How you can build inclusive environments that enable people to achieve their potential and why it’s good for you too
Following on from my Privileged White Dude’s Intro to Diversity and Inclusion and Your Are Where You Hire From — I wanted to give managers some guidance on how they can make their team and workplace a more inclusive place. Including some antipatterns to watch out for.
I’ll start by saying this is not a whole lot different from what your job is anyway. Namely to understand that everyone in your team has different needs from you in order to create an environment where they can be successful in. Which is to say, Diversity and Inclusion is not some optional extra you get to work on when you’re not busy. It’s a core part of your job. If you’re not taking concrete steps to create a more inclusive environment it does not matter how awesome your recruiting team is at hiring beyond the inbuilt populations of people from underrepresented backgrounds. Hiring a diverse workforce into a non-inclusive environment creates a team with high attrition. Not a diverse or inclusive one.
It’s also a hard discussion to have if you’re privileged because it can feel like a group you’re not in is getting special treatment and support. You could say that everyone has the same chance to succeed — what’s the problem. So let’s strip away race, gender, sexuality, nationality and deal with introverts and extroverts. Extroverts tend to be first in the line for any new exciting piece of work that comes along. They are comfortable talking about their achievements. They are more comfortable applying for positions where they may not tick all the boxes. Introverts on the other hand struggle to find their voice within group settings. They are not comfortable with conflict or disagreement. They struggle with self promotion.
If you want to get the very best from your team you have to understand the personality of the people within it and what they need to be able to contribute fully. If you don’t then you’re failing to tap the full potential of your team. Which, as a manager, is basically your job. It’s also in your interest. As a manager your success is dependent on the collective ability of your team to succeed. It means you need to understand what the team and every individual in it needs from you now and in the future to be successful. If you’re not doing this then you’re harming your own prospects.
As a manager I know that the introvert in my team is not less likely to have brilliant ideas. They just need me and the other members of their team to engage differently in order for them to feel able to surface them. This might mean taking them aside for a coffee to get their input on how things are doing. Acting as their champion if they aren’t comfortable speaking up in group settings or coaching them on how to engage to get their point across. It also involves coaching people who may take up most of the oxygen in a room how to alter their style to bring other people into the conversation. I had this conversation with a senior engineer in my team before who started consciously using his privilege and tendency to talk a lot to bring other people into the conversation. He was astounded by how it improved the dynamic and quality of discussions and decision making.
If that’s the case for introverts and extroverts how is it different for people from underrepresented backgrounds. The answer is your role isn’t all that different. The difference is that society has been telling these people they don’t fit in their whole lives either by subtle cues such as the imagery with which society typically depicts people in their role (if every doctor you see is a white guy then unconsciously you expect this) or via structural bias.
Ok, that’s out of the way (and yes, it feels like I need to explain why D&I is important before getting to the meat of this — imagine how draining it would be to have to do this every day of your working life). Here are some DO’s and DON’Ts as a manager.
DO. Educate yourself. You are not going to feel comfortable talking about it or even knowing where to start in making your team inclusive. There’s a lot of high quality material out there — make use of it. If you want some links to get started drop me a line on LinkedIn. Or look at how other companies do it.
DO. Seek to understand what every team member needs from you and each other in order to succeed. In particular that your experience of getting here may be wildly different to theirs. How do you give them the right opportunities? How do you help their voice be heard? How do you champion them?
DO. Educate your team. Talk about it. The simple act of starting the conversation tells the members of your team this is important to you. It gives them permission to take up and continue the conversation. (and also to correct you — see below). I remember getting a group of senior managers in a room and asking them how they would talk about D&I. A roomful of middle aged white guys with 100+ of years of industry experience turned into bashful children. None of them said they’d be able to talk about this in from of the wider engineering community. So I asked — if not you then who is ever going to start this discussion? To their credit some of them came back a week later having filled in a lot of blanks. And guess what, as a white guy trying to talk about D&I you’re going to feel like a fake, like you don’t belong, like you have no right to talk about it. Tough luck. It’s your job to make sure the conversation is happening.
DO. Cluster people from underrepresented groups in teams. For example if you had 10 teams and 10 people who were either female, black, asian, gay etc. Don’t put 1 person per team. I would spread them across 3–4 teams. Research (and my experience) shows that there’s a critical mass when it comes to diversity within teams of 3 people. Once you hit that number the dynamic in the team shifts dramatically and the team becomes a whole lot more effective. In an ideal world teams naturally make people feel included — we don’t live in an ideal world. Your non-diverse teams can learn from your diverse teams how to become inclusive. If you spread 1 person per team you are likely to wind up with 10 lonely people who are going to be looking for other jobs.
DO. Reward participation in D&I initiatives. And I mean real rewards. People making a difference to D&I are improving the ability of your company to deliver and remain relevant. They’re creating a culture which makes better decisions. This is where most companies fall down. You should be able to make a promotion case for someone based on the positive impact they’ve had on the culture.
DO. Get involved in D&I intitiatives. How does your team determine what you think is important? It’s where you invest your time (the most precious commodity of all). If you’re not involved in D&I the signal you’re sending is it’s not a priority for you. If you think you’re too busy to do this and it’s not part of your job. Get another job. Sorry, but manager is not the career path for you.
DO. Be willing to be corrected. This is good role modelling. If you haven’t lived the other side of life from privilege then you’re going to make mistakes because you’re discovering a whole world you never knew (or believed) existed. This tells your team they won’t be punished for trying to talk about it.
DO. Be aware of the imagery you use in presentations. If like me you pick the first image from Google Image Search you’re likely to be reinforcing bias by your choice of image. There are some great sources of inclusive images (for example: www.blackillustrations.com) out there. Or just take the time to choose non-stereotypical images.
DO. Make sure that people with the same skills are rewarded equally. There may be bias in your hiring process coming in to candidates from different backgrounds. At a former company we had a standing joke that anyone coming from one company got a 2 level bump because the CEO was from there. Nothing switches people off as quickly as finding out someone from a different group doing the same or less work is getting rewarded more.
DO. Ask yourself what opportunities people need to grow. Ask yourself how you’re offering those opportunities to people within your teams. Are you biasing towards particular subgroups? Does everyone have a path to progress their career?
DON’T. Expect the people most affected by structural bias to own fixing it. Especially if your promotion system doesn’t adequately reward cultural work. If you’ve had to struggle just to get here and you have to do your day job and fix the culture then you’re not set up for success. If the only people helping out with D&I events are from underrepresented groups this is a warning sign. It’s the rest of the team telling them that D&I isn’t important to them. This doesn’t lead to inclusion.
DON’T. Treat this as charity. People from different backgrounds are not special needs cases. Stay away from arbitary quotas. Ensure the bar is the same for everyone. Ask people from underrepresented backgrounds how you can best represent them. Don’t act without their permission on how to do this. I remember an instance where a team member was having problems with a colleague talking over them in meetings. They asked me along to the meeting to use my privilege to ensure their voice was heard and to call out the behaviour. If I’d just shown up without their permission I would be taking agency away from them. Looking back I could’ve done a better job calling out without inflicting blunt force trauma on the people concerned (me and tact are still a work in progress). There are great tips on how to do this in Mekka Okereke’s talk on inclusive teams.
DON’T. Tolerate people undermining inclusion. This is where things get really difficult. You want a debate and you want people to be tolerant of other people’s viewpoints but not all viewpoints are created equal. You are not obligated to be tolerant of someone else’s intolerance. It’s called the Paradox of Tolerance. I remember vividly the effect that the James Damore memo had within my team at Google. I was (and still am) angry at the effect this had on people. I’m also proud of how my teams rallied around each other and turned it into a positive. At some point I’ll probably write my account of how that helped me become a better manager.
DON’T. Reward people who are intolerant. The flipside of the recognition coin is people look at the people being promoted for the behaviours which are normal and acceptable within the company. If you promote someone brilliant even though they are working against an inclusive environment you’re not just giving permission for people to do the same — you’re providing an incentive. Discuss how people contributed to an inclusive culture when talking about promotions. Don’t reward people who are undermining the inclusive values you want within your company.
DON’T. Expect your company’s processes to be without unconscious bias. Question how you’re hiring people. Question how job levels are being assigned. Question how promotions are being discussed. Check the data on compensation to make sure it’s fair. Part of being a manager is the responsibility that your little part of the world makes sense and is fair for the people within it.
Are you doing the things above? Which ones do you need to start doing? Which ones do you need to stop doing? It may feel like you’re too busy to do this. Investing in your culture and your teams is how you grow as a manager and become less busy. Because everyone achieving their potential results in your team achieving more. Which, as a manager, turns out to be rather good for you career as well. Even if the moral case of inclusion doesn’t appeal then self interest should. Hopefully you’re the kind of person who does it because it’s the right thing AND knows it is good for you as well.
Finally, you’ve got this far and you’re thinking “This is all great but my team’s not all that diverse. What do I do?”. In smaller companies or at a single team level diversity may not be possible. At least until we fix the imbalance in people doing STEM subjects at grass roots level. The advice I’d give here is you can still work on creating an inclusive environment. The skills required to support introverts and extroverts differently are a reasonable baseline to support underrepresented groups. You can still practice and develop them. At the same time be talking to your recruiters to understand where you’re hiring from to make sure you’ve got the best chance of hiring a representatively diverse team. That way people arriving are less likely to arrive and feel alone and out of place. No matter what their background.