Editor’s note: Veteran entrepreneur and investor Donald Thompson writes a weekly column about management and leadership as well as diversity and other important issues for WRAL TechWire. His columns are published on Wednesdays.

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RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – C-suite leaders, senior executives and front line managers are bracing for a rough year (and maybe several). In the near term, the difficult discussions range from preserving budgets in a turbulent economy to retaining top talent. At the same time, effective leaders are facing ongoing pressure from stakeholder groups to build diverse, equitable and inclusive cultures. 

The question for CEOs is clear: How do I balance empathy and economics? Not an easy task, particularly given that most organizations didn’t make a whole lot of progress over the last several years when everyone was focusing on culture change via a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) lens. An executive has to make some tough choices when it seems like resources are on one side and culture on the other. Making the case for diversity and inclusion – although the right thing to do – can be challenging in a down economy.

Given the unnerving challenges I’ve just outlined, you might be asking: “In the face of all this uncertainty, why are you telling me that I can fix my organizational culture in a day?” Before I explain, let me double-down on the initial statement. Not only can you begin fixing your culture today, but you don’t need millions of dollars to see results. 

Donald Thompson


Last week, I spoke to a group of C-suite executives from several multibillion-dollar companies, then led a wide-ranging Q&A session. These smart, successful leaders asked many thoughtful questions, but a common denominator emerged – inclusive language. The way we communicate with one another at work continues to drive satisfaction, whether it’s managers directing teams or a great leader formulating strategies and objectives. 

Coming out of that meeting, I was more convinced than ever that the catalyst for culture-centric organizations ready to win in the marketplace isn’t yet another mandatory training program or tedious HR seminar. The essential key is implementing inclusive language; first in your leadership team, then after you’ve got executive buy-in, rolling it out companywide.

I have multiple cases that prove the power of inclusive language, particularly at the C-suite and board of directors level, because effective leaders are acutely aware of how critical teams are to organizational success. When executives focus on inclusive language, the lightbulb moment happens for them. In turn, they ensure the organization’s culture initiatives get the support they need.

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The idea at the heart of inclusive language is that people should communicate with an understanding and appreciation of all aspects of human diversity and identity. For leaders, this means using the right words to make people feel comfortable and engaged, which ultimately benefits the company. The outcomes range from more efficient and effective teams to better collaborations and a more engaged workforce.

“It’s important to incorporate inclusive terms that don’t exclude individuals based on their gender,” said Tom Swallow in Sustainability Magazine. “While adhering to political correctness, terms like ‘normal,’ ‘guys’ and ‘minorities,’ are exclusive. Addressing the ‘people’ in your organization in the correct ways will include all ‘teammates’ irrespective of their origins.”

In other words, we must be intentional about language choices, just as we are in other facets and decisions we make in our professional lives. When C-suite executives, boards and senior leaders understand and implement inclusive language, they are essentially holding the golden key that unlocks culture change. They demonstrate to their employees the kind of aspirational leadership that turns them into organizational evangelists. From a public viewpoint, using inclusive language shows those outside the company that the leader cares and leads from a point of empathy and fairness. 


CEOs and senior executives should lead the way toward more diverse, equitable and inclusive workplaces by modeling the behavior they want from their teams and rewarding those who demonstrate the organization’s values. It is clear that employees – particularly younger professionals – are demanding these changes.

I talk to executives who have taken inclusive language to heart and they universally extoll the benefits. Brian Pressler, chief financial officer at BAYADA Home Health Care explained, “The concept of inclusive language has been one of the more powerful lessons learned on my personal DEI journey…It’s very easy to overlook items that have been in place for some time, and just as easy to take corrective action when applying the right lens of inclusivity.” 

No culture change initiative is going to gain executive support without demonstrating a return on investment. This is where inclusive language is most valuable. Here are some business areas where we’ve seen immediate benefits:

  • Sales – Diverse sales teams that communicate better sell more (stats prove it!)
  • Marketing – Brand reputation is built on outreach to all customers 
  • Front line workforce – Path to success is teamwork built on trust, respect and collaboration
  • Customer service – Quality customer care depends on engagement that builds trust and empathetic relationships free of stigma or discrimination


Here’s the real bonus. I believe in what I’m telling you so much that I’m willing to give it away. So, before you go, download The Inclusive Language Handbook by Jackie Ferguson, a guidebook that walks you through culture change via your most important resource: strong communication both on internal teams and with customers and clients.

Language really is the place to begin your transformation into a culture-centric organization ready to achieve workplace excellence. I have yet to have anyone tell me, “Nah, Donald, this inclusive language stuff really didn’t work for me.” I’m willing to bet you will find the same value that thousands of others have.

You have nothing to lose, and a revitalized company culture to gain 

About the Author 

Donald Thompson is CEO and co-founder of The Diversity Movement and author of Underestimated: A CEO’s Unlikely Path to Success. As an executive coach and board member, he focuses on goal achievement, building culture-centric leaders and organizations and driving exponential growth. Donald hosts the “High Octane Leadership in an Empathetic World” podcast and is an award-winning entrepreneur, keynote speaker and Certified Diversity Executive (CDE). Connect with or follow Donald on Linkedin to learn more.