How To Create Inclusive Teams and Psychological Safety

Career Enrichment, Leadership Coaching
04/09/19 - Ngoc Nguyen

Doing the work to make a company more diverse and working to create inclusive teams can sometimes feel as if we are climbing a mountain. On top of that, true change as an organization will take years. I am a bit impatient so I started thinking about what are ways we can make an immediate impact around me.

In 2015, Google released findings from Project Aristotle, an internal research project spanning 2 years to answer the question “What makes an effective team at Google?” Google found the most important factor contributing to effective teams is psychological safety. Psychological safety, defined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, is a belief that you will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes. In short, it is how comfortable individuals with taking risks and being vulnerable with their team.

What might psychological safety have to do with diversity and inclusion? Everything. The old adage we hear is people don’t leave companies, they leave bad managers. I do not disagree, but I would argue being on a bad team is a major factor we don’t talk enough about. Diversity and inclusion starts at the team level. Managers have a responsibility to ensure they hire a diverse team. Research has shown when you work with people who are different from you, they challenge your thinking and sharpen your performance which leads to having a smarter team. However, when you have a team of people with a whole lot of opinions, good outcomes cannot happen without inclusion. Inclusion is the job of every single member on a team and a core part of inclusion is creating psychological safety for your team members.

How to create inclusive teams:

Be curious.

It is important to recognize every person on your team brings with them a unique set of characteristics and experiences that influences how they might show up at work. Most of what you will not be able to infer based on observations. I don’t know about you, but from my corporate experience, I tend to be hesitant about voluntarily sharing aspects of myself in the workplace. However, when someone is genuinely curious and asks me questions, I am much more willing to share. Be the curious person on the team and lead by example.

Start simple by finding out how they can contribute more to the team, questions could be:
– What part of the job gets you most excited?
– What are some strengths you bring to the team?
– What’s something you’ve done recently that you are proud of?

Listen and help others be heard.

Asking a good question is a good start but you also need to actively listen to the answer. When you feel heard, you are willing to continue sharing information. It’s part of human nature, therefore the response you provide someone who voices an opinion helps to conditions them for the next time. Listening becomes increasingly important when you work on a diverse team because there’s a higher likelihood conflict will arise.

Showing that you’re willing to listen, especially when you’re not in agreement with someone takes practice. However, those conflicts, when handled well could turn into innovative ideas and new ways to collaborate.

Reframe failures.

Let us be honest here, you’re a unicorn if you never make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes, some are minor and some have a large financial impact. Failure is hard to grapple with internally but can be even more brutal when there are witnesses. If it’s so common, why does it make us so embarrassed? The norms we’ve learned is to hide failures, keep silent and don’t push back – if we don’t see it, then how would we know if it’s common. We focus so heavily on execution when it comes to work, we would be better off if we think of it as a learning journey.

The next time you make a mistake think about what happened? What can you do better? What bigger mistake did you avoid because of what you did? How will the incident help you in the future? Share what you learn and ask others for ideas on how you could have done it better. When others share with you a mistake, respond by asking them the same questions. Creating this dialogue opens the doors for others to be empowered to share their own experiences.

Building a psychologically safe work environment and working to create inclusive teams requires a leader. The leader can be you, whether you have the title or not. This takes courage on your part but if you don’t do it, who will? Being on a good team makes all the difference at work to people individually. If we’re going to achieve corporate diversity and inclusion goals, we have to start with individuals and teams, to give them an example of how effective it is when people feel their unique perspective matters and is heard.

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