The Truth About Inclusion

Have you ever noticed how some teams just click while others get mired in dysfunctional dynamics? What's the difference? Some fresh insights on this issue come from Google's quest over the past five years to build the perfect team. What they discovered through their research sheds new light on why the issue of inclusion needs to be central to leaders, and what companies need to do to start moving in the direction of true inclusive leadership.

What's Not Working
Why do we need to keep talking about inclusiveness in the workplace, particularly at the leadership level? Because the old solutions aren't creating the balanced leadership that's required to produce extraordinary results. Despite much talk about desired change and continued efforts by companies to move the needle through diversity training and women's leadership initiatives, their executive ranks and boardrooms still lack sufficient diversity and gender balance.

If in doubt about this fact as it pertains to women, the latest Catalyst Census hammers home the point once again. The new report released in June shows that the overwhelming majority of top spots continue to bypass women, with men claiming 80.1% of board seats and 73.1% of new directorships in the S&P 500. And gender is just one issue--leadership needs to find more effective ways to create Integrated Leadership by moving first to a more inclusive mindset that embraces and rewards unique perspectives and viewpoints. But how can organizations cultivate broader diversity on multiple levels to bring all voices on deck?

Building an Inclusive Culture
Through extensive research and digging deeper into many puzzling twists and turns about team effectiveness, Google came up with some answers that can help any organization create a more inclusive environment where both individuals and teams can thrive. The company's initiative--code-named Project Aristotle--identified that "group norms" are one factor related to whether a team is successful or not. These norms are essentially unwritten rules that help create the standards of behavior a given team uses to function.

Google discovered that successful teams shared these two group traits that helped shape their norms:
  • They distributed conversational turn-taking equally among team members.
  • They were socially sensitive: skilled at using their intuition to understand how other team members felt.
With this in mind, let's look at a few specific strategies that leaders can use to create more inclusive cultures, teams, and leadership groups:
  • Create psychological safety. In his article in The New York Times Magazine, Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, notes that the pair of traits shared by successful teams fall under the heading of "psychological safety." When team members feel that they can be themselves and speak up in a climate of trust and mutual respect, they are operating from a zone of psychological safety. If, on the other hand, they feel like they will be rejected or humiliated by sharing their thoughts and ideas, then the team is not safe for interpersonal risk-taking. While there is no standard way to establish a climate of psychological safety, Google's research found that when team members shared emotional conversations, those personal revelations created an atmosphere of trust and empathy that made group members feel safer in the group and share ideas.
  • Encourage people to open up. While it is often counterintuitive in the workplace, particularly at the leadership level, to share personal struggles, Google's research found that when people talked to each other as individuals rather than just colleagues, they created the types of bonds that led to teams with greater collective intelligence. Human bonds matter--even, or perhaps especially, at work--and can help create feelings of empathy that foster inclusion. If a team isn't working well together, as a leader, try shifting the focus off of the task at hand for a moment and share something personal about yourself; and ask team members to do the same. Google found this tactic got teams speaking more easily about obstacles to their progress, sharing frictions and annoyances without fearing repercussions. This idea can also open the door to discussion of a team's norms, providing an opportunity to make changes.
  • Adopt new norms. Group norms that fail to promote an inclusive culture may be holding certain teams back from experiencing a feeling of psychological safety, thus damaging the whole team's effectiveness. Once you've helped the team break down barriers between members by having everyone take an emotional risk, you can point out the unspoken norms that are guiding the team and suggest modifying them. For example, leaders might agree to make a better effort to keep everyone in the loop about how their work matters in relation to the company's goals, while team members might recognize that they haven't been paying close enough attention to their teammates' nonverbal cues, facial expressions, and tone of voice. They could thus agree to put more focus on how others in the group are feeling, and to monitoring the conversational exchange to ensure a roughly equal distribution in turn-taking to avoid a single voice or a few voices dominating the discussion.
  • Store away the "work face." One of Project Aristotle's key findings was that teams run into trouble if members feel like they can't be themselves. Duhigg noted that the project taught people at Google that "no one wants to put on a 'work face' when they get to the office. No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home." Part of feeling included is knowing you have been seen, heard, and validated--not just as a worker but as a human being. With this in mind, leaders should find ways to let their teams know that it's not all about efficiency--people matter too and they need to be able to share what they're feeling without worrying about recrimination for doing so. Encourage tangents and side discussions that achieve the goal of bonding and team building even if it takes longer to reach the larger goal of the meeting.
What all of this means is that it's time to disrupt outdated thinking patterns and apply new solutions to cultivate a style of leadership that is truly inclusive--where people feel psychologically safe enough to be themselves and encourage others to do the same. Within this type of cultural mindset, organizations, leaders, managers, and executives will be able to leverage their full spectrum of talent and achieve a differentiating competitive advantage.