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Using a Mantra to Be a More Inclusive Leader

One of the greatest challenges facing leaders today is creating a culture of inclusiveness, where all members are treated equitably and feel equally valued. To develop truly inclusive behaviors, leaders must start by understanding the psychological mechanisms that are holding them back. Then, they can take actions — including using the “mantra” technique — to ensure their behavior has the intended impact. A mantra is a phrase that is repeated silently before entering a challenging context to focus the mind and body on a clear, unambiguous intention. The authors teach mantra as a tool to help leaders behave in a way that’s consistent with their values. Here, they offer simple steps to help leaders harness the power of mantra in creating inclusive spaces.

Cohesive teams are critical for organizational success, innovation, and fostering a sense of belonging. Yet one of the greatest challenges facing leaders today is creating a culture of inclusiveness, where all members are treated equitably and feel equally valued. In teaching hundreds of executives and students about leading diverse teams, we’ve found that, although most leaders believe they’re acting inclusively, they’re often inadvertently doing the opposite.

Consider Rob,* a vice president at a large, high-growth tech company. Rob aspired to be an ally of people from underrepresented groups, yet his performance hadn’t been matching his intentions. Not only were men in his organization promoted faster than women and people of color, but they reported feeling a greater sense of belonging at work than their underrepresented counterparts. He wondered how to address the gap between his intentions and his results.

To develop behaviors that are truly inclusive, leaders must start by understanding the psychological mechanisms that are holding them back. Then, they can take actions — including using the “mantra” technique — to ensure their behavior has the intended impact. A mantra is a phrase that is repeated silently before entering a challenging context to focus the mind and body on a clear, unambiguous intention.

Why Inclusivity Is Hard

Employees who are underrepresented in the workplace can feel marginalized and disrespected in a number of ways, both subtly and explicitly. They may be ignored, spoken over, and even told they’re not professional enough — even though they’re acting as others are. Black Americans experience verbal or behavioral slights or snubs at a disproportionate rate. And the tendency for women to be ignored, spoken over, and interrupted more than men in mixed-sex groups is well documented.

Although we generally understand and accept the value of diversity, we also have a strong preference for social homogeneity that leads us to align with and pay more attention to similar folks while distancing ourselves from those who are dissimilar. We smile more at similar others, nod and affirm their verbal contributions more, and move physically closer to them. The result? Although we don’t want to exclude or discriminate against others who are different or who lack social status, we often do.

In working with Rob, we discovered that his behavior in meetings made some participants feel unwelcome. His abrupt style, which was an expression of his desire to keep the team focused and prevent tensions among teammates from erupting, left some members feeling nervous around him. Those who couldn’t match his intense energy appeared hesitant to speak up, ceding the airtime to the dominant few. He shared that one analyst, Laila,* who was a woman of color on his team, seemed to check out when conversations became competitive and “froze” in key meetings when called upon. He knew he was failing at meeting his inclusivity goals, but wasn’t sure what to do differently. It led him to feel anxious around Laila in particular, to avoid eye contact with her, and to focus more on those who affirmed his style.

Of course, Rob didn’t set out to make people feel uneasy. Research in psychology shows that many forms of exclusionary behavior are inadvertent and often even unconscious. For example, studies show that our bodies reveal biases we might not know we have by sending covert signals of fear, mistrust, or dislike that can actually be contagious. When negative thou

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