, environment, values), and indirect factors (e.g., gender, ethnicity) as well as personality and communication styles.

Q&A Session

A host of questions were posed by employees aspiring to be inclusive leaders, and the guest of this seminar, Yu Shinagawa, offered tips that can be implemented starting today. Here are a few excerpts from the Q&A session.

Question: My team is made up of diverse members from various backgrounds. I'd like to create an environment in which they can more actively voice new business ideas, ways to promote business activities, and more. Do you have any advice on how I can do this?

Shinagawa: Why not start by clarifying your team ground rules? It is important to distinguish between and clarify what can be done more productively by following as a team and what is acceptable to be done your own way. For example, “Immediately response once you read something in an internal group chat” and “Encourage members to write things down roughly without taking the time to perfect your Japanese.” Ideally, your team ground rules should be written and each team member should be capable of making a clear decision to do things their own way up to a certain point and then to do things the team's way from that point forward. If you gradually clarify your team ground rules and make sure to leave room for discussion, team discussions should become livelier and appropriate rules will be generated.

Question: I have a diverse group of engineers on my team, including some non-Japanese employees requiring Japanese language support. I want to make sure that other members do not feel overwhelmed by having to provide Japanese-language support or view the situation as being unfair. How would you recommend that I approach this?

Shinagawa: I am still working on this with trial and error, but in my case, I am always observing and considering, “What is something that only this non-Japanese employee can do?” I then try to clearly convey to not only those around me but also the individual in question why s/he is part of the team. It is crucial to communicate in a way that will convince those around you that “this person is an integral part of the team for this reason and therefore needs our support to exercise their best performance.” Meanwhile, one idea is to have non-Japanese employees hold workshops on their areas of expertise and global market trends. It is beneficial to be able to visualize the contributions the individual is able to make because of who they are. Leaders should make an effort to create opportunities for their team members to want to get along with one another. And don't forget to carefully observe each employee; if someone appears to be overwhelmed, you as a leader should engage in thoughtful dialogue with them.

Question: Are there any effective ways to reflect on whether you are actually utilizing the elements we learned about today to put inclusive leadership into practice? (While I feel like I am conscientiously working on the six elements we have learned here today, I realize that my efforts may not seem sufficient in the eyes of my subordinates and team members. Do you have any suggestions for techniques I can use?)

Shinagawa: My first recommendation is to actively seek feedback from team members and those around you by directly asking them, “I feel like I am doing this with intention, but what do you think?” When doing so, it is also important to focus on changes in the team structure, and to— as I previously mentioned—remember that actions speak louder than words. And while you must rely on others to receive feedback, reflection is something that can be done on your own. As such, creating opportunities for self-reflection is also key. I engage in a daily practice called “Morning Pages,” in which I spend 30 minutes every morning writing down my thoughts and clearing my mind. I also recommend finding a partner for reflection to ensure that you have regular mentoring opportunities with a mentor who has different perspectives.

Question: Of all the people you have met, who has come across as valuing inclusive leadership the most?

Shinagawa: That would have to be Atsuko Toko Fish, the founder of the Japanese Women's Leadership Initiative, in which I participated as a Fellow in 2019. Ms. Fish is based in Boston where she is engaged in training Japanese women leaders tackling social issues. Her guiding philosophy is inclusive, positive, open, and she has spoken about this on numerous occasions. She is always open to changing her opinion if she finds that she better agrees with that of someone else. In fact, I experienced this firsthand when she gave me feedback about an idea she thought was great and my idea was adopted in her decision making. She has become a role model for me as she is consistent in her words and actions, easy to talk to, yet strong and decisive.

Comments from participants

In a questionnaire filled out after the event, many participants said they had taken action by utilizing what they learned through the seminar, such as “I have designated the promotion of diversity as one of our group objectives as well as personally committed to prioritizing respect for diversity” and “(As a leader,) I now say at meetings that ‘not everything I say is necessarily correct, so if you have any thoughts you would like to share, please do.’” This seminar provided an opportunity to take a practical step toward creating an inclusive organization where the personality of each and every member can shine through.

Speaker Profile

Established An-Nahal Inc., a company that supports the promotion of corporate diversity and inclusion from the perspectives of human resources and organizational development, in 2019. She has been involved in designing institutional training programs for global human resource development, new business development, education-related projects with the World Bank and international organizations, and employment support for asylum seekers at a non-profit organization (NPO). Having been appointed as a Global Shaper by the World Economic Forum (Davos), Ms. Shinagawa is working on projects related to climate change, gender, multiculturalism, and education.

  • 2019 Fellow in the Boston-based Japanese Women's Leadership Initiative (JWLI)
  • Student of the FY2020 NEC Social Entrepreneurship Academy
  • Selected for the 2021 Kanagawa Startup Acceleration Program (KSAP)
  • Selected for the fifth term of Social Changemakers sponsored by The Nippon Foundation in 2021

Yu Shinagawa
CEO of An-Nahal Inc.