We expect leaders to move quickly and decisively, demonstrating agility when responding to challenging situations and emerging opportunities. At the same time, they are expected to collaborate effectively across boundaries, actively solicit ideas from others before making decisions, and foster a team culture where every person feels valued, included, and connected. How can we manage the balance between agility and inclusion?

“There is more to life than simply increasing its speed.” ― Mahatma Gandhi

This may seem like an impossible ask. Can we invest the time to learn each person’s unique opinions and ideas and meet pressing deadlines? Can we genuinely foster an environment where everyone feels included and valued while moving at lightning speed?This apparent dilemma may have deepened during the global pandemic. Organizations realized that they could move faster, be nimbler, and get things done quicker than they ever thought possible. However, some of this newly found agility and speed was the outcome of crisis management, inadvertently creating insider/outsider dynamics. As we move from crisis management to a more sustainable approach, we should take the time to discuss how to manage the balance between agility and inclusion.
Balance Between Agility and Inclusion
The first step is to acknowledge that there is a natural tension between speed and inclusion. In some instances, a more collaborative, inclusive approach can take longer than the situation will tolerate. However, speed and agility do not have to come at the expense of inclusion. A conscious leader can consider trade-offs and be intentional on the best approach to get things done.
If you are looking to manage the speed and inclusion balance for your team, here are some ideas you can consider:

Start by defining your intention

In conscious business, we believe that our actions respond to our mindsets, and our mindsets are shaped by our values and intentions. Being an inclusive leader requires working at the “being” level, as well as the “doing” level. Start by reflecting on what inclusion means to you. How do you want to be perceived as a leader and how your actions are reflecting that intention? Also consider how other values, such as fulfilling commitments and achievement, may be in alignment or in conflict. Check the story you are telling yourself about the situation. Are you creating a false dichotomy between getting things done quickly and being inclusive? Are you inadvertently asking others to choose agility over inclusion instead of finding a balance?

Tap into the wisdom of the team

Often, it’s not inclusive behaviors that slow down decisions and actions, but the ways we make decisions and collaborate. Organizational sluggishness is often the result of a lack of clarity around goals and roles in participation and passive-defensive cultural norms where people are expected to agree, gain approval, and be liked by others. If this is the case, the best way to drive change is to call out the problem, bring awareness to the situation, and ask your team and peers for ideas to balance speed and inclusion. Employees understand the need for agility and making decisions quickly. They also value a workplace where people feel that they belong and where their opinions and ideas matter. Ask them for feedback on how well the team is managing the balance and ideas on what can be done to foster more inclusive and agile collaboration.

Embed new habits

Identify small, but impactful habits that drive both inclusion and agility and make them part of your ways of working. For example:

  • Conduct check-ins and check-outs in meetings. It makes meetings more productive by aligning participants’ expectations, understanding context, and creating meaningful connections, even in virtual settings.
  • Be intentional about who weighs in on decisions and has the opportunity to participate. You may be inadvertently relying on the same ‘selected few’ because you trust them or like them more, instead of leveraging the talents and experience of every member of the team.
  • Make it a habit to challenge yourself and the team when making decisions. Questions like these can help you do a quick check and foster constructive debate:
    What points of view have we not considered yet?
    Who needs to be involved to get the best possible outcome in the least amount of time?
    How can we simplify or shave off time?
    What are the trade-offs?
  • When launching a new initiative, ensure that there is a project charter meeting and regular check-ins where the team can discuss the following:
    What is the best way to move quickly while keeping everyone in the loop?
    How can we create a safe space for team members to share their thoughts and feelings, even if they are dissenting?
    How will we discuss learnings and share them with others outside the team?

To become more agile, many established organizations have adopted the mantra “move fast and break things quickly” from the start-up world. Similarly, the key to finding more inclusive and agile ways of working is approaching the process with intention and a learner mindset. Experiment, learn from it, do it better next time, and foster a safe space for others to do the same.

inclusive team culture
We often talk about inclusion in the context of broader conversations about diversity and equity programs and initiatives. It’s true that high levels of inclusion are necessary for diversity practices to positively impact and develop trust in groups1, but an inclusive team culture is generated by everyday interactions.  Inclusion is also applicable to every person in an organization, not just underrepresented groups.  You can have a homogenous team with low levels of inclusion.  Any one of us can experience the benefits of inclusion and the detriments of exclusion at any time. So, how do we create a more inclusive team culture?
To understand the impact that inclusion (or lack of) can have on a team, think about a recent meeting where you didn’t feel heard or comfortable sharing your opinion because your point of view was different from the rest of the team.  How did it feel?  Most likely it impacted your level of engagement with the group and your willingness and ability to contribute to the meeting.

“The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.”
– Phil Jackson

A team is inclusive when its norms are carefully constructed to promote experiences of both belonging and uniqueness for its members.  According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, we are spending more time than ever in meetings at work since the stay-at-home orders and lockdowns started in 2020.  So, if meetings are one of our most frequent and important forms of interaction with others at work, we should be intentional about how we conduct our meetings to foster a more inclusive team environment.
Below are some ideas on how to intentionally design and facilitate more inclusive team meetings.

Observe patterns

If you intentionally pay attention to your next 2-3 team meetings, you will likely see behavior patterns emerge. Are you spending more time talking than listening? Does everyone have an equal opportunity to participate? Is someone dominating the conversation?  Are people being interrupted? Do people talk over each other? Who is silent or only speaks when prompted?

Be clear on the meeting intention

Once you have an informal assessment of how inclusive your team meetings are, try to make the next one better. Start by defining the meeting objective – Is it to inform? To brainstorm? To decide?  Be clear on your intention and determine the meeting agenda according to your objective and desired outcomes.  This will help you define the attendee list and make sure that no one is unintentionally left out.  To make the meeting more productive, share the agenda with the team in advance.

Conduct small experiments.

Based on your observations, try some new approaches in your next meeting to be more inclusive. Here are some ideas:

  • Do a quick check-in at the beginning of the meeting. People work better together when they get to know each other as individuals. This may be challenging in virtual and hybrid work settings. To help people be present and share how they are coming into the meeting, do a check-in where each person answers two questions: How has your day been so far?  What do you want to get out of this meeting?
  • Inclusive informing. Discuss with the team, who else needs to know about this? Did we unintentionally leave someone out? How can we effectively communicate this information to others outside this team?
  • Inclusive brainstorming and discussion. If the purpose of the meeting is to brainstorm and discuss ideas, consider breaking the bigger group into smaller groups to increase interaction and allow everyone to contribute. In smaller groups, you can have team members write down their ideas independently before brainstorming and then use a round-robin approach to ensure that each member shares their ideas.
  • Inclusive decision-making. If the purpose of the meeting is to decide, define and communicate upfront who will make the ultimate decision. Do you need more information from the team or do you want the team to decide as a group?  If the former, a good technique is to allow people to vote silently on ideas, so team members are not unduly influenced by the votes of others.
  • No interrupting rule. It’s a simple as it sounds, prohibit interrupting at your meeting. Gently, but firmly, call out when people are interrupting or speaking over others.
  • Do a quick check-out at the end of the meeting. Leave time at the end of the meeting to understand how each participant feels and if they felt that the team accomplished what they set out to do in the meeting. This will give you valuable feedback to see how your experiment went and what you can improve for the next meeting.

Culture gets created or reinforced in each and every interaction.​ So, why not leverage the time you spend in meetings to make a difference in driving a more inclusive team?
1Downey, S. N., van der Werff, L., Thomas, K. M., & Plaut, V. C. (2015). The role of diversity practices and inclusion in promoting trust and employee engagement. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 45(1), 35- 44.

With the exponential rate of change in the world, talent wars, a competitive focus on penetrating new and emerging markets faster and more effectively, merger and acquisition growth strategies and the cultural complexities that arise accordingly, organizations are requiring a very different set of leadership competencies.
While logic, mechanical thinking, and technological advances drove the past economic eras, we have now transitioned into a new economic and social era driven by more human dimensions as the world becomes more flat and our workforces much more global and diverse. The business case for diversity is well established; however, the art of the inclusive leadership necessary to leverage this diversity is still emerging.
Truly competitive organizations are transitioning away from running on the adrenaline and cortisol of stress and fear to a much more sustainable focus on creating purpose-driven value and competing for top talent through the safety and care in their inclusive and innovative cultures. The old paradigm of hierarchical infrastructure, of command and control, and of top-down leadership is crumbling under the weight of stakeholder demand for creativity, inspiration, and meaning from the companies they support and trustworthiness from the leaders within these organizations. Successful organizations are in need of diverse leadership talent who can demonstrate greater and greater agility and drive innovation to meet and compete in the changing and demanding marketplace.
What are the qualities of an organization where agility, inclusive leadership and innovation come together culturally?
Imagine a workplace where experimentation and participation are encouraged. Imagine a place where ideas are challenged and people feel safe to speak their minds. Imagine a place where mistakes are considered opportunities for learning and best practices are naturally transferred across the business. Imagine an organization where it is safe for people to ask for help. Imagine a place where people are not measured only by their technical expertise, the amount of knowledge they possess and their bottom-line results but also on the quality of their questions, their ability to create followership, and their ability to leverage the diverse thought leadership in their teams. Imagine a culture where leadership prowess includes the ability to create the conditions for others to experiment, create, fail, learn and thrive. These are the hallmarks of an inclusive, agile and innovative work environment. Research has shown that sustainable innovation is impossible without an inclusive work environment.
The problem is that we can’t simply DECLARE an inclusive and innovative work environment. We can’t simply TELL leaders that they need to be more agile and inclusive. We have to address the mindsets and behaviors, systems and symbols that make this culture commitment real.
Inclusive and innovation cultures are not born of well-positioned internal or external marketing campaigns and declarations. They are the result of diligent culture work and of inclusive leaders who are committed to people feeling welcomed, valued, heard and respected. These cultures are driven by leaders who know that, as human beings, we are working against an innate hardwiring of unconscious bias and drive efficiency and equilibrium. Inclusive leaders know that we are neurologically designed to filter information and to compartmentalize in order to navigate our complex worlds. They know how easy it is to fall into the trap of believing that our truth is THE truth.
Inclusive leaders know that their leadership effectiveness is not dependent on the idea and intention to include but the DEMONSTRATION of inclusivity, which requires a commitment to deep self-awareness, humility and curiosity. Inclusive leaders are more focused on learning and leveraging the talent of their team than being “right” or “looking good.”
In a 2012 study* on the business performance implications of diversity matched with inclusion, showed that when employees believe that their organization is committed to and supportive of diversity AND employees feel included, they report significantly better business performance in terms of their ability to innovate (an 83 percent uplift), their responsiveness to changing customer needs (a 31 percent uplift), and in team collaboration (a 42 percent uplift). Inclusive leaders welcome opportunities to expand their viewpoints. They know that their limited perspectives, no matter how experienced, allow them to perform efficiently at the speed required by the circumstances (“economy of habit”). They also know that there is a cost to these perspectives and habits. They role model the humility and curiosity needed to make it safe to speak up and challenge authority in service of doing things in ways other than “the way we have always done it.”
Creating a culture of agility and innovation requires leaders to go beyond their comfort zones and get curious about others’ perspectives. It requires inclusive leaders who take responsibility for their actions and their impact on others. Agile cultures are driven by inclusive leaders who visibly champion diversity and drive innovation initiatives. They are driven by leaders who demonstrate a collaborative leadership style and embody merit-based decision-making. Agile cultures reward leaders who seek out and value others’ opinions. They champion leaders who create a sense of collective identity/shared goals within their teams — leaders who have the mindsets and skill sets to actively manage conflict and establish clear assessment criteria while promoting a nonauthoritarian “speak up” culture. Agile and innovative cultures encourage appropriate risk-taking, and they reward leaders who demonstrate tolerance for “noise” and “disruption” needed for true creativity. These cultures provide open and easy access to decision-makers and challenge leaders to manage team member “airtime” in order to create an environment that is safe and open.
Organizations that are determined to meet the exponential change in the marketplace are first addressing the change needed in the workplace. They are redefining what leadership looks like, moving away from leaders who are the sages on the stage to inclusive leaders who are the guides on the side. This requires a commitment to redefining leadership and success to include the deep self-awareness, humility and curiosity necessary for agile, inclusive and innovative cultures.
*Deloitte: Waiter is that inclusion in my soup? A new recipe to improve business performance.