It works you've heard, so you went ahead and tried unconscious bias training. The facilitator was really good and got great feedback, which made you hopeful that you might see the needle shift towards greater inclusion. Then something happened - nothing much changed, those who felt excluded continued to feel so, and any short-term actions borne out of a sense of guilt or responsibility, soon wore off. All was back to status quo and you weren't sure if another facilitator and another workshop might do the trick.
Sound familiar? Here's another one. You've decided to make your team more diverse in the hope that it will help leverage creativity and innovation in your team, and because different kinds of people are part of the team, they would over time become more tolerant of each other. Not just did this not happen, it made things worse. Some team members refuse to talk to each other and another is on the verge of quitting out of sheer frustration of being part of a dysfunctional team.
Most of us who care about being inclusive and hope to build teams that thrive on their differences, may have faced similar situations. Why is being inclusive not as easy as it may sound when we hear about it in a classroom or at a conference? Why do seemingly smart and foolproof ways to build inclusive teams often result in counter-productive outcomes?
Maybe, inclusion is not about the big stuff, it's about the little stuff. It's not one major event at the beginning, but a series of small tiny actions over time.
Here are 5 reasons that may be blindsiding a team, and making it tough to be inclusive.
ONE: Superficial understanding of diversity
Most teams are never briefed on why they are made up of people with complimentary skills, diverse backgrounds, genders and cultures. It's often an awkward thing to bring up on it's own, and most team leaders would rather avoid such a chat. That is the beginning of how teams get derailed and don't appreciate the fact that they came together for a reason. It's good to state the obvious and help all team members to find something to appreciate about each other. Ask them what are they curious about when they look at other team members? What questions would they want to ask, but are shy to ask each other? Stating the obvious often takes the tension and awkwardness out of a situation. You may get a few good laughs and people may own up to peculiar parts of their culture that most people don't get. This is a great place to be and tells everyone that you mean business.
TWO: What's broken is ignored
Team leaders can go into denial at times about their team having a rough time. I've been there and understand this intimately. It becomes a question of pride and we avoid accepting that something is broken. Leading a team is an emotional journey, and not just a professional one. It teaches us a lot, and one thing that I learned was to be quick and agile about calling out what was broken and having a chat about it. When the team leader sets the tone that they aren't ready to sweep things under the rug, the team takes a cue and brings up things that need to be fixed. Letting go of what's not working never ends up in a good place, sooner or later it blows up, and then it becomes much more hard and unpleasant to deal with. If someone is being excluded, call it out and fix it.
THREE: No one realises or understands the meaning of inclusion
We aren't experts at fighting our biases and falling into a pattern of comfort and quick decision making helps us get on with life a little easier. I went through my entire education system without anyone ever asking me if I was being inclusive of the person sitting next to me. Most probably, I wasn't, and never thought about it. We need some education on what makes a diverse team work better. We need help and support and better information than we have on our own. It's important then for a team to be educated on both the benefits and pitfalls of being diverse. Knowing that being disrespectful or thoughtless of another person on the team will come back to us someday helps to make a greater effort to act more inclusive. Teach your team to be inclusive, so they understand what is expected and why it may benefit them.
FOUR: The team leader does not practice what they preach
No amount of rhetoric works if you aren't putting yourself out there as an example to follow. Teams quickly figure out if their leaders mean something authentically or are just saying it because they don't have a choice. This kind of subtle meaning of our communication travels fast and far and has staggering long-term effects. The perceptions we create about our intention to be inclusive matter. The team wants to see us lead the way and keep our word. They want to see congruence in what we ask them to do and what they observe us do in reality. It's a tough place to be, but without us opening our hearts and minds to our own diverse team, we won't be able to get far on our inclusion agenda.
FIFTH: There are no consequences to behaving biased
A team can have all the support they need to be more inclusive, but being human, we will eventually trip. None of us are immune to the inherent pressure and stress of being part of a team that has lots to accomplish on tight timelines. We may cut another person off, disrespect their idea and talk too loudly about what we think needs to be done instead. If the team leader glides through this exchange and never checks their team members for not respecting agreed upon boundaries, they are saying, I am okay with you behaving this way. No surprises then, more incidents will follow and patience will wear thin across team situations. Positive reinforcements tell the team what is appreciated and accepted, no consequences of bad behaviour do the opposite. They encourage a team to go back on their agreed contracts of being inclusive and respectful. A quick private chat that coaches a team member to be more patient next time sends a clear message in the right way.
It's never easy to cultivate a more inclusive team culture, it's not that impossible either. It may help your team if you were focused on seemingly small positive actions that are likely to have great outcomes than big sweeping changes that don't last long.