Why Leaders Need Inclusive Design


When it comes to leadership, empathy is not the magic bullet for creating a better workplace. Yes, we can strive to connect with our colleagues, but it is always impossible to fully capture the experiences of others. There will always be a chasm that keeps us from fully relating to each other, whether it’s race, age, gender, socio-economic background, or even traumatic experiences.

Research confirms this. Empathy ratings for organizations and CEOs have plummeted to near-unheard-of levels, reports the 2022 State of Empathy at Work Study. Given our collective chronic stress, it’s understandable that we feel invisible or misunderstood at work.

And yet, there is a way for leaders to create a workplace that works for everyone, not just the select few. This is what I call leadership in inclusive design.

As an innovation and design consultant for Fortune 100 companies, I have witnessed how inclusive design leads to products, services and innovations that better serve our clients and customers. Indeed, inclusive design is a process in which something is intentionally designed to be usable by as many people as possible, especially groups traditionally excluded from the design process.

When inclusive design is applied to leadership, it can change how people feel and experience the workplace. This can lead to better employee morale and better retention rates. Leadership in inclusive design can also lead to new revenue opportunities and greater efficiency, as people who feel safe at work are more likely to suggest new ideas and approaches.

So how do you make that happen in your management style? Here are several ways to get started.

Appeal the involuntary exclusion

As a leader, it’s important to let your team know that you care deeply about them. The most important way to achieve this is to combat involuntary exclusion.

This means considering when historically marginalized voices are left out of the workplace conversation. Look who’s not at the table. Or maybe they’re at the table, but don’t feel like they can join in the conversation. Understand your prejudices, in particular exclusion, is critical.

A specific way to challenge exclusion is to create an intentional space for inclusion. To AI Collaborationwe created design for womenan ability to design with and for women for the benefit of all, honored by Fast Company World Changing Minds 2022. We already know that women need a seat at the table, but sometimes we have to create our own tables. As part of this work, we created private roundtables offering leaders a space to discuss topics that affect how we present ourselves and conduct ourselves in our businesses; topics ranged from democratizing gender equity studies to creating prototype micro-sprints to test new programs.

Fighting against exclusion also means considering all areas of intersectionality. To support managers, DEI firms such as Paradigm and experts like Reshma Saujanifounder of Girls Who Code and Marshall Plan for Moms, and author of Pay, excels at creating spaces and opportunities that champion intersectionality in the workplace. Businesses can also partner with initiatives such as Gender Equality in Tech Cities (GET)which works to accelerate the representation and leadership of women in technology starting at the city level of Chicago, Washington DC and Miami.

Begin fight against involuntary exclusion at work, ask yourself questions such as:

  • Who did I not include? Who have I intentionally or unintentionally marginalized through my leadership actions?
  • Are there any programs we could intentionally create or invest in to create space for intentional inclusion?
  • What thoughts, patterns or biases do I need to be more aware of and what have I learned from this process?

Putting people at the center of the experience

The empathic concept of “putting yourself in that person’s shoes” is problematic. You simply cannot simulate a person’s real-life experience. As a leader, you must place them at the center of the experience you create.

In inclusive design, we call this a human-centered observational approach to fact-finding. You can apply it at work by observing and listening to your colleagues as experts. This approach allows you to better understand their day-to-day realities and the challenges they need help solving.

For example, you may be helping employees return to work safely as the pandemic continues. Spend time observing how people move around your workspace. Does the design of space and technology support a hybrid working style? Does it adequately support employees with varying needs and abilities? What could a 4-day work week do for parents, caregivers, or people with unique needs?

This approach can also extend to workplace hiring practices and experiences. The Round table on neurodiversity at work is a coalition executives from companies such as Ford, Microsoft and Fidelity engaged in neurodiversity hiring initiatives. To ensure success, they put people at the center of the hiring experience by considering alternative hiring practices.

As you focus on the experiences of your teams and colleagues, here are some additional questions to ask yourself:

  • Have I observed the unique needs of my team members at work?
  • Do I listen and observe more than I speak to know a person’s needs?
  • Have I created a space where people feel safe to talk about their needs and experiences?
  • What did I assume about someone or someone’s situation that I should reconsider?

Solve for one, extend to many

A key facet of inclusive design is creating solutions for people with consideration for different abilities. By designing under temporary or permanent capacities or conditions, you will find applications for many people and circumstances. OXO kitchen products are a famous example. Founder Sam Farber sought to design better kitchen utensils for his wife with arthritis; everyone has benefited from their products which are easier to handle.

Extending this concept to the workplace may have just as much potential. For instance, maybe you have a highly valued employee approaching retirement age who has expressed the need for a lighter workload.

Perhaps you can take inspiration from that person’s needs to create a company-wide solution where retirees work at your company on a hybrid work schedule or on a project basis. This could lead to a new work model or benefits that can be applied to even more employees, such as new parents, people with chronicc diseases, or even exhausted colleagues.

Companies are already beginning to take steps to accommodate life transitions and the aging of their workforces. The Age-Friendly Institute Certified Age-Friendly Employer (CAFE) program identifies organizations committed to being the best places to work for employees 50 years and over. Employers on this list include AT&T, Macy’s, Wells Fargo and CVS. And AARPs AgeTech Collaborative creates a coalition that connects investors, AgeTech start-ups and stores to design new products, services and experiences that could eventually apply to a wider audience.

Here are some other questions to ask yourself while looking to solve for one and expand to many:

  • How can I focus on team members with different abilities to challenge how we support them today?
  • Is there a temporary or more permanent employee situation I might consider designing for (i.e., new parents, transitioning employees, temporary or permanent disabilities, caregivers, etc.) .)?

Inclusive design has become a buzzword in recent years. Aaron Chu even supported that the expression is so overused that it no longer makes sense.

But the fact is, empathy alone will never be enough to achieve equity and inclusion. Inclusive design applied to leadership is key to designing solutions and creating workplaces that affirm everyone in our team.

Expanding the possible uses and needs of products and environments to the widest variety of people isn’t just the right thing to do; it is the only way to create a fair, just and ethical world. It is also the best way to discover new growth innovation opportunities.

By creating a culture rooted in inclusive design principles, we will challenge systems that disadvantage others and prioritize solutions for all. As leaders, this is the most impactful work we can do – and we must do it.

Katie Schlott is a leader in business innovation and design thinking; advising Fortune 100 CEOs on technology, logistics and product; and a passionate advocate for gender equity.


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