In my work with teams, I found that most people describe themselves as “almost always” or “always” inclusive. Yet, too often, I’ve seen those same people demonstrate subtle acts of exclusion and discriminatory mindsets that keep their co-workers off the dance floor. A few years ago, a young woman from South East Asia presented some promising new product research results in a department review. After the meeting, an executive intended to compliment her by saying, “Where are you from? You speak great English!” What the researcher heard was, “You look different than the rest of the research team so I didn’t expect you to speak English that well.” Subtle acts of exclusion and discrimination may be unintended, but they can harm because they diminish people’s self-image and cause them to feel excluded from the rest of the group.
So why, even though people strive to be inclusive, is there a disconnect?
Unconscious Biases and Trust Gaps
The disconnect happens because our unconscious brain is wired to sort through a vast amount of data quickly and then act without thinking through every possible scenario. This wiring had obvious benefits when ‘fight or flight’ was a regular occurrence — continuing to leisurely gather food when a pride of saber-toothed cats are closing in would likely end badly. Modern humans also rely on unconscious bias to size up situations fast. Is that person running towards me a threat or simply getting exercise? If that car runs the red light, what do I do? But, this wiring is problematic when it causes us to automatically discount the value of others because their point-of-view, appearance, or professional presence is different from our own or from what we expect. Unconscious bias causes these behaviors. And, they silently create trust gaps that lead to lower engagement and poor performance on and across teams.
At the risk of oversimplifying, you can think of unconscious bias as the programming embedded in the “fast-reacting” part of our brains — in contrast to our slower, rational, and more deliberate brain function. Behavioral tendencies like affinity (gravitating toward people similar to ourselves), conformity (when our opinions are swayed or influenced by the views of others), and confirmation (the tendency to look for or favor information that confirms beliefs we already hold) are biases that push us toward what is familiar and comfortable. Our nature is to gravitate towards people most like ourselves and distrust someone different whom we may not understand – even within the same team. Those subtle, subconscious tendencies lead to trust gaps. Trust gaps appear when we have high expectations of important relationships — teammates, our boss, or other teams we depend on — and negative experiences with those people.
Unconscious biases explain why leaders work hard to recruit a more diverse set of people into their organizations but then don’t take full advantage of people’s different experiences and points of view. Combating unconscious biases by closing trust gaps may not fully eliminate them, but will go a long way towards fostering greater inclusiveness on a team.
Building Trust Ladders.
First, establish and live team values that encourage inclusiveness. Values are the ground rules by which a team operates. One’s like “we will all engage in empathetic listening“, “everyone has an equal voice”, “people will demonstrate shared leadership and peer coaching”, and “we’ll assume colleagues have good intent” all nudge people towards greater trust and inclusiveness. The key to values is that everyone on the team lives them by using them as a guide to reinforce positive, inclusive behaviors.
Then, uncover and close trust gaps as a team. Relationships break down on and across teams for a variety of reasons – but mostly because we’re human. Highly inclusive teams that perform well aren’t made up of perfect people. They’re made up of people who are very good at uncovering and closing trust gaps. By making gaps visible to the team – giving everyone a safe way to express any feelings of exclusion – and then nudging them to own and close the gaps together, you’ll create more inclusive, engaged behavior.
Those two actions develop a shared understanding and team trust by building ‘trust ladders’. As expectations rise and experiences improve, people take another step up their ladder. They continue to climb because trust feels good (literally, as it stimulates the release of oxytocin in the brain).
Everyone Gets Asked to Dance
Inclusion means everyone feels respected and valued for being who they are; people trust that they can speak up and be fairly treated. Inclusion happens in small, meaningful ways person-by-person, team-by-team creating a sense of belonging. You don’t have to spend a ton of money on diversity and inclusion campaigns with armies of people. It is desire, willingness, awareness, and intent that matter the most. Those things don’t happen without leaders who make a conscious choice to create and sustain trust team by team.
The good news is that, as humans, we want our essential work relationships with our teammates, our boss, and colleagues on other teams to be built on trust. As a leader, you can be confident that when you invite a broad, diverse group of people to join your organization, and then nurture high-trust team cultures, you are fostering greater inclusiveness, higher engagement, and better performance.
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About the Author
Dr. Jeb Hurley is the Co-Founder of Xmetryx and Brainware Partners. Jeb works with senior leaders as a strategic advisor and changemaker to transform vision into reality. He provides the guidance, techniques, and tools to help people embrace change and create a high-trust, cohesive team of teams.
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