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Inclusion is More Than a Happy Hour

How to build inclusive cultures within our organizations

When we talk about Inclusion at the organizational level, we are talking about more than hosting team morale events. Social events can help strengthen bonds between people — but they alone are not the solution, and can be ineffective if a team first does not have a culture where people feel they belong or can connect to each other.

Real inclusion, inclusion with a lasting impact on retention and positive team culture, is grounded in the extent to which you allow your team members to contribute, and leverage their contributions and decisions to drive the strategy.

Given this, it is helpful to think about Inclusion through the following four lenses:

Access to information and decisions

Treating each other with respect goes far beyond smiling at people in the hallways or inviting them to sit with you at lunch. It starts with being open and transparent about information and decisions, and demonstrating trust and acknowledgment that the other individual is a valuable contributor that deserves to be in the know about what is going on. A quick way to make someone feel left out is to make the decision for them, indicating that they do not deserve to be privy to information or decisions happening on the team that they might need to do their job. On the flip side, an easy way to make someone feel part of the team is to be open and transparent.

Information is power — we’ve all heard that, but I’m not sure we’ve all internalized what that means. Sharing information demonstrates trust, and an assumption of competence from the other party. In our teams and organizations where we share common goals, there is often so much more that we can be communicating to each other and collaborating on. Sharing information allows us to move faster, reduce bottlenecks, and empower more people in a group to contribute. 

Being asked to contribute to important decisions

Openness and transparency is step one, and the step that must come right along with it is asking people to contribute to decision making. Everyone on your team was hired for a reason, with skills and expertise to offer; and this deems them necessary to be included in key decisions. This does not mean to reduce every decision to design-by-committee, but to consider the perspectives and points of view of everyone on your team when making important calls that impact everyone. Being a part of decision making, even just being asked what you think before one is made, demonstrate to people that they are valued on the team, and that they matter.

As technology moves faster and faster and explores new domains like computer vision, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, ensuring there are diverse perspectives in strategic decision making is important now more than ever. It is imperative we include people from different backgrounds into our product development process, not only to tap into the innovation and creativity born out of different perspectives and experiences, but also to question our assumptions and uncover biases that we might not have been aware of. Only then can we build inclusive products for everyone. 

Recognition and acknowledgement in performance reviews and peer reviews

People feel that they have a future on a team when they are recognized for their work; and this is not only through thank you emails, but when it comes to the moments that matter — performance reviews. The true indication of what we really value on a team is in how we reward and recognize people, and when we reward some types of work over others, it makes a clear statement on what is considered impactful. If not everyone on your team has been allocated work that is impactful and has the potential of being rewarded, it is critical to sit down with that person and map out how they can focus their time so that all of their work has extrinsic value. If and when there are some tasks that just have to get done and are not high value, these should be distributed equitably across the team.

The more companies start to place importance on team culture and inclusion, recognizing that it is critical for maintaining the health and success of a team, the more we are at risk for invisible work happening. Building and maintaining an inclusive culture takes deliberate and strategic work, but it is work that many teams and companies are not used to, and is not captured by standard job performance criteria. Unmotivated employees are a drain on productivity and output — consider the cost of not having a cohesive team, and the implication that has to productivity and innovation, and recognize this as the high rigor, mission critical work that it truly is.

Encouragement of risk taking

The work of people in underrepresented groups has historically been subject to more scrutiny than the work of people in majority groups, and that can discourage people from taking important risks that can lead to higher rewards. But if some of our brightest moments of innovation are born out of failures, this double standard cuts off an entire avenue for creativity. Make your team a destination for taking risks by celebrating failures as moments of growth. Give people the benefit of the doubt, assume good intentions, and let people have second chances to fix their mistakes and try again. If an issue is a dealbreaker, hold everyone to that same objective standard and avoid giving people a pass because they look or think like you.

It is important to think of this in terms of the cost of mistakes — as it is very different for people of different backgrounds. Working in technology, there have been many instances where I have been the only woman in the room, feeling like I was bearing the responsibility of feeling like I’m representing all women. In these situations, I would often feel myself holding back or afraid to speak up — if I got something wrong, would people think, oh women technical enough? If I raised a concern, would people think, oh there’s the woman complaining again? While this is not the case for everyone, we must be conscious of who is participating in meetings and conversations, make space for everyone to join in, and reinforce the ideas of others. The risk we run is that the person holding back from speaking often holds an incredibly valuable opinion others need to hear, because they are potentially surfacing an angle the rest of the group hadn’t yet considered. 

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A lot of these areas might sound obvious, but these things that many people take for granted are qualities that underrepresented populations may never be granted at all. Consider the qualities that are most important things to you on a team, and then make sure you are extending them to everyone in the group. Pay close attention to falling into the trap of over scrutinizing the work of underrepresented peers, second guessing their qualifications, or questioning their ability based on personality differences — would you think the same of the majority group?

Inclusion is about belonging, and to feel like you belong, you have to matter. We have the power to show everyone that they matter, and we can start right now.

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