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.
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.
“A shared belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.” Amy Edmonson
As leaders we have heard about the critical role psychological safety plays in team effectiveness. Amy Edmonson first identified the concept back in 1999†. In 2012, Google, through its Project Aristotle research (How to build the perfect team)*, concluded that psychological safety is the most important condition for a high performing team.
No one can argue against the importance of providing a safe place and environment for team members to voice their opinions freely without fear of retaliation, punishment or humiliation. This is a key element to team effectiveness and to an environment that prioritizes innovation and agility.
It seems like common sense, and yet in our experience working with different teams across the globe, it is not necessarily common practice. The need to nurture psychological safety is often a blind spot for leaders. It is a perfect example of disconnect between intent and impact in leadership. Most leaders genuinely want to leave a legacy through their people, they act and lead from good intent. Yet how a team interprets the actions and decisions of the leader determines the impact of their leadership.
Leadership behaviors that diminish psychological safety
There are some very visible leadership behaviors that drive disconnect and diminish psychological safety. These are things anyone can identify while observing a team interacting. For example: blaming others, using hostile and aggressive language, dictating what needs to be done, shutting people down, killing another’s ideas, monopolizing the conversation, combative listening, excluding people from conversations.
As well as these very visible behaviors, there are also other, more subtle, behaviors and symbols that diminish psychological safety. These are less visible and ones that we don’t necessarily pay as much attention to, and yet can have the same impact.
The following are some of the most common examples I have observed when working with teams:
Missing the connection: Diving directly into the agenda at the start of a meeting without dedicating some time to connect and acknowledge each other’s state of mind.
Nonverbal signs: According to research† only 7% of messages pertaining to feelings and attitudes are in what we say. The rest of the messages are in facial expressions and tone of voice. Our body speaks louder than our words.
The leader opening the conversations and voicing own opinions first: This sets the tone of the conversation for the rest of the team and establishes a hierarchical message that the boss speaks first.
Asking rhetorical questions: Asking something with a desired response in mind shuts out other ideas and triggers defensive behaviors.
Being spaced out in a meeting: Multitasking, checking phones etc., while other team members are speaking and sharing ideas.
Going along with “just kidding” excuses: Playing along and tolerating jokes and topics that could be sensitive to people, possibly leading to feelings of discomfort or exclusion.
How can leaders increase psychological safety in teams?
Much has been said and written about this, adding to Amy Edmonson’s suggestions based on her research. Following are 8 key things I believe every leader should do and pay attention to in order to increase psychological safety:
Connection before context, and context before content: Take time to connect and receive each other in each interaction. Then set the intention for your meeting and align on the agenda before jumping into the content of the conversation.
Agree on operating principles: These are the rules of the game, they sum up how the team will interact together. Team members must commit to honoring these principles; not only agreeing to comply to them but also to speaking up when any of these principles are not being followed.
Balance airtime: Make sure all voices are heard; consciously plan team dynamics to ensure everyone can provide their feedback and contribute to the discussion. Listen and ask clarifying questions to check assumptions before sharing your opinion.
Turn feedback into a habit: Ask questions to the team. What’s working? What could make our meetings more effective? How can I help you become more effective? What would you like to see differently in the way we interact? What would help you improve your experience at work? Be prepared to receive others’ points of view without resistance.
Address undiscussables: These are the unspoken topics everyone knows about, and team members choose not to address. Put things on the table with compassion and express your truth with honesty and respect.
Call out uncomfortable / improper comments: Walk your talk and demand others to comply with your standards. Create an inclusive environment where everyone feels valued and respected.
Respect and honor your relationships: Make this a priority. Invest time in strengthening your relationships and letting people into your circle of trust. Get to know each other, learn from one another’s journeys and understand how you complement each other.
Creating a safe environment
Psychological safety is not something that can be taken for granted. It can take time to build and seconds to break, and should be part of every leader’s agenda. Creating a safe environment where people can openly express their opinions freely is our ultimate responsibility as leaders.
Strategy planning is all about setting targets and key performance indicators, right? If your planning process is primarily a financial exercise, you may be missing the greatest leverage to be derived from planning — that is, building a culture of team effectiveness.
Today, much of strategy planning is about conversations and choices that will guide the firm’s focus for the next one to three years. It may result in spreadsheets with target performance indicators or objectives for divisions, teams and individuals. These are all important items for driving clarity about business direction and focus, but they will not deliver results by themselves.
Equally important, the planning process can be used to drive the right mindsets and behaviors that support real-world business objectives and outcomes. The right targets and performance indicators alone do not ensure that people will collaborate effectively to achieve them. When planning strategy, collaboration takes the form of various discussions.
Strategy planning is about conversations — or a series of conversations — and viewing the business through different lenses to define areas of opportunity for growth. Discussions, debates and choices need to occur along the way. How do we analyze the current business situation? What are the implications of today’s market for our business? Additionally, talks are needed to define risks and to assign responsibilities and timing of tasks.
Conversations shed light on how people work together. As such, the process of strategy planning can be a great way to work on behaviors that can improve the effectiveness of individuals and teams. In a word, planning strategy is a reflection of an organization’s culture.
As an example, we recently worked with the senior leadership team of a global retail product manufacturer. We observed that their meetings consisted of each individual speaking their opinion about a topic but with no questions being asked of one another. It was as though each person put forth their belief as fact and spoke at each other rather than with each another. We shared this observation about their heavy attachment to their points of view and the obstacle it was creating in their ability to move forward, craft a direction and make choices concerning future strategy. We introduced the idea of asking more questions of one another rather than only speaking one’s opinion. With this approach, they immediately started to see possibilities that did not exist previously. The result was improved collaboration and creativity as they built on one another’s ideas. They arrived at answers in minutes that the previous six months of conversations were not able to provide.
Culture can simply be defined as how one perceives the need to act in order to be accepted and successful within the organization, division and/or team. It’s about how people come to share common modes of behavior and perspectives in the workplace.
Teams share organizational culture norms and tend to develop additional characteristics as a team, often driven by the leader’s beliefs and behaviors. Oftentimes, the culture is not something consciously developed; therefore, bad habits can go unchecked, lessening the impact of individuals, teams and the organization.
For example, as new ideas were introduced during a meeting with a worldwide consulting firm, the common response was that these ideas were not the way they usually did things. This exhibited a mindset that they were heavily biased to the ways of their past, even when those ways were no longer producing results.
Three pitfalls to planning strategy
Here are three common behaviors that become pitfalls to planning strategy. They often go unchecked, as teams focus only on the culture or the content of their conversations and not on how they have them. 1. Focus on assigning blame to what’s not working.
Strategy planning requires confronting issues that may hold risk for the business. When confronting risk, people often revert to explaining situations using factors outside of their control. This allows people to be innocent when facing the consequences of risk but also leaves them powerless to address it.
When people perceive a risky outcome, they will look to the economy, the infrastructure of their company, decisions made by others, the wrong product at the wrong time, poor execution, etc., to explain their situation. All may be issues easily understood, as they may indeed exist. However, if blaming any of the aforementioned issues becomes the lens through which a team plans strategy, then in order for them to be successful, the team requires that these same issues do not exist. As such, the team becomes a victim of circumstances beyond their control and is limited in their ability to respond.
While working with a global software company, the leadership team became focused on how they were unable to overcome disrupting forces in the marketplace that were threatening their ability to grow. This dialogue went on for some time without any investigation as to what was really holding them back from responding more successfully to the issue. We made the leaders aware that their mindset was focused on external factors beyond their control versus any consideration of what they may need to learn as a team to address disruption. As soon as the discussion shifted to focusing on their ability to respond, possibilities began to flood the conversation. They prioritized them based on time and resources, and they crafted a new strategy based on becoming a stronger learning organization. The result was proactive approaches to identifying what they most needed to learn and to then deploy new tactics based on these learnings.
The alternative to this victim mindset is to instead focus on how the team will respond in relation to the challenges they are facing, even when the challenges are outside of their control. This requires recognizing what individuals, teams and the organization may need to learn in order to confront their challenges. Through this empowered lens, teams will become aware of opportunities that could not be seen from within their victimhood.
For instance, team members may discuss their situation and determine that they do not have the necessary resources or budget to achieve their desired goals. An alternative is to face the truth that the team may not know how to do it given the resources and budget they have. With this latter mindset, teams avail themselves to what is within their control. They can then focus their time and attention on seeking out the information and learning required to achieve their goals instead of the impotence that remains when only focusing on what’s outside of their control.
2. Conversations that spiral and go nowhere.
Teams often place their emphasis and energy on the content of their discussions without considering the efficacy of how they are having them. A common result is that teams begin conversations without a plan for how to effectively have them and consequently have deliberations that go on and on without resolve.
We recently worked with the leadership team of a Fortune 100 company that needed to restructure its business to focus on the key areas that would create growth. In doing so, they needed to choose which parts of the business to divest. Many long-standing parts of the business had provided growth in the past but weren’t any longer. Instead, the company was using valuable resources and capital that could have been spread to new areas.
The back-and-forth between them was endless. People would defend one business area over another, share the reasons why each unit should be preserved, or why another new area of business should be pursued more heavily with investment. The team was unable to stop the exchange and move on to making important choices about where to invest and divest moving forward.
These never-ending conversations led to frustration among team members. They felt their input was not getting them anywhere. People stated their beliefs about an issue but did not know how or when to stop debating so they could move into decision-making mode.
All conversations in strategy planning can fall into one of the following three categories:
Inform — The purpose is to inform people about something. No decision, discussion or debate is required. It’s about making sure people understand the topic being presented and are aligned with their understanding.
Discuss and debate — The purpose is to gather input and perspectives from participants to enrich understanding and potential responses.
Decide — Once a topic has been presented and discussed, options become clear and a decision can be made regarding which option is best for the situation.
If a team can define the type of conversation they are about to have, they can more easily respond accordingly (i.e., check understanding, gather input, debate solutions and ultimately decide between two or more options).
Without this clarity, a number of participants can be in different conversation modes at the same time. While one person believes the purpose is to receive information, another believes a debate is supposed to occur, while yet another believes a decision needs to be made. This creates confusion and frustration, which impacts the effectiveness of how teams plan strategy.
It may indeed be the case that all three modes need to occur, but all three should never occur at the same time. Awareness of their sequence and conscious participation in line with the appropriate mode can make planning conversations more effective and easier to manage.
3. Difficulty making decisions.
Just as teams can get stuck in conversations that seem to have no end, they can also become paralyzed with the need to make decisions. This most often occurs when teams have not thought about how they will make a decision.
Returning to the example of the company that needed to restructure its business to focus on the key areas that would create growth, we intervened with a meeting discussion and decision-making model that allowed the team a structured way to share opinions and then to create clear options between which decisions could be made. Because there was now a clear method for making a decision, the team was able to decide and commit to a direction that had eluded them for the past two years. Their choices led to investments in new areas while preserving income from more mature areas of the business. The result has been a return to growth that matches their competitors and has even put them in the leadership position in their key area of focus.
Decision-making requires a clear and agreed upon method or roadmap. All decisions are a choice between two or more options. However, if decision-making rights are not made explicit from the beginning, then teams may struggle to make important decisions because no one is clear on who has decision-making rights and how they will be deployed.
For example, decision-making can occur through different ways. It may be as simple as the team leader making the final decision. Or perhaps the leader wants the team to discuss and the leader will then decide. Or maybe the team discusses and the team decides, which then requires the use of consensus-building techniques or other modes of group decision-making, such as voting. Still further, a leader may decide that the team is to discuss the issue, but a single member of the team is to decide, as the issue pertains to their area of expertise. And finally, the leader may simply ask another team member to decide.
Any of these methods bring clarity to how decisions will be made, and if one of these is chosen at the beginning of the conversation, then decision-making can occur more rapidly, preventing the team from becoming crippled by the process.
How teams respond to their situation, where they choose to focus, and how they have conversations and make decisions are all a reflection of cultural norms within a team and/or organization.
By bringing awareness to these areas, teams can consciously participate in the planning process and yield more effective outcomes. As such, the planning process becomes the perfect opportunity to reflect on the “how” we do things as much as the “what” we are trying to achieve. By proactively focusing on the “how,” teams and organizations can build more effective cultures of collaboration.