Intentional Culture: a Must-have for Inclusive Technical Teams

Erica Stanley
Mar 9, 2019 · 9 min read
Happy International Women’s Day from SalesLoft!

As we moved from Black History Month into Women’s History Month last week and we celebrate International Women’s Day today, it seems fitting to reflect on my time in tech as a Black woman, including my two years here at SalesLoft.

As someone who lives at the intersection of gender and race, my experiences in tech, spanning nearly 20 years, have been a series of mostly amazing adventures. If I’m honest though, much of my time in tech has also been lonely, isolating and exhausting — for reasons other than churning out code into the wee hours of the morning. It’s been exhausting to be the only one, at times the only woman or only person of color, on many of the engineering teams I’ve worked on, until very recently.

If you’ve been working in tech or following many major tech companies, you may have noticed tech has been struggling with diversity and inclusion for decades, though the calls for change have mostly come about in the last few years. And as many tech companies, large and small, all across the country, scramble to show only slightly better diversity statistics than the previous year, this looks to be a collection of issues we’re just skimming the surface on.

One reason for this could be how we’ve defined success here. Is the end goal really a set of statistics that show an increased number of women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people or disabled people? What if an engineering team reaches the demographic numbers reflected in this country, so 50.8% women, for example? What if those women are never selected for key projects? What if none of those women are ever promoted to senior level or leadership positions? What if those women are not invited to key decision-making discussions or worse, what if they don’t even know those discussions are taking place? No one who is serious about diversity and inclusion would call this hypothetical situation a win.

Inclusion First.

I would argue inclusion is far more important than diversity alone. In truly inclusive spaces, diversity follows and reveals more than a series of metrics. We have to set the stage for diversity to thrive. Inclusion is that foundation. It can’t be an afterthought. It has to be interwoven throughout our culture to be effective. We need intentionally cultivated culture to start breaking ground on tech’s diversity and inclusion issues. Let’s dig into what inclusion means and how we can integrate inclusiveness into our culture.

What is Inclusion

When I was growing up, before the term inclusion was as popular as it is today, many well-meaning people talked a lot about “tolerance,” as in being tolerant of folks from different cultures and backgrounds. The term always made me feel uncomfortable — as if my race or my gender discounted me as someone to be valued in professional spaces, only tolerated — allowed but not truly welcomed.

Inclusion moves beyond the notion that people from various backgrounds should be tolerated to the idea of being included. To reference something I learned from a friend, Kim Crayton, doing some really thoughtful work in this area, if diversity is about numbers, inclusion is about experience.

There are so many ways people can experience your company and its culture — from growth opportunities, to support in conflict situations or performance evaluations, to compensation. How are people, especially those from diverse backgrounds, experiencing your culture? To truly understand and solve issues when they arise, you have to listen to every member of your team and contrast the feedback of those who may be most marginalized with those that are most represented. This is the first step to working with those in the most marginalized position to bring equity to your team’s culture.

Intersectionality

I mentioned living at the intersection of gender and race. This means my experience as a Black woman is likely different than say a Black man or an Asian woman or White woman living with a disability. Intersectionality examines the difference in the experience of people at the intersection of multiple underrepresented or marginalized (URM) groups vs. members of one URM group, alone.

Examining inclusion through the lens of intersectionality helps create a more nuanced and detailed picture of how people may be experiencing your culture. This can help you and your team as you work on a holistic approach to diversity and inclusion strategies at your company.

Inclusive vs Non-inclusive experiences (What is not inclusive)

Now that we’ve taken a look at what inclusion is and how intersectionality can give a more detailed take on inclusion, let’s talk about what isn’t inclusive. What behaviors contribute to non-inclusive spaces?

Unconscious Bias

We all have biases that we collect as we move through the world. These biases cause problems when we pre-judge people or situations based on these biases and possibly treat people unfairly because of them. What’s even worse is that we may not be aware of the biases we hold and we can allow them to become blind spots in how we interact with each other. When we are unaware of our biases and how they affect our interactions, these are called unconscious biases.

Many companies have invested in tools like unconscious bias testing and training to help counteract the negative effects these biases have on their culture. While these tools can be helpful, they lose their effectiveness when they are:

1. not widely implemented and supported

2. when they are used as stand-alone solutions rather than ongoing exercises to help reinforce new behaviors that can reduce bias.

Microaggressions

Unconscious bias can lead to microaggressions against the URM people we interact with. Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. We all have to listen and be sensitive to how our interactions are perceived, but also be open to feedback on those interactions.

The building blocks of inclusive environments

Many of us would love to foster and work in inclusive teams and organizations, but how do we ensure that our environments are inclusive? How do we make sure we aren’t acting based on our conscious and unconscious biases? Would we even know if we are guilty of microaggressions? The truth is we may not always get it right. But if we can build a culture with a few key traits — like trust, active listening, psychological safety, healthy conflict, and accountability — we can empower each member of our team to constantly correct and evolve our culture towards inclusion.

What the Five Dysfunctions of a Team teach us about inclusion

Our founders, Kyle Porter and Rob Forman, are big fans of Patrick Lencioni and many of his books. The one that has probably most informed the culture at SalesLoft is The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. This book describes five major obstacles that prevent high-performing teams.

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and their side effects

When thinking about the culture they wanted to foster, our founders turned these dysfunctions into the five functions of a high-performing team.

The five functions of a high-performing team

Trust & Psychological Safety

Building a culture based on trust can be quite a feat in itself. It requires everyone on a team being willing to be open and vulnerable. With repeated cycles of vulnerability and acceptance, teams start to build the trust that sets the stage for psychological safety — the understanding that you can give voice to your full self and experiences, without negative consequences to your status or career.

Psychological safety is crucial to inclusive teams. Everyone, but especially people from URM groups, have to feel comfortable bringing their experiences, ideas, and concerns to the team without fear of their career being negatively impacted or being labeled troublesome.

Healthy Conflict

With this foundation, we can engage in healthy conflict. This is the kind of conflict where we are all actively engaged in finding solutions rather than attacking or undermining each other. We know that the concerns we each bring to the conversation are based on wanting what’s best for the team because we’re coming from a position of trust.

We can collectively commit to the solutions we generate from resolving these conflicts because we were all able to engage in the resolution. And because of that collective commitment, we are empowered to hold each other accountable for implementing the solutions and collectively reap the benefits of the results.

Intentional vs. Accidental Culture

SalesLoft is still a young company and there’s a lot that we’re still learning and figuring out. One of the areas where we’ve made great strides is in how we define our culture. We are relentlessly intentional about our culture. It drives all of our major decisions from hiring to how teams relate to each other and solve tough technical challenges.

We also recognize our culture as a living entity — something we must pour into constantly, rather than check off our list. During our company all-hands, the week after a white nationalist rally turned violent in Charlottesville, our CEO, Kyle Porter, tackled this situation head-on and used it as learning opportunity. He addressed our core values:

No culture-related SalesLoft blog post would be complete without a reminder of our core values.

But he also delved into the four different types of values:

  1. Permission to play values
  2. Core Values
  3. Aspirational Values
  4. Accidental Values

The ones I want to highlight here are core values and accidental values. Core Values are behavioral traits that are inherent in an organization. Core values lie at the heart of our identity. They change very rarely, and must already exist. In other words, they can’t be contrived. They cannot be extracted from an organization any more than a human being’s conscience can be extracted from his or her person.

Accidental Values are traits which have come about unintentionally and don’t necessarily serve the good of the organization. These may be behavioral tendencies that develop over time because of history, or because people start to bring in people who come from similar backgrounds.

The question that needs to be asked is whether it has been cultivated for a purpose, or whether it came about accidentally.

It’s important we guard against accidental values. They can prevent new ideas and people from flourishing in an organization. Sometimes they even sabotage its success by shutting out new members and new perspectives.

How our Core Values Help us Build Inclusive Teams

Put Customers First — This value helps us frame every interaction in terms of what action will help our customers. There’s a path from the healthy conflict we experience in our teams to the best solution for our customers. We firmly believe our teams and larger organization must be healthy to fully support our customers.

Team Over Self — This value can be seen in sponsoring underrepresented members of our team when they aren’t in the room or mentoring them through political situations and being willing to give some of our own political capital so they don’t have to.

Glass Half-Full — What are the opportunities we see in making sure our culture is inclusive and accessible to every member of our team?

Bias Towards Action — If we see opportunities, we have to ensure that we are all empowered to bring and enact solutions. For example, if we see a teammate committing a microaggression, help that teammate re-examine their actions through the lens of empathy so that we can stop this from becoming an accidental value.

Focus on Results — Once we’ve identified possible solutions, we hold each other accountable for achieving the desired results. This means including members of underrepresented groups in the planning, implementation, and measuring of the solution to ensure the changes improve their experience.

Though we’re a young organization with lots to learn, I believe our core values are going to be key tools in helping us build an increasingly inclusive team at SalesLoft.

Happy International Women’s Day!

Resources

  1. Representation Burnout
  2. Why Intersectionality Can’t Wait
  3. What Are Microaggressions
  4. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

Salesloft Engineering

Working to bring you delightful features and solve complex…

Salesloft Engineering

Working to bring you delightful features and solve complex problems - guided by our company's core values. Learn about the unique challenges, perspectives, and decisions of our team of engineers, architects, product managers, and designers.

Erica Stanley

Written by

Engineering Manager @MozillaReality | Formerly @SalesLoft | Founder @WWCAtl | Tech Advisor @ATLTechVillage | Scout @indievc | Organizer @RefactrTech | Speaker

Salesloft Engineering

Working to bring you delightful features and solve complex problems - guided by our company's core values. Learn about the unique challenges, perspectives, and decisions of our team of engineers, architects, product managers, and designers.